Early last season, an awful lot of very smart people looked at the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans, and wondered what they were missing. There was an obvious deal there, right?
After wooing All-Star Dwight Howard in free agency with stalwart Omer Asik already in tow, the Rockets had two starting-caliber defensive-game-changers at center. After sending Robin Lopez to the Portland Trail Blazers in the three-way dance that brought Tyreke Evans to Louisiana, the Pelicans had none. New Orleans did, however, have Ryan Anderson, a sharpshooting stretch four who had paired beautifully with Howard while the two played for the Orlando Magic, who would fit perfectly into Houston's space-the-floor-and-bomb-from-deep offensive scheme, and who would've seemed to represent an upgrade at the four. The salary-cap math even lined up, with Anderson on the books for just over $8.3 million last year and Asik packing a hit of just under $8.4 million. (There were other considerations — Anderson's deal runs one year longer and Asik will actually earn $15 million this year, thanks to the structuring of the offer sheet he signed with Houston — but the numbers worked.)
The no-brainer never materialized, as Houston pulled Asik off the table and New Orleans watched Anderson suffer a season-ending neck injury. The punchless (save for Anthony Davis), defenseless (ditto) and injury-plagued (one more time) Pelicans landed in a lottery in which they were drawing dead and would receive no pick. The Rockets, rolling with Terrence Jones at the four, made their second straight first-round exit.
Both teams entered the 2014 offseason with work to do if they wanted to improve their respective stations in the brutal Western Conference. That work began Wednesday night, with both teams finally seeing what had been in front of their faces all along.
Well, that's not entirely true. As reported by Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, while Wednesday's trade did land Asik on the Pelicans, it didn't send Anderson to Houston; instead, the deal cost New Orleans a first-round pick in the 2015 NBA draft. The pick is reportedly protected in such a way that the Pelicans will retain it if it lands in the top three or if it falls between picks No. 20 and 30. If it's in that vast middle ground between No. 4 and No. 19, though, it heads to Houston. Since New Orleans had already traded its 2014 first-rounder in last year's Nerlens Noel/Jrue Holiday deal, the Pelicans must wait until July 10, after Thursday's draft and the end of the league's July moratorium on free-agent signings and trades, to finalize the swap, lest they run afoul of the "Stepien Rule" preventing teams from making trades that would leave them without first-round picks in consecutive years.
The Rockets are also sending $1.5 million back to New Orleans, who will have to create enough cap room to add Asik without sending any salary Houston's way. How the Pelicans will create that room remains unclear — two popular names in the early going, referenced by Jimmy Smith of the New Orleans Times Picayune, are disappointing 2012 lottery pick Austin Rivers, on the books for $2.44 million next season, and disappointing 2011 trade acquisition Eric Gordon, slated to make nearly $15 million. (Given the spate of leg injuries Gordon's undergone in recent years and his declining play when healthy, he seems unlikely to move.)
As Wojnarowski reported, the logic behind the Rockets' side of the deal is blood simple to understand. Jettisoning Asik's salary cuts Houston's financial obligations for 2014-15 to about $55.7 million, getting them about $7.5 million under the projected 2014-15 salary cap line of $63.2 million. If they can find a taker for the $8.3 million-plus owed to Jeremy Lin, now a reserve Rocket following the emergence of Patrick Beverley, they'll be under $47.3 million in committed salary. (By the way, finding a taker would figure to be quite a bit easier if you can attack a future first-rounder like the one the Rockets are getting from the Pelicans.)
That would give Houston about $16 million in space with which to begin serious courtship of a third star to join Howard and James Harden — most notably, of course, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom recently elected to exercise their respective early termination options and explore free agency. And then there's Kevin Love, whose time in the Twin Cities looks to be nearing its end, whose shipment to the Bay Area seems to have been derailed, and who would provide a superstar-level version of that enticing Anderson fit next to Howard.
By trading their backup center, then, the Rockets have begun creating the flexibility to add another elite talent — which, after years of coming up empty in big-game hunting, Morey's been able to do in each of the past two summers — and get a potentially tasty first-round asset in the process. So what's in this for the Pelicans, who have now traded away three consecutive first-round choices? Well, for starters, a sorely needed defensive upgrade in the middle.
