The Houston Rockets have been a surprise story of the league, and while many cite James Harden's brilliance, or even Jeremy Lin's still-exceptional play, fewer fans and analysts stop to realize that Omer Asik's power and dominance has been instrumental in the Rockets early success in the 2012-13 season.
Asik has given the Rockets a toughness inside. His interior presence has strengthened the Rockets' defense, which has enabled them to become a playoff-caliber team.
All will be quick to cite the dominance of James Harden, but that's like saying a house keeps water out because it has a roof. Without the supporting structure beneath him, namely Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson and the myriad of great Rockets' role players, Harden would not be able to thrive at the great rate he has.
That's not even to mention that Jeremy Lin, for as "disappointing" as some may make his season seem, averages 12 points per game and over six assists per night. That's decent value for a starting point guard next to a ball-dominating 2-guard.
How important to the Rockets is Asik?
Looking at the numbers, the evidence of Asik's value can immediately be seen in some key statistics:
- In 82games.com clutch statistics, we find that the Rockets have a 66.7 win percentage in the fourth quarter with Asik on the floor.
- The Rockets are a net plus-127 in the minutes in which Asik has played
- Asik is averaging 11.4 boards per game (No. 5 in NBA), 3.1 of which are offensive (No. 14 in NBA). PER-36, Asik is averaging 12.8 points per game and 13.7 rebounds per game, a rebound rate which trails only Reggie Evans, Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love (of players with at least 20 minutes per game).
These key statistics all support the notion that Asik should be considered for the league's Most Improved Player award.
But for Chicago Bulls fans, this may not be such a big surprise.
Bulls' faithful watched Asik blossom before their eyes, backing up Joakim Noah.
Watching a foreign-born center prosper behind a league star is not unprecedented in recent years. Orlando Magic fans knew Marcin Gortat would break out, and it was no different with Asik.
He just needed the opportunity. Big things were always in the works.
But Asik's skill set has evolved with his statistics. His hands are much better around the basket, and passes he used to bobble now firmly land in his palms.
"I just told him to catch the ball," Rockets coach Kevin McHale joked to K.C. Johnson The Chicago Tribune.
When he does catch it, he gathers quickly and goes back up. The result has been hitting 60 percent of his close shots and 86 percent of his shots inside, where he averages 7.6 of his 10.6 points per game.
His hard work has transpired in his offensive game. In the Jan. 2 matchup against the New Orleans Hornets, Asik battered Robin Lopez on the interior for the first six minutes of the game, scoring eight points and helping the Rockets off to an early lead.
For the first time in his NBA career, Asik found himself drawing double teams.
That is the potential he has for the Rockets, and Houston finds themselves in a unique position of having a lot of talent and still a ton of cap room.
Vast improvement is on the horizon in the land of Hakeem, and while it's impossible to suggest Asik will ever rival anywhere near the realms of the Dream, he's definitely going to be a top-eight center in the league—in time.
The league is gradually becoming one in which the European big man has found a renewed success. Among the other top-13 rebounders, three others are foreign born (Nikola Vucevic, Anderson Varejao and Nikola Pekovic).
The common thread in all of these international players is a great work ethic, and Omer Asik seems to understand that to be a top big man, it is going to require hard work to get there.
The Rockets are now as of Jan. 8, 20-14 and in the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference. If they could move up to the No.5 seed (they trail Golden State by 2.5 games), the Rockets could avoid a matchup with the L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Against either Golden State or Memphis, the Rockets would have a legitimate shot at second-round success.
And Asik would be one of the primary reasons why. No longer do Rockets fans have to suffer when the team faces a premier center, as Asik has the strength and talent to battle them all.
It is said his lower body strength is far better than most NBA centers, and the value of having strong legs is vital in defending the post.
Asik is able to keep opposing centers out of their comfort zone. The truly great defenders don't allow their man to get the ball in his sweet spots, and Asik seems to have that task mastered.
Asik truly has what it takes to succeed, and while Jeremy Lin may not have fulfilled the absurd expectations fueled by "Linsanity," Asik's continued development is a driving force behind Kevin McHale's squad's success.