Grade the deal: Will Omer Asik's hefty new deal pay off for the Pelicans?
The Franchise can count on a little protection.
Omer Asik has agreed to a five-year, $60 million with the Pelicans, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. The deal, which starts in 2015-16, is reportedly only guaranteed for the first four years at $45 million. Asik, New Orleans' starting center last year, will flank All-Star power forward Anthony Davis in the frontcourt. Davis, of course, agreed to a five-year maximum rookie extension on Wednesday.
Acquired for a first-round pick in a 2014 trade from Houston, Asik averaged 7.3 points and 9.8 rebounds in his first season with New Orleans. The 7-foot Asik is a defense-first pivotman who makes for a long interior partner with Davis. Asik's offensive game is extremely limited, and his career 55.3% free-throw shooting has occasionally made him the subject of intentional fouling.
Although New Orleans seemed like a strong bet to improve significantly on defense by adding Asik, that's not exactly what happened. New Orleans jumped from No. 25 in defensive efficiency in 2013-15 to No. 22 last season, but Davis's emergence as one of the NBA's top five players still proved to be enough to get the Pelicans in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
As for Asik, he did improve New Orleans' defensive rating from 106.2 when he was off the court to 103.3 when he was on the court, but his offensive limitations wiped out any major net impact. Even worse, Asik ranked No. 43 among centers with a -1.16 Real Plus-Minus, in large part because his negative impact on offense outweighed his positive impact on defense.
The hiring of coach Alvin Gentry could change this calculus. Perhaps Gentry will find a way to do what former coach Monty Williams couldn't: build an above-average defense around the Davis/Asik combination. As a duo, New Orleans's bigs posted a defensive rating of 100.5, which is equivalent to a top-six mark, when they shared the court, and maybe that was enough evidence, in conjunction with Asik's durability, to convince the Pelicans' front office to kepe him.
But maybe that just says a lot about Davis's ability and not as much about Asik's. In the playoffs, it became clear very quickly that Asik was a major weak link during New Orleans's first-round series loss to Golden State. His presence on the court allowed the Warriors to ignore him and pay extra attention to Davis whenever they wanted. He also didn't engage with the necessary energy and determination on defense. Asik somehow managed to register just two field goals and zero blocks in 79 minutes during the series, and New Orleans was outscored by 36 points with him on the court. It was a full-out disaster, and the 28-year-old Asik isn't going to magically develop a better feel for the game over the course of this next deal. Williams responded to Asik's struggles by going smaller, a natural adjustment that the pace-loving Gentry is sure to consider as well.
Because the Pelicans already have eight-figure salaries on the books for Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, they didn't possess the ability to chase a comparable center in free agency as an Asik replacement. Does that fact justify this deal? Not convincingly. Given his one-way game, Asik will need to play at an elite level defensively to justify the total size of this deal, and his lack of speed and polish represent a questionable fit if Gentry does proceed with a faster approach. If the contract was shorter, perhaps it would look like a more liquid trade piece. As is, the safest assumption is that he will remain in New Orleans for at least the first two years of the deal.
At his last stop, in Houston, Asik wound up pouting for months on the bench when Dwight Howard took his starting job. If Gentry eventually decides to use Asik more situationally, in favor of smaller lineups, how will Asik respond? That's not a question you want to be asking about an eight-figure investment, especially one who so badly shrank from the moment in the playoffs. Even when accounting for the increased salary cap, the value just doesn't seem to be there. Moving on, or at least driving a much harder bargain, should have been the play here.