Ever since Dwight Howard signed a contract with the Houston Rockets this summer, everyone has been speculating over whether or not Omer Asik would get traded to another team. In fact, he asked to be traded when he thought that he was going to be Dwight’s backup for the season. Instead of trading Asik, Rockets GM Darryl Morey opted to keep Asik and suggest to coach Kevin McHale that Dwight Howard start at the power forward spot so that both Howard and Asik could share the floor together and not take minutes away from the other. At first, this idea seemed ludicrous because of the Rockets’ style of play; they have a series of jump shooters on the perimeter and one big in the middle to play pick and rolls, and neither Howard nor Asik has a great jump shot from mid or long range.
The trade rumors kept coming up, and two actually seemed like legitimate deals that could really give the Rockets a perfect pick-and-roll lineup. One was dealing Asik to the Boston Celtics for Jeff Green, a small-ball forward with a great corner three shot, perfect for those classic Dwight Howard pick and roll offenses. The other trade would send Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Ryan Anderson, a power forward who led the league in three point field goals in 2012, is a legitimate 16 and 6 player, and was Howard’s former teammate in Orlando. This trade seemed (and still seems) like the perfect trade that Houston needed to propel itself to the Conference Finals. The Pelicans could really use more interior defense, and the Rockets need more outside shooting. Why wouldn’t that trade happen?
After watching the Rockets play in the first couple of weeks in the NBA this season, it has become clear to me that Asik should not be traded at all. He is a phenomenal defender and can easily pick up a double-double each game. He’s unselfish and also someone that you can rely on to make big defensive stops late in close games. He’s big, and you can’t teach size. Last season, as the starting center, Asik averaged 10 points and 12 rebounds per game on 54% shooting. The Rockets have managed to use this starting lineup with Howard and Asik together in ways that really benefit the team, which is why the Rockets should keep Asik and develop this offense as much as possible. Here are a few reasons why:
Howard and Asik are the only good defenders on the team.
Asik started out his career in Chicago, where certain lineups that included him were the best defensive lineups in the NBA from 2010 until 2012. Dwight Howard is the only player ever to have won Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row (2009, 2010, 2011). These guys are both big time defensive players who can guard the rim and the paint incredibly well.
The rest of the team? Pretty lousy on defense. Harden is still learning how to play defense at all, Jeremy Lin is not exactly a stopper, and Chandler Parsons is a little underweight to be posting up on LeBron or Melo. Last season, the Rockets were 28th in the league in points allowed per game and were 24th in the league in total blocked shots. Obviously, Dwight Howard was the defensive upgrade the Rockets really needed, but if Asik gets trade Dwight Howard’s defensive workload becomes especially heavy and difficult, but with Asik they are able to share the defensive workload. Currently, the Rockets are 23rd in the league in total points allowed, which is not an enormous improvement, but the lack of defensive improvement on the perimeter has more to do with that than anything. Look for the Rockets to give up a ton of points this season from jump shots, but not many from the paint.
The Rockets do not have a reliable power forward.
Who exactly was the Rockets’ starting PF last season? Patrick Patterson started out the season in that role, but was ultimately traded to the Sacramento Kings. Donatas Motiejunas was able to play some decent defense for a few minutes, but was absolute garbage offensively. Greg Smith seemed like a great option, but he still needs time to develop. Every position on the Rockets was covered except for that PF spot last season, and maybe it makes more sense to have Dwight Howard in that position. He’s somewhat undersized for a center (he’s only 6’11’’ with shoes) and he plays with the kind of athletic, facing-the-basket type of offense that works very well for power forwards in this league (e.g. Kenneth Faried, Derrick Favors, Blake Griffin) and not as much for centers.
One of the main criticisms of this lineup is that neither big (Asik or Howard) can reliably hit free throws. While this is a great concern, Harden is going to have the ball in his hands late in games more often than Asik or Howard, so I don’t see this as a big problem. Also, who says that Dwight and Asik need to play together in the fourth quarter? Perhaps a small-ball lineup in the 4th makes more sense anyway, since it allows for more perimeter shooting, which is the strength of the Rockets anyway. Even if the Rockets trade for a better shooting PF, they will still lack the defensive intensity and rebounding it takes to maximize possessions and make important defensive stops.
Most contending teams in the NBA opt for a big starting lineup.
At the end of last season, most NBA playoff teams included two legitimate big men who could defend the paint and score inside reliably. When I say “big starting lineup” I mean two bigs who can each play 30 minutes or more, defend their position well, and make protecting the paint a priority for the other team. Just take a look at some of last year’s contending teams:
-San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter
-Chicago Bulls: Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer
-Indiana Pacers: David West and Roy Hibbert
-Memphis Grizzlies: Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol
-Golden State Warriors: David Lee and Andrew Bogut
The 2012-2013 Houston Rockets had Asik and….Greg Smith? Donatas Motiejunas? Chandler Parsons at the 4? When playing these other teams in the playoffs or even the regular season, how can you defend both of their bigs when you only have one you can trust? Obviously, not every team needs to be built this way to succeed (just look at Miami) but you maximize your team’s defensive and offensive potential if you have two trustworthy bigs. If Howard and Asik can each learn better post moves, the Rockets would be the toughest team to guard inside.
The Bottom Line
So far this season, the Rockets just simply look good when Asik and Howard are both playing. The Rockets are currently 4-1 (one of the best records in the NBA) and are playing phenomenal offense (currently 4th in points scored, 2nd overall in offensive efficiency). They are 12th in the league in total blocked shots and 2nd overall in rebounds. Dwight Howard currently leads the league in rebounds with 14.6 a game. Their defense still needs work, but already so far this team looks pretty serious. The Houston Rockets are a legitimate contender with Howard and Asik playing together, and if this team wants to win, they need to keep their best two defenders together as much as possible.