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|Omer Asik, left, could be on his way out of Houston as the Rockets continue to reshape their roster.|
HOUSTON -- During the summer, the Houston Rockets invested $7 million to construct a fabulous new locker room and training room at the Toyota Center. The most striking feature is a large LED screen above each locker that displays the player's face and a revolving series of advanced statistics the Rockets are known for tracking.
As a side benefit it's also now much easier to change the nameplates, which will certainly remove a burden from the Rockets' overworked equipment managers in this area.
General manager Daryl Morey has made 12 trades since the end of the 2011 lockout. There's a good chance some of the faces on those slick video screens will change again between now and February's trade deadline.
Much excitement surrounds the Rockets right now with the arrival of Dwight Howard following James Harden's breakout performance after Harden arrived in a blockbuster deal last October. The heavy lifting on the roster might seem done for now, but in reality, the team is primed to make even more adjustments now that it's settled on a core.
The next move that Morey makes might end up playing a big role in just how far the Rockets are going this season. Specifically, they have a valuable trade chip in center Omer Asik, and what they end up doing with him could alter the balance of power in the Western Conference this season.
The Rockets currently aspire to secure a top-four seed so they can get home-court advantage in the first round, and that's realistic. But with an aggressive franchise runner such as Morey and their Asik bullet, the possibilities are wide-ranging.
"We're not all the way there, we're not a finished team," Morey said. "We're going to be experimenting. We want to be a great team by mid-April."
The first experiment seems to be more formal than anything. Coach Kevin McHale intends to be play the 7-foot Asik and the 6-9 (by his admission) Howard together for stretches.
"If it works really well, it'll be a lot. If it looks like crap, it won't be much," McHale said of how much he'll play his two true centers. "We're going to find out and we're going to give it every opportunity to work."
In theory, this pairing would create a rebounding powerhouse and a defensive wall around the rim. Howard led the league in rebounds per game last season, Asik was third. Howard is routinely among the league leaders in blocked shots, and Asik is a strong post defender.
In practice, however, it seems unlikely to work. McHale, Morey and Howard probably know this. We know Asik thinks it won't work because he demanded a trade this summer -- though he declined to elaborate on it when he arrived for training camp -- because he knows his playing time is probably about to be slashed.
Asik is a poor offensive player, and Howard, despite his attempts to improve, remains a poor shooter outside the paint. At the free throw line, these two have the chance to be one of the most atrocious tandems in league history. Last regular season alone, the two combined to miss 497 free throws. Playing them together at the end of a close game is inviting ruin.
There's also the basic strategy that with Howard you want to stretch out the defense with shooters and not allow multiple defenders to hang by the rim. That goes for Harden, too, because he's terrific when he has space to drive.
McHale got a lot out of playing fast and small last season, and he's got several players who can play power forward who fit that system better than squeezing Howard there. In addition to veterans Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi, there's also some intrigue within the team over second-year forward Terrence Jones and rookie Robert Covington. All of them can play power forward and stretch the floor with Howard.
Asik is a valuable player to have and is a pure luxury as a backup. He can reduce Howard's minutes, and having Asik available to match up with "big" teams such as San Antonio and Memphis is a bonus. But it also might be a misuse of resources with Asik likely in demand across the league. With the Rockets focused heavily on winning now, they will be scanning to see how they might be able to maximize him as an asset.
The Rockets quickly shot down Asik's trade request in July, and that makes perfect sense: There is no reason to reduce your negotiating position by openly putting a player on the market. Building up his trade value during the season is equally important; the Rockets are certainly going to posture in that direction. Howard is already doing his part.
"I think a lot of times when everybody is in your head about a certain situation, you start feeling [down]," Howard said. "Once we start playing together and practicing and me talking to him, he'll feel better about the situation, and that's what I want. I want him to feel good about the situation."
Finding a deal for Asik, though, will be tricky for the Rockets. Prying him away from the Chicago Bulls during restricted free agency in 2012 took an abnormal contract. Asik's salary-cap number for the Rockets is a little more than $8 million this season and next. But because of the way the deal had to be structured to meet restricted free agency rules, Asik actually earns $20 million over the next two years. For the 2014-15 season, Asik is owed $15 million in actual salary, and that could be a stumbling block.
Asik was one of seven players to average a double-double last season, is one of the best big-man defenders in the league and hasn't missed a regular-season game in his three-year career. But finding a team that will agree to pay him max-type money next season might mean adding other pieces and offloading salary as part of a deal.
Usually, the NBA trading seasons doesn't start until mid-December when rookies and players who were signed to contracts last summer are eligible to be traded. The Rockets will want to vet the Howard-Asik dynamic, and other teams will want to see how their current rosters work out.
But the message coming out of Houston is clear, whether it involves Asik or not: They are not planning on waiting around for things to slowly mature. Part of the reason this team has such a good future is because it has the ability to continue to improve through the trade market. And it doesn't sound like Morey will turn passive.
"We're focused about winning now," Morey said. "We know firsthand in Houston -- we had Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady when they were very young, and it looked like that run was going to be a long time. Your chances to be very good in this league are special, and when you have them, you have to focus 100 percent on getting as far as possible."