When Dwight Howard chose to take his talents to the Gulf Coast it created an awkward front court situation for the Rockets. Houston's incumbent center, Omer Asik, while not on the same tier as Roy Hibbert or 2009 Dwight defensively, is still an elite defensive center deserving of a starting gig. Howard, however, was the max-level front court centerpiece Daryl Morey had coveted for years, and the second star to team up with Jarmes Harden. The problem is that there was no way Asik and Howard could co-exist together offensively.
Morey and Kevin McHale had devised an offensive system that was reliant almost exclusively on three's, attempts at the rim, and free throws, with almost no mid-range shots whatsover. The 2009 Orlando Magic laid the blueprint for this offense, when they made a run to the Finals by putting Howard down low and surrounding him with four shooters (Jameer Nelson, Courtney Lee, JJ Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis). Neither Howard nor Asik can shoot the ball, which makes for incredibly cramped spacing offensively.
Everyone, including Morey, Howard, and Asik, knew this when Howard signed with Houston. Kevin McHale, possibly out of respect for Asik and possibly in an attempt to create a strong defensive front court, attempted starting them together anyway. That idea was scrapped after a couple games, and Asik sat out several games after being benched. His benching coincided with a renewed trade request, after he had previously requested a trade after the Rockets signed Howard in July. (Though really, the "renewed" trade request was simply a request he has been making once a week since July made public.)
According to ESPN's Marc Stein the question of whether Asik will be dealt is, at this point, a matter of "when", not "if". However, an Asik trade isn't likely to happen until Dec. 15, as that is when the free agents who signed contracts this past summer are eligible to be traded. That date opens up an entirely new group of options for Houston as compensation in an Asik trade.
The biggest priority for Neil Olshey this offseason was to find a center. J.J. Hickson was a disaster defensively, singlehandedly crippling the Blazers on that end of the floor. That was what was needed for the Blazers to be contenders this year:
"For us to make a jump next season, JJ can't be our starting center,'' Olshey said, referencing the Blazers' 47.4 points allowed in the paint per game, an NBA high. "I'm not saying he can't be part of the roster. But we need to find a starting-caliber center who protects the rim and gets defensive rebounds at a high rate and that has a presence. And we have to do a better job at defending the paint."
When Howard said he was going to sign with Houston, there was talk the Blazers could acquire Asik as part of that transaction. Instead, Olshey swung a trade for Robin Lopez, and the Rocket he traded for was Thomas Robinson. Now that Asik's trade demands have been made public again, there has been speculation that Portland is a potential landing spot for Asik. There are even reports that Olshey and Morey have had preliminary discussions about an Asik trade. The framework is there for a trade: Olshey and Morey have a good relationship, and you could even make an argument that Morey "owes one" to Olshey for taking Thomas Robinson off their hands so they could have enough cap room to sign Howard to begin with.
The Blazers, unfortunately, don't have the pieces to pull off an Asik trade by themselves. The Rockets are reportedly looking for, "a frontline player who can help them win in the short term," or, "a largely unprotected first-round pick in the loaded 2014 draft," according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The Blazers already own a future pick to the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, the last part of the
Gerald Wallace Damian Lillard trade. That will likely be their first round pick this year, as the Blazers are highly unlikely to pick in the top 12 of the draft this year.
Portland also doesn't have the assets to pull off an Asik trade currently on the roster. The definition of "frontline" player is vague, but the Rockets are either looking for one of two things: an upgrade at point guard or small forward, or a stretch four to put next to Howard. The Blazers could send Batum to the Rockets, but the point of acquiring Asik would be to insert him alongside the Blazers "core four ", not break up the Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge quartet. They could send Lopez back in a trade, and while Asik is a markedly better defender than Lopez, the cost of the downgrade at other positions in a Lopez-centric package may outweigh the upgrade at center Asik provides over Lopez. So the Blazers would need a third team to realistically make a Asik trade work.
In Chicago, Derrick Rose's season is sadly over. This is the second major knee injury in as many years for Rose, and ends any chance the Bulls had at an NBA Championship this year. The Bulls find themselves stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, their situation summed up nicely by Grantland's Zach Lowe:
The Bulls find themselves in a very tricky situation. This is a taxed-out team, built around Rose, constructed to win the title now ... The Bulls will make the playoffs if they wish to do so. The East is a giant pile of flaming basketball dung after Indiana, Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago, and the Bulls proved last season that Tom Thibodeau's defense and some canny ball movement is enough to keep them around .500.
