SI.com's Chris Mannix reported Wednesday that Houston has agreed to send Asik and $1.5 million to New Orleans for a future first-round pick. The trade will reportedly go official after the July 1 start of the new league year.
Asik, 27, spent much of the 2013-14 season on the trading block after Houston signed All-Star center Dwight Howard last summer. The 7-foot Turkish big man averaged 5.8 points and 7.9 rebounds in 48 appearances for the Rockets last season, alternating between backing up Howard and receiving DNP-CDs following a reported trade request. The previous season, Asik averaged a career-high 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds while playing all 82 games. Trade talks involving Asik were complicated by the fact that Asik's three-year, $25 million contract was structured so that he will earn $15 million in 2014-15.
The Pelicans will welcome a traditional, defensive-minded center alongside franchise forward Anthony Davis and stretch forward Ryan Anderson. Injuries exacerbated New Orleans's interior depth issues last season, and the Pelicans finished with the fifth-worst defense in the NBA on their way to missing the playoffs. Asik should provide immediate help in that regard, and he and Davis will make a particularly long and imposing pairing. New Orleans now has the potential to roll out a starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Davis and Asik, with Anderson coming off the bench. In theory, that group should be able to make a run at a playoff spot if it enjoys better injury luck next season.
Rumors in recent weeks have indicated that Houston is shopping both Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin in an effort to open up salary cap space to find a third star to pair with Howard and James Harden. The Rockets have been linked to interest in LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love, as GM Daryl Morey seeks to build a roster capable of championship contention. Despite trading for Harden in 2012 and signing Howard in 2013, the Rockets were bounced out of the 2014 playoffs in the first round by the Blazers.
Rarely will a team that has so many reasons to trade a player get such a bountiful return. Asik's apparent unhappiness in Houston, his poor fit with Howard, his final-year balloon payment and the fact that he's not locked into a long-term deal didn't stop the Rockets from snagging a first-round pick, the type of asset they've used successfully to swing recent deals such as the Harden blockbuster. The Twin Towers pairing of Howard and Asik was dead shortly after arrival, and Asik proved in 2012-13 that he deserved a chance to be a full-time starter. Those conditions had all the makings of a pure salary dump. Instead, Morey's ability to grab a desirable pick amounts to a little bit of a magic act considering the leverage working against him.
Even if New Orleans' decision to part with a first-round pick so quickly after using one to land Holiday last summer is cause for a little queasiness, the Pelicans can't really be considered losers. When the alternate options at center are Jason Smith (who missed most of last season with a knee injury), Alexis Ajinca and Jeff Withey, you can understand why GM Dell Demps wouldn't draw a firm line in the sand when it comes to parting with a top-flight draft asset.
Davis has a chance to be a top-10 player in the NBA next season, and all of the Pelicans' major personnel moves should be conducted within the context of, "Does it make Davis' life easier and/or does it make Davis a better player?" With Asik, the answer to both questions is definitely yes. Davis will find life easier at the power forward position, where he can create mismatches with his versatility and save himself some of the physicality that comes with defending centers. What's more, the Davis/Asik pairing should work fairly well on both ends. Davis has enough versatility to step out away from the hoop offensively when paired with the low-post-bound Asik, and the two will wreak havoc on opponents' field goal percentages in the restricted area.
Landing Asik might not be a transformative acquisition -- a la Houston's signing of Howard -- but it plugs an obvious hole with a very capable peg. New Orleans will see its grade nudge up if it is able to re-sign Asik and keep him in town past next summer.