Though Houston continues to struggle to hover around the .500 mark, both Harden and Lin have given the team hope for the future.
Neither player is shooting exceptionally well from the field, but the two have combined for 37.8 points, 11 assists and over 13 free throw attempts per game.
Yes, even with such stat lines the Rockets find themselves at the bottom of the surprisingly talented Southwest Division. However, this team has yet to incur a blowout, despite playing most of their games against playoff hopefuls. I mean, let's not deny there was plenty to like in Houston's near win over the Miami Heat.
Which means there's hope. Whenever a young team can contend with the likes of contenders for all or most of a game, there's hope.
But while the Rockets' newfound hope is a direct result of Harden and Lin, make no mistake this dynamic duo would not have as bright a future if it wasn't for the rapid progression of Asik.
At the onset of free agency, when Houston first pounced on Asik, the team became the subject of a multitude of criticism. After all, to call the big man a work-in-progress was an understatement.
Through two seasons in the NBA, Asik had proven that he could block shots and rebound. That was it. And suddenly the Rockets were on the hook for $25 million for him.
Not so much anymore.
I'm not here to address how much Asik should or shouldn't be making; whether or not he is deserving of his salary right now is irrelevant.
What is relevant is the great strides he has taken toward improving his overall game.
Out the gate, it wasn't easy watching the seven-footer. In fact, sometimes it still isn't easy. He's still proved to be sloppy with the ball at times and continues to struggle to assert his dominance in the post at both ends of the floor on occasion.
But the key word here is "occasion."
No longer is Asik grabbing an offensive rebound to only go back up softly and attempt to lay it in. Instead, he's dunking it emphatically, leaving the opposition with no chance to block it. And no longer is he remaining idle on offense in general. Now, he's making both Harden and Lin look, well, good.
For starters, there's his offensive board crashing. He's averaging almost five offensive rebounds per game, which not only provides him with a chance to score some in the post, but also gives Harden and Lin extra looks.
That said, what he has truly done, what has truly helped his two star studded teammates won't show up on the stat lines.
As Asik's competency in the post has increased, team's have been unable to completely neglect him on the offensive end. Which means doubling Lin and Harden is no longer as easy a decision to make, not unless the opposition is keen on leaving Asik alone in the post with a clear path to basket.
Speaking of that path to the basket, though, why do you think Harden is averaging over 10 free throw attempts a night?
Because he gets to the rim.
And why is he able to get to the rim so often?
Because Asik is now competent enough to compress defenses, which has opened up the penetration lane for both Harden and Lin. That's not to be discounted either, as a clogged lane would prove detrimental to the perpetual rim attackers that are Lin and Harden.
We also cannot neglect to mention his willingness to constantly step out of the paint and set screens for his guards with his big, near impenetrable body. Asik may not be the best of pick-and-roll partners just yet, but his screens throw a defender off course and, again, create open lanes or provide his teammates with the opportunity to find an open man.
Subsequently, I simply cannot stress enough how much more instinctive a player Asik has become and how much the Rockets—Harden and Lin included—have benefitted as a result.
The quintessential example of this evolution came in his most recent game against the Heat, a bout in which Asik posted a career best 19 points.
During that game, by the second-half, it became apparent to Miami that Asik was not the idle fixture he once was. Thus, the Heat weren't as apt to leaving him unguarded in the post to double Harden or Lin.
Knowing this, Asik used it to his—and his team's—advantage.
With the shot clock running down he simply cleared out of the paint, knowing full well his man would have to exit eventually and come his way in fear of committing a three-second violation.
When he did this, and when his defender inevitably followed, it opened up the lane—it rendered Miami's defense porous. Harden was then able to traipse his way past his man, into the paint and lay it up for an easy two.
It seems simple—and it is—but the fact that Asik is a point where he knows this, where he knows how to be of value merely by moving without the ball is incredible. And again, despite the losses, it has really opened things up for Harden and Lin.
To a point where both of Houston's stars have managed to be effective even when they're shots aren't falling.
To a point where the Rockets seem to be a heartbeat away from playoff contention.
To a point where we can now consider Asik to be the man behind the men.
And yeah, to a point where we can no deem him invaluable to the Harden, Lin and the rest of the Rockets' ultimate success.
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