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Omer Asik: The Unsightly Obstacle

Yesterday we learned that Omer Asik might be 7-10 days away from returning to practice. With the trade deadline racing up on us in just a few weeks, this news is a few things: peculiar, predictable, and, to be honest, a little insolent. Who’s disrespecting who is another story.

During a recent nationally televised broadcast on ESPN between the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, Jeff Van Gundy went on one of his signature mini-rants about Asik’s spotty playing time:

Van Gundy: [Omer Asik] is basically holding the Houston Rockets hostage because he is not starting. I don’t care what anyone says, he’s still not unable to play and it’s wrong. So much of this game is mental. Asik was one of my favorite players because of his defense and rebounding ability, but if you’re not mentally right, you can be of no help.

Breen: And that’s a question mark with Bynum.

JVG: Exactly. Now it’s a question mark with Asik. Play for your team, play for your teammates. It’s been three months.

This was the first time I can remember hearing anyone publicly acknowledge what’s felt so obvious these past two months, but before we go there let’s break down three possible explanations for Asik’s absence.

1) He’s perfectly fine and purposefully sitting games out to force his way from Houston in one of the least professional ways possible.

2) The Rockets aren’t playing him for fear of a serious injury occurring before they can find a suitable trade offer.

3) Asik is actually hurt.

Speculating on someone else’s tolerance for pain is always dicey and rarely a good idea. But putting all his general unhappiness aside for a second, for Asik—a player who’d missed zero games heading into this season—to sit just over two months with a thigh bruise after demanding several trades is cause for inquiry at the very least.

His absence is suspicious in a way that totally makes sense, but it’s also possible he physically can’t play. I’ve never bruised my thigh and don’t know how badly it hurts. It sounds like the opposite of pleasant.

That said, the three scenarios listed above are the clearest and most probable. This is far from a witch hunt. We have context and all speculation is rational. There are few facts to support any one over the other, but none qualify as a conspiracy theory.

After an incredible breakout season that saw him grab more rebounds than anybody in the entire league last year—most of them in traffic and even more obtained well over seven feet off the ground—Asik was deflated when Dwight Howard was given a max contract to play his position on his team.

That’s understandable in your world or mine. But it’s laughable in professional sports. Asik felt disrespected by the same team that signed him to a mammoth $25 million offer sheet in June 2012. Before Howard handpicked the Rockets, the team was happily willing to fork over approximately $15 million next season ($8.3 million cap hit) for a big man who’s steadier than a dial tone, and somehow less interesting.

He’s a man of his time, truly appreciated for all the non-traditional box score goodness he brings to the table every night. All being grateful for his impact requires is research and two eye balls. But that contract was always part bargain, part albatross depending, frankly, on how often you watched Asik play.

It’s indisputable that Houston would be a better team if Asik pitched in every once in a while. But if he’s actually sitting games out as a means to hold the same team hostage that gave him a life-changing offer sheet before he proved himself capable of living up to it 30 minutes every night, then there’s something seriously wrong here.

If the case, Asik used to be one of my favorite players, too.

Michael Pina has written for Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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