By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
The video clips are almost comical, like a string of bad dancing outtakes on YouTube gone viral.
There is 51-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon spinning and whirling and rolling though the lane with the ball in the palm of one hand, moving as graceful as a swan.
Here is Omer Asik looking more than just a little bit like an ugly duckling as he tries to simulate those steps in 1-on-1 workouts following a Rockets practice.
But after having his feathers ruffled by the pursuit and capture of free-agent Dwight Howard last summer, Asik has at long last stopped splashing and is helping keep the Rocket afloat.
After averaging a double-double a year ago in his first season as a starter, this is not the role Omer Asik wanted to play. But it’s the one the Rockets need him to play as Howard has sat out the past three games to rest a strained left ankle.
It’s the reason why Daryl Morey never rushed to deal away Asik during the offseason and why the general manager refused to hit the panic button when the 27-year-old eventually demanded a trade. Morey even went so far as to sit on his hands through a self-imposed deadline to trade his discontented big man back in December.
In short, the sizable Asik is too big an impediment in the middle of the Rockets’ defense and much too huge an insurance policy.
That’s what coach Kevin McHale had maintained all along, even when a failed experiment to play Howard and Asik together in the starting lineup ended after just eight games.
Now, with Howard sidelined and again a game-time decision to play Monday night at Charlotte, Asik has filled in admirably, averaging 11 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and 2.3 assists as the Rockets have won three straight games.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” McHale told reporters. “He’s so good defensively, rebounds. He’s right on point with all of his calls defensively. Dwight gets a chance to rest a little bit and Omer gets a chance to play a little bit more. They’re probably both good things.”
There is no reason to think Asik will have a change of heart for the long term benefit of his career. Following his consistent play last season, the 27-year-old has proven that he can be a full-time starter in the league and that is the path he wants to pursue. The Rockets could trade him — and the $15 million he has due on the last year of his contract — this summer, especially if they are trying to clear out salary cap room to pursue Carmelo Anthony.
For now Asik is not only a capable fill-in while Howard mends, but can give the Rockets considerable front-court depth in the playoffs. With a pair of rim-protecting 7-footers in the rotation, the Houston defense can consistently stop opponents from attacking in the paint.
“People are afraid to go in and challenge both of them,” point guard Jeremy Lin told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think anyone thinks of Omer as, ‘Oh, we’re going to pick on Omer tonight.’ Or if they do, they’re dumb. I don’t think anybody is that dumb.”
And Morey wasn’t dumb enough to acquiesce to Asik’s demand for a trade and move what is literally his biggest insurance policy without getting a significant return. Word was that he was seeking a first-round draft pick for Asik. What the front office and the coaching staff counted on was that, after recovering from from thigh and knee injuries that kept him out of action for two months, Asik could be convinced that he’d play a significant role in the Rockets’ drive for the playoffs and hoped-for success in the postseason.
That’s finally come to pass and is the reason why the 7-foot Turk with the often lumbering moves can be seen listening, nodding and taking in pointers from the balletic Olajuwon after practices. They’d never make much of a comfortable dance pair, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits.
“Look at him and look at me,” Asik says with a laugh. “I can never do those things that made Hakeem one of the all-time great players. But he is helping me a lot. He is showing me basic moves and how I can do things to improve.
“He is the best fundamentally, I think, in NBA history. I can’t be like him, but I’m trying to learn something from him.”