Since the All-Star break, the Houston Rockets have had a better defense than the Chicago Bulls. Even after taking into account several significant factors, like small sample size, strength of schedule, and Chicago’s various injuries/overall inability to play like the same defensive juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to watching, that statement remains most impressive.
Over the past 17 games, the Rockets have allowed 101.5 points per 100 possessions (9th best in the league), while the Bulls have allowed 102.4 (12th).
The only link that’s vaguely significant between these two organizations is Omer Asik, a seven-foot behemoth who was placed on Earth to prevent basketballs from falling through hoops. It’s something he’s really, really good at, and Houston is more than grateful to have him executing his ability on a regular basis for their benefit. This is his official case for Defensive Player of the Year.
In light of various injuries to Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, and incumbent winner Tyson Chandler, Asik deserves some serious recognition for his contextual impact with the Rockets, as well as his individual skill, intelligence and undeniable dominance on all things defense.
Lost in the narrative of Houston’s incredibly exciting offensive pace, whether Jeremy Lin deserves crunch time minutes, and James Harden’s elite systematic scoring ability, is Asik, the big man in the middle who controls the boards on both ends, clogs the middle, defends the pick-and-roll, and has as much an impact on the game’s tempo as anybody on the court.
For the entire season Houston’s defense has been night and day with him on and off the floor. They give up 107.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s off and 101.5 when he’s on—a six point difference that ranges from what would be the third worst defense in the league to the 10th best.
The biggest reason for this? Asik, a brick wall with legs who always makes the other team do things they don’t want to do.
Since Donatas Motiejunas joined Asik, Harden, Lin, and Chandler Parsons in the starting lineup, the Rockets have allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions. And earlier this season that same group with Marcus Morris instead of Motiejunas allowed just 95.8 points per 100 possessions in 38 games.
Whenever they share the floor (nearly 1400 minutes), the four-man combination of Harden, Lin, Parsons, and Asik has allowed 102.1 points per 100 possessions this season. When Asik is replaced with Greg Smith in that foursome (a much smaller sample size of playing time, but one that’s appeared in 36 games), the Rockets allow 111.1 points per 100 possessions.
These per possession numbers can only tell us so much about Asik’s impact. Here’s a closer look at why they’re so impressive.
Defending the pick-and-roll he’s comfortable all over the court, dancing well above the three-point line to force the ball from whoever’s dribbling it or sagging back (but not too far) to obstruct anything except a pull up jumper.
Here, Asik prevents Spurs guard Tony Parker from getting into the paint twice in the same possession. Even after his man, Tim Duncan, rotates to the weakside, Asik ignores him and focuses on Parker, who ends up settling for a mid-range jumper despite having Danny Green wide open on the wing for three.
Once the ball is kicked back to his man, Asik is quick enough to rotate back and contest the shot, but more times than not, depending on who’s shooting, he’ll just plod towards the rim in preparation for a defensive rebound. (He’s grabbed more total rebounds than anyone in the league this season, and is second to Reggie Evans in defensive rebound percentage.) If it’s Dwight Howard, he doesn’t care. But if it’s LaMarcus Aldridge, he’ll close hard with one hand in the air.
The Rockets typically trap pick-and-rolls near the sideline when Asik is involved, and they’re able to do so effectively because of his underrated quickness. Not only does Asik know where he’s supposed to be, but he can cover more ground than he lets on. In the clip below, Carlos Delfino is supposed to slide across the paint to contest Orlando’s baseline jumper, which is why Asik lets him drop so low.
He’s one of the league’s very best safety nets, which allows pesky defenders like Patrick Beverley, Parsons, and Lin to aggressively play their men tight on the perimeter, not worrying about blow bys. (The Rockets are holding opponents to just 98.0 points per 100 possessions when Beverley and Asik share the court.)
If there was a weakness to Asik’s game on the defensive end, it was a habitual need to leave his feet on the perimeter whenever given a pump fake. He’s still prone to it on occasion, but much less than during the first half of the season.
In the post, where 40% of his defensive possessions end, according to Synergy Sports, Asik is bullish and nimble at the same time. Against smaller, quicker opponents, he’s smart enough to first body them as far away from the basket as possible before they get the ball, and then force them towards the middle of the court and into help defense, if they choose to drive (the middle of the court is a fine place to force any player who Asik would be defending. Chances are they aren’t too adept at making plays for others).
Here he is in a mid-February sequence against the Portland Trail Blazers, putting his impression on an entire possession before facing off against J.J. Hickson in the post—and eating him alive.
To reinforce points made throughout this entire article, Omer Asik is a big dude, but he’s also smart. Look how he reads this late game play the Warriors run to get Steph Curry an open three-pointer. Andrew Bogut (his man) and David Lee combine to form a wall designed to block Lin from following Curry out to the perimeter. Asik notices this and quickly ditches Bogut for the wide open Curry. If not for a momentary miscommunication between him and Lin that causes Asik to briefly falter on the close out, Golden State would’ve been in serious trouble. Regardless, Asik still makes the shot more difficult than it would’ve been.
Defensive Player of the Year is an award usually set aside for those who block shots or register an insane number of steals. Asik blocks an opponent’s shot about once every 27 minutes. Part of this is because he doesn’t jump. Another, more important, reason is the hesitation perpetrators have driving near Houston’s basket whenever Asik is roaming around. He deters shots long before they’re even possible.
Look at Wayne Ellington as he gets near the basket.
Houston has allowed the sixth fewest shots from five feet and in, out of all teams in the league, while also forcing the sixth most mid-range shots, according to NBA.com/Stats. (The further away from the basket opponents attempt their shots—inside the three-point line, of course—the better for the Rockets.)
Winning Defensive Player of the Year is likely a long shot given his relative anonymity on the national stage. But for making Houston’s defense so obviously better, Omer Asik is as good a candidate as anybody.