There’s about a week between now and December 15th, the start of a five-day window in which an Omer Asik trade seems as likely as any swap ever is before it’s agreed upon. The Rockets are letting other teams know they’d like to do a deal by December 19th, since that would allow capped-out Houston to package any of the players it acquires for Asik in another swap before the February 20th trade deadline. December 15th is when most players signed this past offseason become eligible to be traded, opening up much greater flexibility for the majority of the league.
If the Rockets wait past December 19th, they could still trade whomever they get for Asik, but they couldn’t send any other players out in the deal, unless they pulled off that second trade at the same time as the Asik deal. It’s another example of Rockets GM Daryl Morey attempting to exploit an arcane rule in the collective bargaining agreement for his team’s benefit. Marc Stein of ESPN.com, who first reported that the Rockets were targeting the 19th, sees it as an attempt to prod rival teams into quickly making their best offers. In any case, it appears that suitors for Asik have a long way to go toward satiating Morey’s demands.
At least one executive from another club sees Houston’s desired return for Asik as “delusional”. Various reports suggest the Rockets are looking for two first-round picks, one first-rounder and a quality young player, a likely lottery pick, a first-rate power forward, or simply a difference-maker of any size. There’s likely a wide range of opinions around the league about Asik, who is a starting-caliber 7’0″ defensive whiz. He’s also an offensively limited player who’s been making weekly trade requests and sitting out games because of his disenchantment with his role as a bench player.
Indeed, there’s usually not nearly so much uproar over a 27-year-old who set a new career high with 10.1 points per game last season. He shot 54.1%, respectable but certainly not dazzling for a player his size, and a whopping 84.2% of his shots came from inside three feet, according to Basketball-Reference. That’s understandable, considering he connected on a woeful 28.7% of all other attempts. His 14.9 PER — about league average — was helped along by his rebounding numbers, as he hauled in 11.7 boards per contest in 2012/13, the third-best mark in the league.
Asik had a drastic defensive impact on the Rockets last season. They gave up 107.2 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the floor, and 101.3 when he was, per NBA.com. That 5.9-point gap is nearly equivalent to the difference between the Pacers, the league’s stingiest team in terms of points per 100 possessions last season, and the Warriors, who finished 13th in that category. He hasn’t put up gaudy shot-blocking numbers, averaging 1.1 blocks in 30.0 minutes per game last season. He’s blocking just 0.8 shots per 36 minutes this year, a career low. He’s nonetheless an intimidating force around the rim, allowing opponents to shoot just 43.2% from point blank range, according to data from the NBA’s SportVU cameras.
That’s better than Dwight Howard, against whom opponents have shot 46.1% at the rim. The Rockets front office believes strongly in analytics, but they’ve already made their choice of centers. Howard’s max deal means he’ll be starting, and since the failure of the team’s experiment with both Howard and Asik in the starting lineup, Asik’s days in Houston have been numbered. Complicating matters is Asik’s backloaded contract, as I explained last month. He’s due a nearly $15MM balloon payment next season, even though his salary cap figure doesn’t reflect that.
Plenty of teams have drawn mention as possible destinations for Asik, like the Pelicans, Celtics and Bulls. None seem as enthusiastic as the Trail Blazers, who’ve reportedly reached out to the Rockets and begun talks. Asik would help solidify Portland, which appears ahead of schedule on its path toward contention. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a logical deal between these teams. The Blazers must convey a first-round pick to the Bobcats sometime between 2014 and 2016, meaning the earliest first-rounder Portland could surrender would be in 2018, thanks to the Stepien Rule. The Blazers have a premiere power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge, but he’s not going to be part of any such deal unless both teams are willing to drastically alter their compositions, which is unlikely to happen. Portland has intriguing young players like Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum, but Robinson can’t be traded back to the Rockets this year, so the Blazers probably don’t have enough to get the Rockets to part with Asik.
The most logical trade would see Asik and Pelicans power forward Ryan Anderson switch places, and though that idea has been bandied about since Howard signed with Houston this summer, New Orleans isn’t biting. Other possibilities exist, but Morey may have to resort to a three- or four-team swap to find the kind of return he’s looking for. Thankfully for the Rockets, the GM is no stranger to such deals, having pulled off eight trades involving more than two teams since taking over Houston’s front office in June of 2007. It’s as tough an assignment as any that Morey’s had, especially considering that he must guard against strengthening a competitor now that his team has legitimate title aspirations, unlike years past. Find the right Asik trade, and Morey’s goal of building a championship team in Houston could be complete. Agree to the wrong one, and the Rockets will have cost themselves precious flexibility for a balance sheet clogged with two max players for the foreseeable future.