The Pelicans and center Omer Asik got their wish when the team obtained him Houston Rockets on Wednesday night in a trade for New Orleans’ 2015 first-round draft pick.
Asik, 7 feet, 255 pounds, fills a big area of need in the Pelicans’ desire to become a playoff team and competitor in the Western Conference. The trade comes a year after New Orleans first sought him. According to NBA rules, the deal won’t be official until July 10.
Ever since the Rockets signed Dwight Howard, considered the best center in basketball, to a multi-year free-agent contract last July, Asik let it be known he wanted out.
The Rockets immediately said Asik, who helped lead the team to the 2013 playoffs, would not be traded. Howard was coming off a season in which he returned from back surgery, so Asik, if anything, was valuable insurance at a key position for a team looking to become more competitive.
The plan was to play the two together and let Asik play center when Howard went to the bench. That lasted all but two weeks of last season, when in back-to-back games, the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks drew Asik away from the basket with outside shooting centers Spencer Hawes and Andrea Bargnani.
Asik was relegated to the bench and again stated to Rockets management his desire to be traded.
“I would say the situation is very frustrating now, and we’re trying to work through it,” said Andy Miller, Asik’s agent at the time.
“For Omer, the objective has always been to contribute and to develop and grow as a player. That’s why we came to Houston in the first place.”
With the Rockets desiring to sign a top small forward, Carmelo Anthony or even LeBron James, the Rockets had to clear salary cap space to pursue them, and Asik’s $8.3 million salary next season was a good chunk to get rid of, particularly with him on the bench and Howard’s back no longer an issue.
Last year, the Pelicans had come into the picture as soon as it appeared Howard was Houston-bound. However, the Rockets wanted forward Ryan Anderson, who had finished second in the NBA in 3-pointers made during the 2012-13 season in the first year of his contract, which also pays about $8.3 million a year, although it’s a four-year deal. So, the Pelicans backed out.
Asik had signed a three-year $25.1 million contract with Houston as a restricted free agent in July 2012, relishing the chance to start and be relevant for a franchise. And, he responded during the regular season, averaging career highs of 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 30 minutes while playing all 82 games. The Rockets went 45-37, and the playoff berth was their first since the 2008-09 season.
Last season, averaging 20.2 points and playing in just 48 games, he averaged 5.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks.
He’d distinguished himself in his native Turkey and was a 2008 second-round draft pick of the Portland Trail Blazers, who immediately traded him to the Chicago Bulls. After a short career in Turkey in which he played well but also had injuries, he signed with the Bulls in July 2010.
During training camp, he served notice he was there to gain significant playing time, and in preseason games, he became known for his physical and effective play in the lane.
“He’s a guy that’s critical to our team,” said Bulls point guard Derrick Rose. “
He’s young, he’s active, plays hard. He and Joakim (Noah) in the game together is crazy because they always get tips, loose balls.
“His offensive game is getting a lot better. He’s shooting a lot better from the free-throw line.”
However, like Howard, Noah, last season’s defensive player of the year, wasn’t going anywhere.
Asik got a chance to show what he could do as a starter, though, during his second season with Chicago. Noah was injured in the Bulls’ first-round series with Philadelphia, and Asik stepped in and stepped up. He averaged 10 points, 9.0 rebounds and two blocked shots, up from his regular-season totals of 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks.
In Game 6, he missed two free throws, and the 76ers took the lead and won the series, 4-2.
The Rockets had seen enough, and, Asik wanted more. That, he will have with the Pelicans, who haven’t had a center average double-figure rebounds since Tyson Chandler in 2007-08.