Except in the die-hard Internet refuges, all month, I’ve seen and heard nothing but mockery for the Rockets’ pursuit and eventual signing of center Omer Asik. The criticism is a bit difficult to understand. Had they had Magic center Dwight Howard already in the fold, I do think Rockets management would have opted to spend Asik’s money elsewhere or hoped the Bulls would match. But that one of the game’s best players would make Asik’s skillset redundant doesn’t mean this was cash ill-spent. With it looking more unlikely that Howard lands in Houston, this bird-in-hand was well worth his $8million/year pricetag and at just 26, should be a major building block for the team going forward.
The main punchline tossed around has been Asik’s numbers, averages of 3 points and 5 rebounds in 14 minutes per game. It’s an odd line of reasoning. There would be some merit to the derision if the team were banking on some 4ppg scorer to extrapolate out to 20 a night in major minutes. They’re not. They’re paying Asik for what he does off the ball and how he affects the game behind the box score. The team overachieved for years with Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes making similar contributions; this time, the man in question isn’t undersized or athletically challenged.
I was going to dig into synergy for proof, but I found that Jason Friedman of Rockets.com beat me to it in this fabulous piece (accompanied by video) highlighting Asik’s abilities.
Some of those unseen numbers I alluded to, from Friedman:
- 84th percentile in all of basketball when serving as the big defender against the pick-and-roll ball-handler, giving up only .631 points per possession.
- when defending the “roll man”, Asik ranks in the 69th percentile.
- when defending the low post, Asik is in the league’s 76th percentile, giving up .718 points per possession.
- 67th percentile in the league when defending isolations
- 98th percentile when defending spotups.
Some more projections from Friedman:
- Asik’s numbers last season over 36mpg: 7.6 points, 13 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks
- 6th overall in rebound rate in the entire league and 5th in offensive rebound rate.
Watch the clips from that piece. What stands out most–and what I’ve stated in the past is one of the hallmark traits of an elite defender–is Asik’s ability to stay grounded while defending. Like Hayes and Battier, he doesn’t bite on pump fakes, instead playing smart positional defense and using his length to affect the shot. This ability cannot be understated and is not fully appreciated until experiencing former scrubs the likes of Stromile Swift go flying past their men in years past in response to any shot fake. I’ve maintained that suppressing this instinct is one of the few things in basketball which cannot be taught and should be searched for when scouting.
Asik is not Hakeem Olajuwon. That is not what’s being posited. But at $8million, in a world where 7 footers make $10+ just for being able to chew gum while in motion, this is fair market value. Asik could absolutely bust, sure. But the notion that this is somehow an outrageous pricetag is preposterous.
Javale McGee just signed with the Nuggets for four years at $44million yet hardly anyone has blinked at the figure. Sure he’s a starter; but Asik has been a vital cog in the league’s best defense for several seasons (in fact the Bulls are better per possession with Asik in Noah’s stead, though some of this can be attributed to the Gibson-Boozer swap.) It’s just humorous that flashy dunks and emphatic shot blocks hold justified value in the public court while smart positional defense is taken as a fluke. Take any young kid that flies to the rim in limited minutes, and we all assume it can be extrapolated. But smart team play like Asik? Then the questions of sample size arise. Funny.
The Rockets didn’t get a star. Like Jeremy Lin, this is a building block for the future. In football, you build your teams through the men in the trenches. In our sport, strong interior defense is a must – it’s the backbone. Even Michael Jordan didn’t win it the one year neither Horace Grant nor Dennis Rodman were inside.