Will New Orleans Pelicans' Gamble on Omer Asik Pay off Next Season?

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Will New Orleans Pelicans' Gamble on Omer Asik Pay off Next Season?
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans have to be good now, because they're going to feel the sting of their most recent acquisition later.

For the second straight summer, the Pelicans addressed a present need at the expense of a future asset.

Last time around, they moved a pair of picks (No. 6 in 2013, No. 10 in 2014) for former All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. Wednesday, they found a man for the middle, agreeing to a trade for stonewall center Omer Asik in exchange for a future first-round draft pick, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported.

Sources told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst that the 2015 first-round selection will belong to the Houston Rockets if it falls between Nos. 4 and 19.

Initial reaction to the deal has been mixed. Most like the player New Orleans received, and some don't have a problem with the price:

Others, like ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required), are worried about the way the Pelicans have mortgaged their future for a present that could be simply mediocre:

Assuming it ends up inside the 4-19 range, the Pelicans' 2015 first-round pick will be the third in a row they've traded, joining 2013 and 2014, which both went to the Philadelphia 76ers on draft night a year ago. This is a bad way to build a basketball team. First-round picks are valuable assets because they offer up to four years of cost-controlled production at rates that are, on average, far below market value. By contrast, the players New Orleans has acquired (Jrue Holiday last year, now Asik) are paid what they're worth, relatively.

Asik's contract status only elevates the risk the Pelicans are taking.

The big man is entering the final season of his current contract. He'll count as an $8.3 million cap hit, but he'll actually collect a balloon payment of nearly $15 million due to the way his deal was set up with the Houston Rockets.

Considering the price the Pelicans could potentially pay in this trade, they need to make sure Asik is more than a one-year rental. If he's part of New Orleans' long-term plans, this acquisition makes a lot of sense:

Asik doesn't have the deepest bag of tricks in the league, but he has the skill set to scratch some of the franchise's biggest itches.

First, that involves lightening the load on rising superstar forward Anthony Davis. It's hard to quantify his importance for the Pelicans' present and future, other than to say his fingerprints should be left on every transaction the organization makes.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

"All of the Pelicans' major personnel moves should be conducted within the context of, 'Does it make Davis' life easier and/or does it make Davis a better player?'" Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver wrote. "With Asik, the answer to both questions is definitely yes."

Davis desperately needed a big body to share the frontcourt with.

The 21-year-old is still filling out his 6'10" frame—he was listed at 220 pounds this past season—but he still spent 42 percent of his floor time at the 5, via Basketball-Reference.com. The situation was far from ideal, but New Orleans coach Monty Williams had no other viable options. As it was, Williams still gave 77 combined starts to Alexis Ajinca, Jason Smith and Greg Stiemsma.

Needless to say, that was an issue. Despite having the league's best shot-blocker in Davis (2.8 per game), the Pelicans struggled to defend the rim. New Orleans' opponents shot 61.3 percent within five feet of the basket, via NBA.com, which tied for the fifth-highest rate in the league.

That inability to plug the middle plagued anything the Pelicans tried to do defensively. New Orleans' 107.3 defensive rating, via NBA.com, tied for 25th.

Asik is a serviceable shot-blocker (career 1.7 per 36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference.com), but more than that, he's a nuisance at the basket. He held opponents to 47.7 percent shooting at the rim this past season, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data, a mark that left him ranked between top-tier rim protectors Tim Duncan (47.6) and Dwight Howard (47.8).

"Asik is agile, strong and ridiculously long (7-2 wingspan and 9-4 standing reach); attributes that have helped him become an absolute menace on the defensive end," Rockets.com Jason Friedman noted.

Having the insurance of two road blocks behind them, the Pelicans' perimeter defenders will be free to more aggressively attack the basketball. The group should also be strengthened by the return of Holliday, who missed 48 games in 2013-14 after having surgery to correct a stress fracture in his right tibia:

Asik won't simply help generate more stops; he'll also help close defensive possessions or keep offensive ones alive with his work on the glass.

His rebounding numbers border on remarkable. He's averaged 7.2 a night for his career while seeing only 19.4 minutes of action. In 2012-13, his only season as a full-time starter, he led the league with 956 total rebounds and ranked second overall with a 22.0 rebound percentage, via Basketball-Reference.com.

The Pelicans could surely use a lift on the glass. Despite getting 10 boards a night from Davis, they still finished tied for 17th in rebounding percentage (50.0), via NBA.com.

Offensively, New Orleans won't need much from Asik other than solid screens and hustle, both items the bruiser packs in his lunch pail. He won't stretch a defense at all, but Davis has already shown he's comfortable operating away from the basket.

Davis' shot chart via NBA.com.

The soaring star is working on expanding his offensive arsenal over the summer.

"Davis is working on adding the corner 3-point shot, more post moves and a pull-up jumper off the dribble to his repertoire," Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune wrote.

Davis is also working to be more of a threat off the dribble, as assistant coach Kevin Hanson explained, via Pelicans.com:

He’s got to get more comfortable putting the ball down multiple times. If somebody closes out on him, he’s kind of a one-dribble guy. He’ll take one dribble and attack. Now we want to add multiple dribbles to his game, kind of similar to what Chris Bosh is doing now. Bosh is comfortable putting it down two or three times and making whatever play’s there, whether it’s a shot or a pass to a teammate.

Asik will find even more room to operate in the middle when stretch big Ryan Anderson spells Davis.

Anderson missed all but 22 games this past season, but the career 38.6 percent three-point shooter seems like the perfect change-of-pace weapon for Williams to employ off his bench.

"Between Davis, Asik and Anderson, the Pelicans would arguably have the league's most versatile interior rotation—a weapon for virtually any occasion," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb noted.

On paper, there's plenty to like about the Pelicans. Despite having their rotation ravaged by injury in 2013-14, they still found enough weapons to field an explosive offense (104.7 offensive rating, 13th overall, via NBA.com). They have now augmented that offense with arguably the best defensive frontcourt pairing in the business.

So, will the on-court product be good enough to justify the cost?

Barring another nasty attack from the injury bug, it's hard to see the Pelicans falling completely out of the Western Conference playoff race. They still need to address the small forward spot over the summer, but they have the personnel needed to challenge for a postseason berth.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Will they secure a spot? That's hard to say. None of the eight playoff teams from this past season figure to hurt themselves over the summer, and some non-playoff participants (Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets) could improve over the offseason.

Still, New Orleans should definitely be a part of the race.

This group had no problem scoring this past season and defended at a decent rate when Davis and Holiday shared the floor (103.3 defensive rating, which would have qualified for 13th best in the league, via NBA.com). The Pelicans figured to make substantial strides simply by getting healthy, and expanding the talent base now—which the 2015 selection would not have done—will only make the road to improvement easier to navigate.

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Considering the excitement that would generate among fans and the message it would send Davis that the franchise is trying to compete, that makes the deal worth the risk.

If everything clicks, this group could be really good. If not, that pick probably becomes nothing better than a low-end lottery selection, which probably wouldn't yield a starter.

The Pelicans already landed a starter in Asik, who just so happens to perfectly complement their most important player. As long as Davis is getting better and bringing the franchise along with him, the Pelicans have done their job.

Whether their payoff comes next season or further down the line, it should prove well worth the wait as long as Davis is involved.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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