When Dwight Howard made his move to Texas, it gave the Houston Rockets the second star the team had been hoping to acquire since last season’s trade for James Harden. The presence of the seven-time All-Star center is certainly a boost to the organization’s title aspirations, but because of Howard’s arrival, incumbent starter Omer Asik — a vital part of last season’s success — now finds himself in basketball limbo, unsure of whether his next stop is a new team, a new role, or a new position. How the Rockets proceed with the Turkish big man will determine how, and most importantly how well, the team will play next season.
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces populating basketball's second season.
[Note: We’ll have to see what happens tonight, but considering Jimmy Butler’s Game 1 performance, the clearly cosmic elements in play with this Chicago team, and nearly every non-role-player Bull being in some state of disrepair, there’s a chance this series turns into “Who’s That Bull?” until they lose. I make no apologies.]
Who Is He? Taj Gibson.
Where Is He From? USC.
Years Played: Four.
What’s His Salary? $2.15 million (jumps to $7.55 million next year).
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: One of the game’s truly elite defenders. Has athleticism to protect the rim and guard multiple positions. Excellent pick-and-roll stopper who’s comfortable switching onto guards.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. The Pacers
That's eight wins out of the last nine for Indiana, five straight, and the end of a 4-0 road trip, which included two victories in Texas (Dallas and Houston) and a big win in Los Angeles against the Clippers last night. You could say it was a moral victory for the Clippers, who came back from a 24-point deficit to get back into the game. But maybe it was moral victory and victory-victory for the Pacers, who held on in a tough situation. The Pacers got a visit from the goon squad when Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins went into full nuisance mode in the second half. They got Hibbert out of his locked-in, first-half groove (he had 15 points in the first quarter) and into foul trouble. The Georgetown big man fouled out with about a minute and a half to go, but on his way back to the bench gave his teammates Tyler Hansbrough (seen above) and Lance Stephenson a friendly shove. Real friendly.
Jimmy Butler had plenty of good stretches last night in the Bulls' 95-83 win over the Lakers, but the best came with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. After stealing an errant Antawn Jamison pass and throwing it down on the other end, Butler, as he seemed to be all game, was draped over Kobe Bryant outside the 3-point line. The shot clock was ticking down, and as it hit :01, Bryant flung the ball toward the rim, but hit nothing. The horn sounded, and the ball was back to the Bulls.
Bryant finished the game 7-of-22 from the field, and everyone from Steve Kerr to the rest of the Bulls locker room had the same theory why. Kobe’s 42 minutes were topped only by Butler’s 43, and for the second straight game, Butler showed he had no trouble playing the part of Luol Deng, who’s joined Derrick Rose on the list of injured Bulls.
This year was supposed to be a lost one for Chicago. With Rose’s torn ACL keeping him out until at least the All-Star break, a team ravaged in the offseason by financial constraints seemed more destined for the lottery than the conference finals. But with last night’s win, the Bulls are now 24-16, good for fifth in the East and just a game and a half back of the Knicks for the no. 2 seed. With Rose’s return no more than a few weeks away, the question has shifted from how the Bulls will tread water without him to just how good they can be with him.
When the Houston Rockets pried Omer Asik away from the Bulls with an aggressive offer sheet, the most pressing question (after "Who?" and "Him?") was if he could maintain his effectiveness with greater playing time. As a backup center in Chicago, the towering Turk had spent only 15 minutes on the floor per game. But in that limited sample, there were intriguing indicators that he could be a valuable big man. He was an elite rebounder — averaging more than 17 boards per 48 minutes — and his defensive rating was 92, which meant he surrendered fewer points per possession than Dwight Howard's career-best.
Now, Asik is considered a "surprise," despite being a very similar player to the one we saw as a reserve on the Bulls. In truth, he's gotten better. His rebounding rate is slightly up, his free throw shooting has improved, and he's committing fewer fouls (a consequence of needing to stay on the floor, one category in which he's slipped is shot-blocking). Asik has become more comfortable on offense and is now supplementing those wounded-circus-bear reverse layup attempts with new tricks, such as a cutting catch-and-kick to the corner after rolling off a bone-melting pick at the top of the key. In general, he's proved that his success in Chicago could be replicated on a larger scale, even if some of that success was bolstered by playing alongside Joakim Noah and the Bulls' army of smothering wraiths.
The rookie deal non-max extension is one of the least efficient/riskiest contracts in the NBA. It comes when a player is still very young, at a stage when it’s possible to believe he might advance more in the next 12 months than he did in the previous 36 combined — even if history says that sort of leap at age 23 or 24 is unlikely. If a team passes on an extension and that growth comes right away, the team will have cost itself something like $10 million or $20 million by failing to lock up the player ahead of restricted free agency. Saving that kind of money has real roster-building impact; Boston would be short a Jason Terry or Courtney Lee right now had it not locked up Rajon Rondo at an absurdly cheap price at the extension buzzer in 2009.
Here's the bad news for Rockets fans: It's looking more and more like Houston won't be getting Dwight Howard. Here's the good news: All the assets that Houston piled up in their attempt to get Dwight are going to make up a team that is fun as hell to watch.
I got the news of Omer Asik’s offer from the Rockets in an e-mail from a friend. The gist was that Omer, a restricted free agent, was getting paiddddddddddddddddddd — and to be clear, that’s “paid” with 19 d's. First reported by Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Houston Rockets and Asik verbally agreed to an offer sheet of three years and about $25 million (Asik can't sign the deal till July 11; the Bulls will have three days to match it), and as would be expected, the quick jokes followed. Instead of Dwight Howard, Houston’s new starting center could be a guy who scored 3.1 points a game last year. As someone who’s seen most of Asik’s 169 career games, the comedy was lost on me. In a world in which DeAndre Jordan makes $10 million a season, Daryl Morey was giving $8 million a year to one of the league’s best post defenders. Then I saw what he actually did.