By: rahat huq
In the aftermath of The Signing, as rosters became finalized upon smaller deals and maneuvers, season predictions and forecasts have come out as they customarily do around this time of the year. Some of these, upon the basis of advanced data, have had the Rockets amassing lofty win totals, some even projecting victory levels into the mid-60's, if predicated upon the premise of an Orlando Dwight. While I don't think the team is ready to reach those heights, it's astonishing to consider that the sentiment doesn't seem so far-fetched. The Rockets managed to add the game's second most dominant player of the last half-decade while essentially losing nothing. And it could be argued that the sole sacrificial lamb, Carlos Delfino, was actually replaced by a player of greater value in Francisco Garcia. (Recall that Garcia hadn't broken into the rotation until Delfino became injured, essentially replacing him. Until the playoffs, they hadn't played together regularly.)
But where I think the greatest potential lies, aside from full health for Howard, is in the issue of Omer Asik, both for now and in the long-term. In my opinion, the team's greatest peak--greater than even the impact of any trade--would come in the form of finding a way to keep Dwight Howard and Omer Asik together on the floor for a sizable chunk during the game. Why? Because that would allow the team justification to hold onto Asik.
My contention, with which I think most people would agree, is that unless he can be given close to 30 minutes per game, Asik either probably should be or will be dealt. This is because it is difficult envisioning the Turk sticking around past the expiration of his current contract to retain a limited role - Morey would likely deal him preemptively to realize his value.
What makes Asik so valuable? Because, with Howard, he allows the team to field a top 10 defense on court, at all times, for the full 48. This point has been beaten to death. But it is my contention that maintaining this 48 minute top 10 defense would be far more impactful than the marginal benefits realized from upgrading the power forward position (via a trade of Asik). Already having a top offense, it is my belief that the Rockets have reached a diminished returns threshold on that end of the court whereby, yes, they have room to improve, but costs invested towards that improvement would be grossly asymmetrical to the end output. To put it simply, when you have the league's 6th best offense, but also have other weaknesses, you get the most bang for your buck addressing the weaknesses instead.
One nonconventional idea popularized by the advanced stats movement is the belief that no time frame during a game holds inherently superior value than any other. (This, starkly in contrast to the mainstream fetishization of "clutch time" performance.) Indeed, Daryl Morey once famously said that "good teams don't win close ballgames - they avoid them." To that end, while a 'spread 4' would help, it can be argued that of greater import is the the fifteen or so minutes that Dwight Howard is not on the floor.
Many have clamored for Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. While Aldridge has his strengths, I'm almost certain that the Rockets would not pay max dollars, on this team, for a player who takes the most inefficient shots in the entire league (and only shoots 41% from that distance while doing it.) The spacing Aldridge would provide would be a boon, but the team could find cheaper options to replicate much of the same effect. Asik's defense during the 'Dwightless-15' is of greater value.
Finding a solution to Howard-Asik coexistence isn't about the merits of that time spent together. It's about making that shared court experience palatable enough for the offense to where its use can be continued; because that shared court time is the key to a justification of keeping Asik.
How might Kevin McHale make it work? Writing in Grantland, Brett Koremenos discussed possibilities, drawing analogy from Greg Smith's time at power forward. As Koremenos outlines, there will be extreme challenges, namely Howard's willingness to do what is needed. But it should at least be explored.
In the end, I do think Asik will eventually be dealt as the challenges of pairing the two 7 footers will prove too much to overcome. That's a shame. But in the coming weeks, during camp, figuring out how to make it work should be one of Kevin McHale's greatest priorities. Having 48 minutes of top 10 defense would likely do more for this team in the standings than any other factor.