What we learned from an Asik trade that wasn’t

Omer Asik

Omer Asik is remaining a member of the Houston Rockets… but for how long?

The self-imposed December 19 deadline has come and gone, and Omer Asik remains a Rocket.

Five months after the signing of Dwight Howard and Asik’s initial trade demand — one that has been repeated many times — the Rockets’ former starting center has still yet to get his wish.

Whether it was Asik’s $15 million balloon payment for 2014-15 (though it’s only $8.3 million for salary cap and luxury tax purposes, of course), the fact that his deal expires after next season or simply poor timing, general manager Daryl Morey couldn’t find an acceptable deal for the Rockets. Teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans were reportedly unwilling to put their “stretch” power forwards, such as Paul Millsap and Ryan Anderson, on the block in a potential Asik exchange, and other offers likely were insufficient due to contractual issues.

According to reports, the Boston Celtics were the team that had the most serious discussions with the Rockets, offering power forward Brandon Bass, shooting guard Courtney Lee and a first-round draft pick. But Lee’s contract, at over $5 million/year, is fully guaranteed until 2016 — and that length was likely a deal-breaker for Morey and the Rockets.

In the meantime, Asik continues to rehabilitate a minor leg injury and appears poised to rejoin the Rockets in the coming days, where he’ll reprise his role as a backup to Howard.

We know Asik isn’t happy with that role, so trade talk will linger around his situation all the way through the February 20 deadline. Additionally, the needs of other teams can certainly change over the next two months, as evidenced by recent injury situations with the Lakers and Nets. But this week’s saga made one fact clear: the Rockets won’t deal Asik simply for the sake of making a trade.

Here’s what we learned this week from their approach:

Morey not quite “all-in”

For a second, forget about contracts and just focus on basketball. The Rockets would probably be a better team today with Bass, an elite team and position defender with a solid mid-range game on offense, playing 20-to-25 minutes at power forward, where he would mostly reduce minutes from the on-again, off-again Omri Casspi. Likewise, Lee — who brings tenacity on defense, a quick slashing ability on offense and a 49% stroke from three-point range — would be an upgrade on Francisco Garcia (28% from three in December) at the backup wing spot. The inconsistent Houston bench, which has been a major issue in recent losses, would have been immediately improved.

The value that brings to the table, in all likelihood, is worth more to winning (over the near-term) than the 12-to-15 minutes that Asik will play behind Howard. If Morey was completely sold on this group of Rockets, as currently constructed, as a championship favorite — that’s a trade he probably makes. He didn’t. It’s not that the current Rockets can’t win a title, but they’re not yet at a point where Morey feels secure in surrendering significant flexibility for any short-term upgrade.

Elite talent still sought, 2015 a fallback option

The ideal scenario would be for the Rockets to trade Asik in a package for a borderline All-Star talent, sooner rather than later. But they’ve yet to be able to find such a deal. They’ll keep trying, certainly. But trades that involve significant contracts for non-stars that go beyond 2015 — such as Lee with Boston, or Thaddeus Young with Philadelphia — are likely deal-breakers.

Right now, even with Howard and James Harden under contract, the Rockets could have significant cap room in July 2015 simply by letting the deals of Asik and Jeremy Lin expire. As we saw this week, whatever short-term upgrade the likes of Bass/Lee would’ve given the Houston rotation was not important enough to Morey to override the long-term potential of cap space in 2015.

Parsons’ contract tied to Asik?

Three months ago, I made the case for Houston to decline the final-year option in Chandler Parsons’ contract and allow him to hit restricted free agency in July 2014, which would likely result in a more team-friendly deal. While that is still true, that opinion was based on my then-stated expectation that “Asik will ultimately be moved in a package for a power forward”.

If Asik isn’t ultimately moved, or gets traded for non-star players (the Bass/Lee tier) that presumably also expire in 2015, the Rockets’ need to acquire a third “big fish” beyond Harden and Howard is clearly a larger priority than saving a couple million per year on Parsons. In that case, the likely Morey move would be for Parsons to play out his current cheap deal through 2015, which would include a tiny cap hold of approximately $1 million for July 2015, and attempt to re-sign Parsons after a potential pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love or others in that free agent class.

The ideal scenario for most involved, of course, would not involve waiting until July 2015. If the Rockets can trade Asik for an impact player in the next few months, it accomplishes several goals:

  • It gives the team a better shot at a title, starting this season.
  • It makes Asik happy by giving him a starting job again.
  • It gets Parsons a richer contract a year earlier, and probably at a cheaper long-term amount for the Rockets.
  • It allows the team to spend its full mid-level exception (MLE) in July 2014 without worrying over the contract length.
  • It would let the Rockets consider a long-term future with Lin, who they’d undoubtedly have to cut ties with in the July 2015 scenario.

Value of Asik’s upcoming play

But for those things to happen, Asik must play and play hard over the coming weeks. Even if Bass and Lee would have upgraded the near-term prospects of these Rockets, the offer from the Celtics was the NBA equivalent of quarters for a dollar. While the Rockets can’t fully utilize Asik’s talent themselves due to the presence of Howard, Asik remains an elite defensive big man and rim protector at only 27-years-old, the likes of which are very rare in the modern NBA.

Indeed, Asik can be a game changer for many teams. But this season, his numbers and efficiency (even adjusted for minutes) have slipped across the board, leading many around the league to question Asik’s attitude and health. If he returns to the team, stays healthy and competes with the intensity he did a year ago, the outcome for both Asik and the Rockets is much more likely to reach a positive conclusion in the coming weeks and months.

Otherwise, a resolution on Asik and many other fronts for the Rockets could be years away.

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