One of the more popular suggestions among league followers is that Asik will be sent to the New Orleans Pelicans for Ryan Anderson, a former teammate of Dwight Howard with the Orlando Magic. There’s something to that, as the two worked brilliantly together previously, but the suggestion—and all stretch 4-centric trade scenarios for the Rockets—ignore what’s really ailing this team.
It needs defense.
A minus defender like Anderson may be a wildly entertaining addition in Houston, but the Rockets seem to be scoring just fine without his floor-stretching capabilities. Their assembly of basket-getters has them averaging 109.9 points per game, good for best in the league.
On the other end of the floor, they’re nearly dead last. Allowing 105.6 points per game, only the Philadelphia 76ers are worse at defending.
The problems causing this imbalance are many, and they are clear. Dwight Howard is not quite what he used to be as a rim defender, the team is without a proper offense-vs.-defense priority program and they lack any quality perimeter defenders—save for Ronnie Brewer, who Kevin McHale has buried at the end of the bench.
For the Rockets to take the next step and be taken a seriously as a title-fighter in the vaunted Western Conference, they’ll need at least one stopper on the wing. Who’s going to guard Kevin Durant? Russell Westbrook? Steph Curry? Tony Parker?
The list could go on for pages—the point here is that the more methodical teams of the conference will deny Houston free rein of the court and contain their firepower sufficiently enough to easily outscore them. They’ll take away the fast break and punish them in the half-court.
The onslaught of tragic injuries throughout the league has changed the landscape of any and all trade scenarios that the Rockets would take part in with Asik, so it’s hard to say just yet specifically who they could get on the perimeter to help. And they’ll likely wait until December 15th, when players new to their teams this season become tradable, to make any moves.
But whether it’s Luol Deng or Arron Afflalo, Shawn Marion or Iman Shumpert, Houston should be aiming for another guardian outside of the paint. Not only could such a player guard the other team’s best player (allowing Harden, Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin the extra energy needed for offense), but he could also help change the culture of the squad.
The stretch 4 position does not do this for them. Even if they acquired the greatest long-shooting power forward in the league, Kevin Love, the Rockets’ defense would still be in a sorry place, and they’d still be left with the problems currently facing them against the crème of the league.
The buzz about Anderson going to the Rockets is essentially fan fiction—it points to the exciting shifts happening in the game at large. In the still-settling wake of the changes in illegal defense calls across the board, and the corresponding surge in strong-side-favoring defenses (zone structures with transparent masks, epitomized by the work of Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau), shooting is more valuable than ever. It’s required that teams have the strikers to make defenses run because real estate near the rim now all the more crowded.
And so the stretch 4 is that role of newly emerging prominence in the NBA. The influx of oversized men who can knock them down from afar is tantalizing because it is so novel to us. A closer look shows that the move is an apple for Houston not to bite—that it’s more defensive presence that they need.
Let’s hope the front office feels the same.