The newest New Orleans Pelicans center, Omer Asik, is not the most capable of offensive players. This has been pretty obvious throughout his four-year career with the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets.
When he was traded to the Pelicans right before the draft, they knew this much; they were after Asik because of his abilities as a top-flight defensive center, after all. However, when the trade was finalized, the question of how they would space their offense around him came to the forefront as a potential question for the team heading into next season.
Asik is incredibly limited in his shooting range. He’s a dismal free-throw shooter, hitting just 54.4 percent from the line, and his form leads to some truly ugly attempts from outside of the paint. Luckily, he realizes this, and doesn’t take attempts he can’t hit, but it means that Asik’s threat to score from outside the area immediate to the basket is moot.
His shot chart from last season displays this beautifully.
Asik attempted 13 shots outside of the paint in 2013-14. He hit three of them.
He is simply not a threat to score outside of the paint.
Asik can help an offense in other ways, of course. He’s quite skilled as an offensive rebounder, and his size and instincts are tough for opponents to match on the glass on either end.
He is also great at throwing his body around in the high screen game, of particular interest to Pelicans’ coach Monty Williams and his pick and roll-centric offense. However, Asik is completely unable to draw defenders away from his teammates off the ball because he’s just not a threat if the ball isn’t in his hands, and that can create issues for the offense as a whole.
For Asik’s first team, the Bulls, this was often a huge issue. The Bulls didn’t have great outside shooting during his two seasons there, and lineups with Asik that didn’t also include Kyle Korver were very bad offensively.
While they were pretty solid on defense with Asik on the floor, the Bulls offensive rating capsized from 106.9 to 98.8 in 2011-12.
The Rockets, however, were able to figure out how to craft a unit that was solid even with Asik at center. In Asik’s two Rockets seasons, the offense didn’t suffer the same issues that the Bulls had with him.
The Rockets posted a 105.5 ORtg with Asik on the floor compared to 109.7 with him off, which is a much lower negative impact, and still quite good for an offensive scoring rate. In 2012-13, the Rockets were actually better with Asik on the floor.
When it comes to the Pelicans’ offense with Asik, they will need to find a way to replicate the offensive spacing that the Rockets were able to create around him.
Part of the success of Asik’s time with the Rockets stemmed from Asik’s personal improvement. He became a slightly better finisher inside during his Houston tenure, and he somewhat lost the stone hands that plagued him in two turnover-prone Chicago seasons.
His offensive court awareness also improved, which was key to the Rockets being able to unleash a truly dominant offense with him on the floor.
The Rockets also were able to surround him with incredible outside shooting. The Rockets featured nine players who hit at least league average from three last season, and took nearly 27 3s a game, which really helps open up the middle of the floor.
This benefitted James Harden and Chandler Parsons, who were able to create driving lanes off the extra space, but also helped Dwight Howard and Asik, who were allowed space to post up and roll to the rim without clogging the offense.
However, perhaps the most important thing the Rockets did to help craft a strong offense around Asik was run offensive sets that created the offensive space for Asik and other players. This is what the Pelicans will most likely have to do to maximize their offense around Asik.
The Rockets were great at loading sides of the floor and spreading things out with their wings in ways that would make space for everyone to be able to operate.
The following are many ways in which the Rockets spaced the floor with an offense pivoting around Asik. These examples are from the Rockets’ March 22nd game at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This was a game that Howard did not play in, and the Rockets dropped 118 points with Asik playing 33 minutes. Plenty of opportunities to showcase how they spaced the floor were seen here.
Perhaps the easiest way for the Rockets to create space for Asik to score was simply by planting him under the basket and relying on their shooting threats to space the floor and having either Parsons or Harden attack off the dribble. Observe what happens when Chandler Parsons attempts to drive the lane here. Asik is in the center of the paint, guarded by Spencer Hawes.
Parsons now has two options if he doesn’t want to score: Dish to Harden, left wide open by Waiters’ indecision, or drop it to Asik, who’s slipped behind Hawes and is now unguarded beneath the basket:
Parsons opts for the latter, and Asik gets an uncontested look at the rim:
This will be a great way for the New Orleans Pelicans to create looks for Asik offensively. While they aren’t the 3-point shooting team the Rockets are, the Pelicans have some great slashing and attacking guards, who will be able to create chances like this because defenses will have to respect the drive.
Guys like Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday could act as Parsons in this scenario, with Anthony Davis pulling the other post away (much like Terrence Jones is occupying Tristan Thompson on the right side above), and Eric Gordon can be Harden in the above scenario. It’s an effective way to both utilize Asik and not get the Pelicans’ point guards completely murdered on drives to the rim.
Perhaps the most common method the Rockets used for freeing up Asik and his teammates, though, was to overload the side of the floor Asik was not on with shooters, and use Asik as a PNR big. Here’s the first play the Rockets ran that night, a Parsons/Asik PNR that let to an Asik post-up bucket.
Asik and Parsons run their PNR on the left side, while Jones, Harden, and Patrick Beverley drift to the right side:
With Jones on the other side of the paint and no shooter on that side, the Rockets have created essentially a free lane outside the paint for Asik to roll in. They’ve even sent Parsons towards the middle, forcing Gee to drift that way, and suddenly the Cavs’ defense is left with Hawes on an island against an Asik post-up, which he finishes.
Next, let’s look at how the Rockets created opportunities for out of this idea for Asik’s teammates. This time, Harden is on the weak side of the floor with Asik, while Beverley, Parsons and Jones occupy the left side.
Since the Rockets have run a lot of this action to start the game, Jarrett Jack sinks way down into the paint to cut off a potential PNR into the middle by Harden:
As Asik initiates the pick, Beverley and Parsons switch spots, and the Cavs switch this. However, because Jack has left his man, and the Rockets have created the precedent of driving to the middle on this action, they’ve created a situation where the Cavs have three weakside defenders and the Rockets have three strong side players, and have left Parsons fairly open in his sweet spot, above the right break:
The Rockets have thus used the threat of drives to the basket by Harden and Asik post-ups to create open looks on the overloaded side of the floor. Combined with solid ball-movement, this is a lot of what the Rockets’ offense was based on with Asik on the floor, and it’s a system that, if the Pelicans commit to it, should be able to replicate.
They don’t have the shooting the Rockets have, but they do have more drive-and-kick threats, and that should be enough to create fun looks with Asik at the 5.
Finally, we should discuss how the Rockets used Asik in transition. Asik’s pretty slow, and with as much as the Pelicans like to run, that could be a hinderance, theoretically.
Fortunately, the Rockets liked to run as well, and Asik created space on the break through addition by subtraction. Asik often just doesn’t run back on fast breaks.
There’s no need for him to. If he does, he mostly just acts as a trailer, looking to collect offensive rebounds off rare misses in transition.
Asik instead likes to hang back, and allows his teammates to have the transition fun without him potentially getting in the way. This is coupled with the fact that Asik’s a fairly strong outlet passer, and can fire to midcourt with ease to jump-start a fast break.
He’s also usually the one grabbing the rebound that starts the break, so transition is one unexpected area where Asik’s presence actually helps a team increase pace.
The New Orleans Pelicans should be able to space the floor pretty easily despite Asik’s offensive deficiencies. With guys like Gordon and John Salmons to shoot from outside, and guys like Holiday and Evans to create off the bounce, New Orleans should be able to find ways similar to what the Rockets did with Asik to make their offense successful.
Combine that with Asik’s prowess on the defensive end, and the Asik addition should make the Pelicans better on both ends next season.