By: Forrest Walker
The Houston Rockets are awash in a sea of happy feelings. They just signed superstar center Dwight Howard to a four-year max contract and look poised to run for a championship each year of that deal. With a fan rally and press conference involving Houston’s “Legacy of Bigs,” the rose-colored glasses are on. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the bigs that’s just going to grow. Ömer Aşık has reportedly asked for a trade, and doesn’t want to exist alongside or behind Dwight Howard. With a trade reportedly off the table, how does Houston address this issue?
The initial assumption was that the Rockets would simply move Aşık in a trade for a suitable power forward. Speculation only increased with reports that Aşık had asked for a trade due to the Howard signing. As one of the best defensive centers in the league and clearly a starting-caliber player, it seemed only reasonable to trade Ömer in order to make everyone happy. He gets a starting position, another team gets a defensive anchor, and Houston gets a solid power forward.
We all forgot one thing: Dwight Howard likes Ömer Aşık. With Harden and Howard reportedly asking for Lin and Aşık to stay in Houston, it seems likely that the Rockets will start the season with them on the roster.
Ömer Aşık is worth $8 million in cap space each of the next two years, and he’s too skilled to play for a mere ten or fifteen minutes off the bench. He’s had that role before and knows that his skill level calls for a greater role. There are only a few ways for him to get the minutes and role he needs, and we’ll soon see which one Houston picks. If they can’t make them work, he could still be moved before the season is over, so the clock has begun to tick.
The most radical option, and one which is unlikely for a variety of reasons, is for Ömer to develop a three point shot. With the deck stacked against this choice, it would be a real surprise to everyone outside of the organization, but would probably be the best long-term solution. The biggest hindrance here is Ömer Aşık himself, as he likely has no desire to radically change his game to suit the team’s roster. This might get his starting spot back, but his qualm seems to be that it was ever lost in the first place. He’s also likely to prefer continued instruction in the post, rather than the arduous process of building a three point shot over this and coming summers.
The advantages to this, however, are staggering. With even a halfway decent corner three shot (in the 30-35% range), Aşık would be able to space the floor on offense and become an even more credible threat on pick and rolls. He could shift to sort of a second big on the floor, without needing to worry about center or forward differentiation. It might seem unlikely, but a number of players have added three balls to their repertoire, including Patrick Patterson when he was a member of the Rockets. Jason Kidd became famous for suddenly picking up his three point percentage in the late 2000s. Even Donatas Motiejunas, a possible starter for Houston, shot less than 30% from behind the arc, meaning that “spacing the floor” isn’t the same thing as being a marksman.
All those players, however, were adept shooters from some range prior. Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo, two notoriously poor shooters, haven’t yet added that aspect to their play. It’s very teachable but very difficult to add that element, and there’s no good reason to believe it would happen. Ömer Aşık is likely to remain the same player he is today.
The next option, then, is to find a way to work him into the system as he is. Thomas Robinson also had no shot and was playing some minutes next to Aşık. Greg Smith, another of Houston’s seemingly endless big rotation, played power forward as well. He similarly had no shooting range, and was fairly successful when on the floor with Aşık. This would seem to suggest that it may be possible to arrange a rotation such that Howard and Aşık share the floor for ten to fifteen minutes a game, allowing Ömer to rack up 30+ minutes a night. This could also allow him the chance to start games at the four spot, which may help his morale. “Starter” is an important distinction, and even if he were to sit after only a few minutes, that’s a move he might appreciate.
The danger there is that teams could easily come off him on defense, wreaking havoc on the Rockets’ offense. Another wandering big man down low could destroy the spacing for players like Harden, who need room to operate. Defensively, Aşık would be even more prone to being pulled out of the paint while at the four, given the prevalence of stretch fours in the league. It might only be for fifteen minutes a night, but those fifteen minutes could prove disastrous.
Some teams, however, might be good matchup for a twin-towers houston. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies or the Los Angeles Clippers may be vulnerable to stalwart defense inside, and large bodies to out-rebound on both sides of the glass. This would require savvy rotations from Houston, however, something which the Rockets haven’t yet proven to be a strong point.
Demoting Ömer Aşık fully to a bench player would seem to be the easiest option, but in the end may be the worst. He’d provide plenty of rest for Howard and anchor the defense for 48 minutes a game, but he would likely only play for 15-20 minutes a night, far below what he’s become used to. A simple reserve position would also likely do nothing to mitigate his morale, making his value and chemistry drop further. If general manager Daryl Morey wanted to find reasons to trade Ömer Aşık, this would probably be the right choice. It’s hard not to see the situation coming to a head unless the Rockets were to win 90% of their games with Ömer Aşık on the bench.
With Houston starting training camps ludicrously early this year, there’s no way to know what to expect. They seem to be devoted to finding a chemistry and game plan that will work for all players involved. Nobody known the disposition of Houston’s players better than Houston’s front office, and there’s no doubt they’ll exhaust all possibilities in an effort to prepare for a Finals appearance as soon as possible. Don’t be surprised when strange things happen in Houston. But maybe don’t expect Dwight Howard to shoot threes, either.