BOSTON -- It’s not often that a team puts an established impact center on eBay. But that’s essentially what the Houston Rockets have done with Omer Asik. And while the Boston Celtics have been building up their PayPal account since summer, stockpiling future assets with the idea of a splurge purchase further down the road, the team shouldn’t hesitate to consider parting with some of its early savings as this auction winds down with few bidders.
Sure, it wasn’t supposed to go this way. The Celtics were pegged to take their lumps during the first year of a rebuilding season under new coach Brad Stevens. Instead, a month and a half into the 2013-14 campaign, Boston finds itself atop the Atlantic Division and penciled in as the fourth seed in a shambled Eastern Conference. The Celtics, as currently constituted, are not a playoff team -- at least not one capable of doing much beyond giving a first-round opponent a run for its money. Boston has two rather glaring needs at the moment: a floor-general point guard to direct an inconsistent offense and a rim-protecting center who can joust with the league’s elite bigs.
The first half of that wish list is on its way in the form of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, who is expected back early in 2014 after rehabbing from ACL surgery. The other half is available at a moderate cost that could accelerate the team's return to being an honest-to-goodness contender, all without hindering the team’s ability to rebuild on the fly moving forward.
Listen, you don’t have to sell this stats nerd on Asik. While most will look at his stat line and see a player who averages 5.4 points and 7 rebounds per game in three-plua NBA seasons, I see an elite defender capable of taking Boston’s top-10 defense to an even higher level.
Asik’s impact in protecting the hoop is impossible to ignore, both as an individual defender and the effect on his teams as a whole. Although he’s played sparingly this season (311 minutes of floor time), the Rockets’ defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is a measly 96.9 with Asik on the floor. That number rockets to 102.4 when he’s on the bench.
That isn’t an outlier. Two years ago in Chicago, the defense-minded Bulls owned a defensive rating of 89.7 with Asik on the floor, which was 5.6 points lower than the team’s already minuscule rating of 95.3. In his first NBA season, Chicago saw similar results when Asik was on the floor (90.9 defensive rating) versus when he was off (99.5).
In 16 appearances this season, Asik is allowing 0.667 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. Of players with at least 135 possessions defended, Asik ranks fifth in the NBA. (FYI: Boston’s first player on that list is rookie center Vitor Faverani at 33rd overall.)
It’s not just a small sample size. Two seasons ago with Chicago, Asik played 65 games and allowed 0.653 points per play (277 points on 424 possessions defended). Of players with at least 200 possessions defended, he ranked first in the league. No. 2, ironically, was Brandon Bass, a player the Celtics might deem expendable in the quest to secure Asik’s services.
Bass is an excellent player. One we’ve often gushed about for the unheralded positive impact he’s provided this team in two-plus seasons. This season, Bass has even improved his rebounding. But Boston’s lack of pure size is painfully evident, particularly in recent losses to the likes of the Nets (Brook Lopez) and Clippers (Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan).
The Celtics entered this season with logjams at shooting guard and power forward. If Boston can find a package (maybe tossing in one of the nine first-round picks it has stocked for the next five seasons to entice Houston, or a facilitating third team) then it absolutely has to consider making the move for Asik.
When Doc Rivers was here, he used to talk about opportunity and how, in the NBA, it is so incredibly fleeting. If you have a chance to be competitive, you have to embrace it. By adding Rondo and Asik to this lineup, Boston would have the parts to ensure this team was more than a surefire first-round exit in the postseason. In fact, in a dilapidated East, the Celtics could be a legitimate playoff team (not just one sneaking in by winning the Atlantic Division).
Better yet, they’d have much of the same team penciled in to return next season, able to build off whatever they accomplish this season. This would give the team a glimpse at one possible future iteration, while not locking it in (both Rondo and Asik are scheduled to be free agents after the 2014-15 season).
What are the downsides?
Complaint No. 1: Asik can’t score: No arguing this one; he’s got a limited offensive skill set and settles only for high-percentage looks around the basket. You can mask that if you have the likes of Rondo, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger to focus the offense around. Regardless, the impact Asik provides on the defensive end can more than make up for any dip the offense endures because of him.
Complaint 2: He’ll have a balloon payment next season: Asik will earn approximately $15 million next season, but he’s on the books for only $8.4 million this season and next. Scoff if you must, but that’s a bargain for what he provides. Boston can use some of that money coming back from staying under the luxury tax this season (thanks, Brooklyn!) to foot the bill for Asik’s salary that doesn’t count toward the books.
Complaint 3: Asik can’t be extended on his current deal: It’s a risk, no doubt, but the Celtics would still hold his rights and be in the driver’s seat as far as trying to retain him when he hits the open market. Those rights could also help them in a sign-and-trade deal even if he wasn't retained.
Complaint 4: The Celtics would be giving up too much: This part remains to be seen until we know the parameters of any deal. This armchair general manager is a lot more comfortable giving up a package starting with Bass and a first-round pick than including Jeff Green (but it’s not a deal-breaker). Let’s say Boston tosses in the Clippers’ 2015 first-round pick (the one obtained as compensation for Rivers). That’s likely going to be a late first-round pick. It could be JaJuan Johnson or J.R. Giddens. No one should lose sleep over a pick like that. And, ultimately, the Celtics have to decide soon who their future building blocks are. At the frontcourt positions, that’s more likely to be guys like Sullinger, Faverani and Kelly Olynyk than Bass. If forced to move Green or Courtney Lee, it aids Boston by eliminating money committed long term.
And ultimately it all comes back to needs. The Celtics need a rim protector, and they don’t come much better than Asik. If he was available on the open market and didn’t have the balloon payment attached to the final year, the Rockets would be swimming in more lucrative offers. But they're not, and they've committed to making a move.
The Celtics put themselves in position to make an impulse purchase like this because of smart offseason moves. It helps now, and it doesn’t hinder the future. If there were a “Buy It Now” button, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge shouldn't hesitate to click it.