NEW YORK - If the Houston Rockets intend on competing for a championship this season, they will need to trade Omer Asik. And the process may have been accelerated on Thursday.
Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported before Thursday’s Rockets-Knicks game that Asik has asked for a trade.
With his starting job gone and his playing time slashed, Rockets center Omer Asik has asked to be traded, two individuals with knowledge of the request said Thursday.
Asik, who started every game after signing with the Rockets last season, came off the bench Wednesday in Philadelphia, but struggled. He played only four minutes and not at all in the second half. Asik has made his trade request within the past 48 hours, a person familiar with the conversations said.
The Rockets have no trade involving Asik in the works, with one individual saying a deal is more likely in months than in days.
This the second time that an Asik trade request has been reported. The first came in the summer, after Houston signed Dwight Howard. Asik is a terrific defensive center who started all 82 games for the Rockets last season and led the team in plus-minus. He was a valuable reserve in Chicago, but since signing a three-year, $25 million deal with Houston in 2012, he clearly has no interest in being a backup.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale started Asik and Howard together for the first eight games of the season, but the two-center combination has not worked (particularly on offense) and had put the Rockets in several first-quarter holes. On Monday against Toronto, McHale finally pulled the plug on the experiment, keeping Asik on the bench to start the second half. Wednesday in Philadelphia, Terrence Jones started in Asik’s place and Asik played just 4:22 in the Rockets’ overtime loss to the Sixers.
Less than 24 hours later, Asik was asking for a trade. And in the Rockets’ crazy 109-106 victory over the Knicks, he didn’t play at all. McHale used Greg Smith as the backup center late in the first quarter, and when Smith injured his knee less than a minute later, McHale played Jones at center.
It was the first DNP of Asik’s career and ended his league-leading streak of 239 consecutive games played. He was not available for comment after the game, having left the Houston locker room well before it was opened to the media. McHale said: “He told me today he wasn’t feeling good and he didn’t know if he could play,” McHale said after the game. “I asked him, ‘Are you ready to play?’ and he said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ That’s why I went with Greg.”
Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported that the Rockets have told Asik that they have no intention of trading him. And before Thursday’s game in New York, McHale said that he hasn’t closed the door on using Asik and Howard together.
“I liked a lot of stuff he and Dwight did together,” McHale said. “They were big. They protected the rim. It’s going to be a lot on matchups, a lot how things work. He’s going to have to get out there and play. Will he start against some bigger teams? Possibly.”
A few more starts here or there doesn’t change the fact that the Rockets would be better off swapping Asik for a forward who can shoot and defend. While Asik gives Houston depth up front and insurance on Howard (who struggled to score against Andrea Bargnani on Thursday), he’s not worth what the Rockets are paying him as a 12-minute-a-night backup, especially if there are nights like this — if you think McHale’s “wasn’t feeling good” claim was a little dubious — when he doesn’t play at all.
The Rockets, who have had an up-and-down first 10 games, could raise their ceiling and put themselves in the driver’s seat of a wide-open Western Conference if they can trade Asik for a better fit with Howard and James Harden, someone who could play 30 minutes a night instead of 12. And with other Western Conference contenders (like the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder) also ripe for a trade, Houston shouldn’t hesitate to pursue the guy they want.
Though they currently rank 23rd in 3-point shooting (at 32.1 percent) and spacing the floor around Harden/Howard pick-and-rolls is critical, their biggest priority in any deal should be perimeter defense. They’ve had plenty of glaring breakdowns already this season and they have no one to defend the likes of Kevin Durant or, if they truly have title aspirations, LeBron James. Exhibit A is Carmelo Anthony‘s 45 points on 17-for-30 shooting on Thursday.
That’s why the Sixers’ Thaddeus Young should be their primary target, whether it be a straight trade with Philadelphia or a three-team deal. The Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson would be a great fit offensively, but would only add to the defensive problems.
Smith’s injury complicates things. He would be a capable backup in small doses, but if his knee injury is serious — he’s set to have an MRI on Friday — it would be more difficult to part with Asik.
Still, not only is it unlikely that Asik will change his mind, but a trade would give the Rockets an opportunity to get better. They obviously need at least one other team to make a deal, but they shouldn’t wait to start shopping.