The Rockets have quietly posted some of the best defensive marks in the league since the turn of the calendar year, and as soon as this weekend could take a step further toward the defensive elite with the return of Omer Asik. From the Houston Chronicle:
“I would think Omer is going to play [on Saturday],” [Rockets head coach Kevin] McHale said. “Now granted, this is the most he has done and if his knee swells up again, he won’t play tomorrow night but if he can come through tonight and tomorrow’s shootaround, I think he will play.”
Asik noted on Wednesday, per the Chronicle, that his knee is "nearly 100 percent."
Houston's trade chip/reserve center hasn't seen the court in more than two months, during which third-string center Greg Smith was also largely unavailable. That left an out-of-position Terrence Jones and an overmatched Donatas Motiejunas to hold down the center position behind Dwight Howard, and the tandem fared well enough under the circumstances. That said, Asik's return -- whether for long-term establishment or as an audition for an eventual trade -- is a necessary step in Houston's effort to solidify itself as a contender. The Rockets are no better defensively than when Asik is on the floor, as his presence coincides with the team allowing just 96.9 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. That mark falls a few points shy of the Pacers' season-long defensive performance, which is remarkable considering that Asik has been thrust into misfit lineups or had minimal defensive help during much of his time on the floor.
It's by that very strength that Asik remains valuable to the Rockets and potential trade partners, both. Houston tried to cash Asik in back in December, going as far as to impose their own artificial trade deadline. But that day on the calendar came and went without a deal completed, largely because Rockets GM Daryl Morey couldn't pin down a trade to his liking. It's a tricky situation; Asik is quite clearly valuable, as he's one of a handful of truly elite defensive centers in a league hungry for them. That said, the presence of Howard on the roster continues to prevent Asik from registering as full an impact as he otherwise might. Asik, then, is less valuable to Houston than he might be to another team, creating the disconnect between the Rockets' appreciation of Asik's talents and their interest in trading him away.
Intertwined in that mess are two other market factors, both of which make things even more challenging for Houston: 1) Asik himself has pushed for a trade multiple times this season, and 2) the rest of the basketball world knows it. The latter is a sap for any negotiating leverage Houston might have once had, though even that doesn't really change the fact that a handful of NBA teams could use just what Asik provides. And make no mistake: Houston can, too. Asik may not be thrilled about the prospect of playing behind Howard, but the default path for Morey and the Rockets is to keep him until a better option arises. That could come before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, on draft night, or well into next season; all timelines are on the table for Houston, as Jones' emergence as a starter-quality power forward has alleviated any immediate need to redeem Asik's trade value. He's a Rocket until circumstances dictate otherwise, even if Howard's presence renders Asik as more luxury than necessity.