Last summer Omer Asik was the big addition to the New Orleans Pelicans. The ultimate cost, the 18th pick in the 2015 Draft, is probably lower than most people expected. It was no lottery pick; the Pelicans went ahead and made the playoffs instead. A lot of that is thanks to Asik's presence in the paint in the Crescent City.
When I started to analyze the acquisition I stated that Asik was no half measure. The Pelicans struggled in three primary areas; defending the rim, defending without fouling, and ending possessions by collecting defensive rebounds. In 2013-14 they were terrible in each of these specific defensive categories. To quickly review, they finished dead last in free throw attempt rate allowed and 21st in defensive rebound rate. Asik, in my opinion, was the perfect antidote for those specific problems.
How did Asik do? Well in those metrics. Not so well among the fan base.
Four Factor Domination
Asik was going to defend without fouling and collect defensive rebounds. In those two areas the mission was thoroughly accomplished. The Pelicans went from 30th to 11th in free throw attempt rate allowed. Pelican opponents attempted 425 fewer free throws, a decrease of 19.5% in attempts from 2013-14. Defensive rebounding was another success; New Orleans went from 21st to 13th. The Pels collected 60.3% of rebound chances this season, good for an increase from 26th (57.0%) to 14th.
|Pelicans Total 2013-14||51.5%||0.331||15.1%||73.8%||107.3|
|Omer Asik Off 2014-15||49.3%||0.305||13.4%||72.5%||106.2|
|Omer Asik On 2014-15||49.8%||0.209||12.6%||77.7%||103.3|
It does not stop there. Rim Protection is a sore point for the Pelicans, more importantly, rim deterrence. When Omer Asik left the floor opponents attempted 6% more of their total shot attempts within the restricted area. This is both a function of his presence deterring drivers and his rebounding ability limiting potential put backs.
Protecting the Rim through Deterrence
Asik's ability to defend without fouling and challenging shots at the rim is valuable. Asik (0.73) placed higher than both Dwight Howard (0.32) and DeAndre Jordan (0.18) in Seth Partnow's Rim Protection stat at Nylon Calculus. Looking at just the FG% allowed ignores things like the frequency of contests, Partnow's system adjusts for that fact.
|Restricted Area||Paint||Mid Range||Above Break||Corner 3||Defensive Rating|
|Asik On||33.5% (1.20)||15.9% (0.80)||27.3% (0.82)||17.8% (1.01)||5.5% (1.17)||103.3|
|Asik Off||39.9% (1.19)||14.9% (0.78)||21.6% (0.77)||18.8% (0.92)||4.7% (1.20)||106.2|
When Asik was on the floor this season the Pelicans were roughly a league average defense; the Clippers finished 15th with a 103.0 defensive rating. Once Asik took a seat to rest that defense turned into a bottom five unit dwelling with the Timberwolves, Lakers, Knicks, and Kings. New Orleans hemorrhaged points in the paint at an astounding rate both due to their inability to defend the rim or collect the defensive rebound. If, for some reason, that was not enough, opponents also found their way to the foul line nearly 50% more often with the Turkish big man on the pine.
Asik had the best offensive year in his career. His offensive efficiency, a measure of how many points he scores per possession he uses by shot attempts, free throw attempts, and turnovers, was a career best 112. That number far out paces his last stint as a long term starter; 105 in his first year as a Houston Rocket. This increase in efficiency bears out in a number of metrics. 2014-15 was Asik's best year in terms of PER (15.5), assist percentage (5.4%), and he posted his lowest turnover rate (15.7%) to boot. Compared to realistic expectations of what Asik would provide he exceeded those expectations thoroughly.
You might note, for instance, that I never even mentioned offense in any write up of Asik before the year. If I did the focus is on screening. Asik is an eyesore on offense. It is almost impossible to post a career PER below 15 with his rebound rate unless the offense is atrocious. Asik's qualifies in any number of ways.
During the season Asik attempted 412 shots. 81 were made dunks. 89 were blocked by the opponent. He also drew 107 shooting fouls, of which 19 came on made field goals. Being blocked on over 20% of shot attempts is a really rough number, especially for a seven footer. It is the highlight of Asik being blocked at the rim which is seared into fans' minds, even if that only occurred just more than once a game.
It took a while for the Pelicans to get used to playing with Omer Asik on offense. In the first half of the season the Pelicans posted a 101.8 ORtg when Asik was on the floor; down right dreadful. After January 21st something started to click and the Pelicans posted a 105.5 ORtg with Omer on the court. The offense was actually better with Asik on the court than off (105.2) in the second half of the season.
Omer Asik's individual numbers did not make some remarkable improvement. He went from shooting 50.5% in the first half to 52.8% in the second half. He was still shooting fewer than six shots a game. What else happened? The Pelicans learned to leverage Asik's screen setting ability.
During the first half of the year New Orleans shot just 32.7% behind the arc with Asik on the floor; the worst mark among rotation players. In the final 41 games the Pellies shot 44.4% from deep when the big man was on the court; by far and away the best mark of any rotation player. Looking at images like these it is not hard to piece together how the Pelicans started knocking down open shots.
Asik sets the hard screen, chest to chest with Deng. Next pic, Gordon has acres of space. Buries it. pic.twitter.com/lMKL35G1Dc— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) February 28, 2015
No, Hassan Whiteside is not going to defend Asik standing at the elbow. Simple stuff like this where the Pelicans took advantage of Asik's size and screen setting ability created a number of wide open threes for both Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter.
Now that Monty Williams has been fired the future of Asik in New Orleans is very uncertain. Monty made it clear that a wide body center to protect both the paint and Anthony Davis was critical to his approach. The next coach, whoever it may be, could have a very different take on Asik's usefulness.
Can Asik play in a "pace and space" offense that is in vogue in the league nowadays? The results in his one season in Houston point to yes. As a starter for 82 games the Rockets led the league in pace while winning 50 games. The Rockets pace when Asik was on the court (98.5) and off the floor (98.87) was virtually unchanged. Much like the second half of this season with the Pelicans, no rotation player more positively affected 3-point shooting than Omer Asik as a starter in Houston. This is not some fluke of hot shooting.
Will Asik have the opportunity to play fast in New Orleans? That remains to be seen. His game is not pretty. It rarely shows up in his personal box score. Omer Asik does things on the court that make his team, and the players around him, better. We will find out this July if he continues to do so in a Pelicans uniform.