The Houston Rockets finally traded Omer Asik this summer—to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a protected first-round pick in the 2015 draft. Now, they've got to replace his considerable value.
The Turkish big man was long known to be unhappy as a backup, as he fled the Chicago Bulls to get out of Joakim Noah's shadow, only to end up in Dwight Howard's. Asik is one of the very best defensive centers in the league, and it took some pretty unusual circumstances for him to find himself on the bench with two different teams—Howard is a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Noah won the award this season.
Put Asik virtually anywhere else, and he's a true-blue starter. He certainly will be in New Orleans, where his pairing with Anthony Davis should make for one of the more watchable frontcourts in the league. Asik's penchant for the dirty work of rebounding and banging bodies near the rim should unleash Davis for some freelancing, and the prodigious young Brow can continue his evolution into one of the most unique players in the game. It's a nearly perfect union for both big men.
But the Rockets are now tasked with replacing Asik's elite workhorse energy. Although he was injured or benched while he was on the trading block for large parts of the 2013-14 season, missing 34 games, Asik still proved himself almost indispensable.
Down the stretch of the regular season when Howard missed 11 games nursing various injuries in order to return for the playoffs, Asik filled in for him, and there was only a marginal drop-off in center productivity. Houston was able to maintain a 6-5 pace and keep precious home-court advantage in the daunting Western Conference playoffs.
More significant was the work Asik put in against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the postseason. When second-year power forward Terrence Jones proved too undisciplined on defense to hang with LaMarcus Aldridge, Asik took his spot in the starting lineup next to Howard.
The Howard-Asik tandem had been abandoned by the Rockets earlier in the season after crowding the court and not creating an imagined rebounding advantage, but against Portland, it payed dividends, as the Rockets climbed back in the series after falling into a 2-0 hole. Aldridge, after averaging an exorbitant 44.5 points in the first two games, was held to a more reasonable 22.5 with Asik seeing more minutes in Games 3 through 6.
In short: Asik was no afterthought to his team. The Rockets struggled to find his role alongside Howard in a crowded frontcourt, but his value to the Rockets was ultimately clear. His extra help in the paint was needed against the Blazers, and it definitely would have come to use against other potential playoff enemies.
Had the Rockets matched up against the Memphis Grizzlies or Los Angeles Clippers, other conference foes with formidable frontcourts, Asik would have been essential against them as well. And if Houston fails to lure another significant piece via free agency using the cap space cleared by jettisoning Asik, it won't be hard to see trading him away as a mistake.
Of course, no one will think twice about Asik's departure if the Rockets can convince Chris Bosh to join their roster. The latest report, via ESPN's Chris Broussard, suggests a four year, $88 million offer has been put on the table. Bosh is an equivalent defensive presence to Asik, albeit a different, more rangy one. While he lacks the strength Asik stamps onto the low post, he's got the ability to consistently defend out to the perimeter. This makes him a more ideal fit with Howard.
And it should go almost without saying that Bosh brings more to the Rockets offense. A pronounced "stretch" 4, Bosh has unusual shooting range for a player of his height. His ability to spread the defense would open up the floor not just for Howard, but for the whole team.
Bosh is a dream acquisition—he actually makes considerably more sense for Houston than Carmelo Anthony, its original free-agent target. Had Bosh been more clearly available early—his status is still unknown, as it depends on LeBron James' weighty free-agency decision—it's likely he would have been general manager Daryl Morey's top choice on the market.
And what if Bosh doesn't come to Houston? This is still a high-probability outcome, as Bosh has signaled that he'll be staying in Miami so long as James does—this according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. In this case, the Rockets will likely have to hope for internal improvement from either Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas or both. Because if Bosh is off the table, free-agency focus in Houston will probably shift toward filling a more glaring team weakness—perimeter defense.
Both Jones and Motiejunas are very raw prospects, but both also have tremendous upside. Jones is an incredible athlete who, if coached up, could be very dangerous and versatile. At the moment, he merely feasts on open-court opportunities and mismatches. Motiejunas has terrific coordination and floor vision for a 7-footer, but he's still easily rankled by the physicality and speed of the NBA. The Rockets could be asking either, or both, to overcome their issues in short time this year.
In terms of filling the backup spot behind Howard, options are more limited. The Rockets no longer have Greg Smith (now with Chicago), so they'll likely look to find a low-cost center in the free-agency heap. Some possibilities include Glen Davis, Byron Mullens, Nazr Mohammed and Jason Smith.
Parting ways with Asik was the decision Morey made after weighing opportunity costs. Shedding his salary freed him up to chase big hens like Bosh, Anthony and potentially even James. But if the Rockets don't fill Asik's space with one of those stars—or with a useful wing defender—they could be unnecessarily thin down low in 2014-15.