How many teams in the NBA can replace its injured All-Star center with another top-tier player at the position?
The answer might be just one: the Houston Rockets.
On Sunday night, the Rockets were once again playing without the services of Dwight Howard, who has missed eight of the last nine games with an ankle injury. Although the injury isn’t too serious (Howard should be back before the playoffs begin), the loss of a top-five center for nearly 10 games would likely derail most teams looking to cement playoff position in a highly-contested race.
However, the Rockets have a lifeline: Omer Asik.
Leading up to Sunday night’s contest with the Denver Nuggets, Asik was averaging 9.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game over his last nine contests (eight of which were starts — Howard played against the Charlotte Bobcats on March 24). On Sunday night, Asik once again outdid himself, scoring 18 points, pulling down 23 boards and blocking three shots in Houston’s 130-125 overtime victory against the Nuggets.
Asik started the season as the Rockets starter, grazing the starting lineup for team’s first eight games. The Rockets went just 5-3 in those games, which forced Kevin McHale to move second-year forward Terrence Jones into the starting lineup. Less than a month later, Asik hit the shelf, with his injury seeming extremely fishy.
After months of Asik not appearing on the sidelines of Rockets games as Houston tried to deal its 2012-13 starting center, the trade deadline finally passed, and Asik remained a Rocket. There’s no doubt that general manager Daryl Morey was trying to move the Turkish big man before the deadline, but as it turned out, keeping him has been a blessing for the boys in red.
With last year’s backup center, Greg Smith, missing most of the season with a knee injury, Houston’s second unit struggled mightily on the boards during Asik’s hiatus. However, with Asik back in a red and white uniform, the Rockets’ frontcourt has been stabilized, and is now looking like an elite group. When healthy, Houston is one of only a handful of teams who can have a legitimate starting center on the court at all times, which is a very big plus in today’s NBA (where effective rim protectors are synonymous with success … unless you have one of those LeBron James things, in which case you don’t really need a rim-protecting center).
Asik may not be in Houston next year, as Morey may decide to flip one of his bigger assets for some more depth or an upgrade at the one, but one thing is certain right now: Asik is a huge part of the 2013-14 Rockets. Hopefully his starting experience late in the season keeps him engaged in the postseason, where he can certainly be the difference in a seven-game series against elite Western Conference opponents.