Right now, the tallest player on Houston’s roster is a 6’10″, 23-year-old jump shooter who, in 46 career games as a second round draft pick, has yet to grab more than nine rebounds in a single night’s work. His name is Jon Leuer and he came aboard as one of the three requisite “throw in” pieces the Rockets acquired when they ambitiously traded for the #12 pick in last Thursday night’s NBA draft.
With Daryl Morey far from finished in an offseason journey to treat his basketball team like a giant ball of clay, there’s a likely chance Leuer never wears a Rockets uniform in any meaningful way.
In order to heighten the significance of that last statement, let me repeat it: the tallest guy on the team is 6’10″. He was selected in the second round and is not very good. Also, there’s a good chance he may not even be on the team on opening night.
If you’ve been drooling over superstar acquisition rumors for the past few months, right now it’s time to focus on filling in a very real weakness this team has heading into next season: size.
However you want to label it, the Rockets need length, height, rim protection, big guys who jump high and grab rebounds; a defense presence. Dwight Howard—a perennial All-Star who’s on the court for roughly 75% of each game he suits up for—could probably solve this problem by himself, but that option is an unreliable dream. It may happen, but just as imaginable, it may not.
On Sunday afternoon it was reported that the Rockets extended an offer to Bulls backup center Omer Asik. Asik, in turn, has agreed to sign the offer sheet on July 11th. Chicago will then have three days to match the offer Houston has proposed, and if they choose to spend their money elsewhere, Asik will officially switch teams.
Despite only averaging 13.2 minutes per game in his two year career, Asik is a seven-footer with the girth of an oak tree who may already be one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. Even though he’s yet to post significant per game statistics, the 25-year-old (turning 26 on July 4th) has shown enough to moonlight as one of two things: an above average big man who knows how to play the game and is talented enough to receive major minutes on a championship contender, or a serious asset able to bookend a package for the likes of Dwight Howard, or any other player of his caliber who all of a sudden becomes available at the right price.
The offer on the table is reportedly for three-years and $23.1 million, with that third year coming in as high as $14.89 million. Because Asik is a restricted free agent, Houston’s strategy here is to make an offer that the Bulls won’t be able/willing to match. The logical thinking on why the deal would be backloaded as badly as has been reported is that in that third year (2014-15), Chicago already has about $46 million tied up in three players: Carlos Boozer, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah. A lot could change between now and then (for example, the Bulls could use their amnesty provision on Boozer), but this is where we stand right now.
If the Bulls choose to match, tack another $14.89 million on to that, and Asik would be making over $2 million more than Noah, the player who currently starts ahead of him. Let’s say the luxury tax jumps up $5 million three years from now. That leaves Chicago about $14 million to spend on draft picks and seven or eight empty roster spots (including Luol Deng, who becomes an unrestricted free agent that summer) without going over the tax line—something Bulls ownership is reputedly not fond of doing.
No matter what happnes, Chicago will experience a deja vu of sorts this time next year when Taj Gibson becomes a restricted free agent. While the Thunder face the possibility of choosing between James Harden and Serge Ibaka, the Bulls could be facing a similar, if not equally significant, situation as they decide between Asik and Gibson. From where we stand right now, keeping them both isn’t a realistic option.
It’s quite the pickle Daryl Morey has served to Bulls management, but is Asik worth it? Most of the big guys in this league receive more money than they’re tangibly worth. It’s an undeniable, somewhat disturbing trend we’ve seen spread throughout the NBA these last few years, and the offer to Asik might be the most egregious one to date.
Last year he averaged 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and one block per game. Those numbers wouldn’t indicate an eventual $14.89 million payday, but as was previously mentioned, due to Chicago’s overloaded frontcourt, Asik’s production is based in seriously limited minutes.
His per 36 minute numbers on basketball-reference.com indicate that he’s one of the most tenacious rebounders in basketball, and his impact on defense is indisputable. When he was on the court last year the Bulls allowed a feeble 89.7 points per 100 possessions. Asik was a significant anchor on one of basketball’s best defenses, and a personification of what Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau would like his team to look like.
Is Asik a back to the basket juggernaut? Not so much, but he knows his limitations, which can sometimes be half the battle. Of the 156 shots he attempted last season, five came outside of the paint—four of them in situations where the game was a blow out.
The backloaded contract means Houston will still have financial flexibility over these next two years while adding a very effective big man to their roster. Asik (partially) solves Houston’s greatest weakness while allowing more to be done in the interim. It’s another brilliant fringe move by Morey. Hopefully, the first of more than one.