Chicago is nearly $8 million over the tax line; adding even one minimum-salaried player to what is already a bare-bones 13-man roster is a very expensive proposition for a team that never even paid a dollar in tax until last season.
But the Bulls are an obvious playoff team, regardless. The question is whether they should maintain this roster in hopes of coalescing late in the season upon Rose's return, or cut bait and begin repurposing the team for its next era - while potentially cutting this season's tax bill in the process.
We know now, for sure, that barring a miracle recovery Rose will be out for the remainder of the regular and post season (given how long he took to return from his ACL injury, it is probably safe to say we shouldn't expect a miracle). What the Bulls can do is get under the tax line and prepare for the next era of Chicago Bulls basketball. The foundation for the next Bulls team is already in place: a healthy Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Euroleague star Nikola Mirotic, and the first round pick the Bobcats/Hornets owe the Bulls. They could easily cut ties with Luol Deng (on an expiring $14 mil deal) to get under the luxury tax line this year without compromising the future.
The market for players on expiring contracts has dropped considerably since the signing of the new CBA. Teams have begun hoarding first round draft picks like Smaug hoards treasure in the Lonely Mountain. With Deng mostly likely wanting an eight-figure salary it is unlikely a team would give up a first round pick for him. The best they could hope for would be some combination of cap relief and second round picks. Neil Olshey would be wise to get Gar Forman and Daryl Morey on the phone for a three way trade, with Deng and Asik as the centerpieces and the Blazers as the facilitator. Here's what each team would get:
Houston gets: Luol Deng, Joel Freeland.
Portland gets: Omer Asik.
Why Chicago does it: Jerry Reinsdorf was happy to pay the luxury tax this season, as long as they were going to compete for the title. That is no longer the case, and this gets them under the tax line. With the CBA's new, harsh repeat offender penalties for teams who pay the luxury tax multiple years in a row, it would behoove them to not pay luxury tax for a player that is unlikely to be on the team next year. Aaron Brooks would give them a second ball handler after Kirk Heinrich, and they get cap flexibility going into this summer. And besides, those second round picks might turn into something.
Why Houston does it: Daryl Morey has to trade Asik at this point. He has an asset that he isn't utilizing, and can get a return for. He isn't going to get a first round pick for him, that's a pipe dream. He gets probably the best player he could hope for in return for Asik, and doesn't have to give up a first-round pick or any significant rotation pieces for him.
For Portland, this trade is a no-brainer. They upgrade from Lopez to Asik in the starting five, and upgrade from Freeland to Lopez off the bench. They would lose Wright, who has been Batum's main backup this year, and that would hurt. But they could fill those minutes with a platoon of Victor Claver and Will Barton. At that point, the Blazers' rotation would look like this:
PG: Lillard, Williams
SG: Matthews, McCollum
SF: Batum, Claver, Barton
PF: Aldridge, Robinson
C: Asik, Lopez
Asik brings almost nothing to the table offensively, but then neither does Lopez. Offense, however, isn't the Blazers' concern. Asik could, repeat, could, turn them into top-10 defense. Let's not get carried away, they're ceiling is somewhere in the 11th to 9th best defense, but top-10 isn't out of the question. He's a rebounding, shot-blocking, rim protector would could make up for a lot Lillard, Williams, and McCollum's deficiencies. Once McCollum comes back from his broken foot, the Blazers would still need to find another wing to backup Batum and Matthews, but Olshey could always wait until the offseason if he had to. If Barton and Claver are your 9th and 10th men off the bench you could be doing a lot worse.
Obviously this trade depends on how badly Chicago wants to get under the luxury tax line, and if they have a better offer for Deng. It would be beneficial to Chicago to get under the luxury tax, because there really isn't any reason to be paying luxury tax if you don't have a shot at the championship. Some second round picks and cap relief would be a very thin silver lining to a lost season. For the Blazers this trade would make them instant contenders for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and would shore up their biggest weakness: defense, and specifically interior defense.