Opponents busted up the Pelicans' D last season, often getting into the paint seemingly at will off pick-and-roll penetration, attacking the basket with no fear of non-Davis shot-blocking, and beating New Orleans' bigs to their own misses to extend possessions. The Pelicans ranked 25th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession last season, the second straight year they've finished among the half-dozen worst teams in defensive efficiency. Opponents shot 62.8 percent in the restricted area against New Orleans last year (also 25th) and gave up 28 point-blank shots per game (22nd). They posted bottom-10 finishes in defensive rebounding percentage, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and in points allowed per possession on both post-ups and plays finished by pick-and-roll ball-handlers, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data.
And now, they have Asik, who held Houston opponents to an at-rim field-goal percentage of 47.7 percent when he was in the area last year, a near-elite number just above Howard and just below Tim Duncan, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. A player with whom the Rockets' defense was more than a point-per-100 stingier than when he sat last year. A player who has hoovered more than 30 percent of available defensive rebounds during his time on the court in each of the past two seasons, and who grabbed just under two-thirds of available rebound chances during his playing time last season, another near-elite number that puts him in the company of Duncan and Love.
He's a 7-foot, 260-pounder who can hold up in one-on-one defense in the post, and who might not be the fleetest of foot, but whose combination of footwork, size and length enables him to comfortably show on pick-and-roll ball-handlers and retreat to deter roll men charging to the rim. And, perhaps most importantly, he allows Davis to play more power forward, where the 'Brow more completely destroyed his opposition last year than he did while playing center, and saves the Pelicans' ascendant All-Star the wear and tear that comes along with wrestling with the NBA's big bads.
He fills an immediate, glaring need. If point-guard-defending ace Holiday comes back healthy after his own season-ending injury and Davis continues his unchecked growth (both metaphorically and literally), Asik profiles as the kind of back-line anchor that should enable head coach Monty Williams to turn the Pelicans into a top-10-caliber defense. Combine that with even modest health for a Pelicans team that turned in a top-half-of-the-league offense (104.7 points per 100 possessions, 13th of 30) even with Davis, Holiday, Anderson, Gordon, Evans and pick-and-pop big man Jason Smith missing a combined 202 games, and you see the makings of a playoff push, even in the West.
It's risky, to be sure. Importing Asik means plugging a limited (to say the least) offensive player into the Pelicans' starting five, which will likely cramp floor spacing unless every perimeter Pelican ramps up his long-range shooting. New Orleans still needs a small forward capable of impacting the game on both ends of the floor, and that could be difficult to find after the cap machinations required to import Asik result in the Pelicans being unable to use the mid-level exception.
With Gordon, Evans, Holiday, Anderson, Asik and Davis accounting for the lion's share of the team's balance sheet — they'll account for just over $59 million under the projected $63.2 million cap — New Orleans will need to fill out the roster with bargain talent on mostly minimum salaries. (This is where it'd be nice to have draft picks making a relative pittance, and again, the Pelicans don't.) After the Pelicans' best players barely shared the floor this season, an awful lot will depend on them being able to stay healthy, play big minutes together and produce in huge ways this season ... especially considering this deal starts to look way, way worse if Asik doesn't pan out and bolts in free agency next summer, leaving the Pelicans with precious little to show for having traded away first-round picks in three consecutive drafts.
That said, while the future cupboard looks pretty bare for the Pelicans after this deal ... the present also has to start sometime, right?
New Orleans hasn't made the playoffs since Chris Paul went west, and the conference is only getting deeper and tougher. Williams and Demps have strung together three straight losing seasons, and would figure to be working to keep their jobs this season. Tom Benson got a friendly price to buy the team from the league in 2012 — especially considering the skyrocketing franchise prices over the past several years — and got $50 million from Louisiana to upgrade what later became the Smoothie King Center, and hasn't produced much in return just yet. And, most importantly, Davis will be up for an extension after next season; while it'd be some history-making stuff to see him turn down a max rookie contract extension offer, the longer he goes without experiencing any sort of real winning in New Orleans, the harder it's going to be to convince him to stick around long-term as the sort of generational piece everyone believes him to be.
It's in the best interest of everyone involved with the Pelicans — the owner, the general manager, the coach, the star, everyone — to do whatever's in their power to win now. Asik seems to be a very strong move in that direction, even if it's not as structurally and fiscally sound as building around Davis, Noel, this year's No. 10 pick and whatever winds up coming down the pike next year. It's time for the Pelicans to get busy living ... even if that means Daryl Morey and company opening the door to reaping a monstrous potential benefit.
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