For All the Wrong Reasons: Omer Asik

Published: October 26, 2015

It’s been several weeks since the New Orleans Pelicans 2015 offseason action, for the most part, came and went. The offseason has been met with mixed reviews. I do think that the offseason is correctly judged as mixed: I see it as good from some perspectives, bad from others. On the surface, then, I agree with the general assessment. However, I think that the conclusion is reached by some for the wrong reasons.

As in many arenas, the correct conclusion or consequence is simply not enough. Arriving at the right conclusion with the right explanation is infinitely more valuable when it comes to understanding the larger collection of items of interest. In this case, this is what the Pelicans are doing, and by extension, where they are “going.”

I’ll look at a few things, but today I’ll tackle the case of Omer Asik.

In the offseason, the Pelicans used Asik’s Bird Rights to sign the center to long term deal. The deal is, on its face, 5 years, ~$58m, and Asik can choose not to participate in the final year of the deal. This is not the whole story, however. $1m per year is incentive pay that is considered unlikely to be triggered (this means that he would not have gotten the bonus last season, essentially). Also, the last season is guaranteed only to about ~$3m. Thus, if Asik plays as he’s been playing, the deal is essentially 4y, ~$41m, with an additional ~$3m in dead money 2019-2020, which is about a 25% increase from his last deal’s average salary. If he plays better, the deal becomes a better value for the Pelicans. If he plays great, he may choose to test the market after 4 seasons.

Objection: I don’t like Asik on this team in this role at this price.

I don’t mind the contract, nor did I mind the trade to acquire him last season. Asik has his flaws, as all players do, but he serves a specific purpose. Players with his size and skill command a certain salary, and Asik’s contract is fair. Moreover, as Anthony Davis himself has asked for relief against bigger centers, the role that Asik plays is necessary, at least per contemporary NBA politics.

There are better centers in the NBA, but those guys get paid significantly more than Asik. Players like Marc Gasol get paid twice as much as Asik. Asik’s deal is currently about the 80th largest in the NBA in terms of salary this season, and of the new contracts for big men, Amir Johnson will make $12m this season, which is more than Asik will make in any season of his deal likely, while Kosta Koufos will make ~$2m less than Asik. Again, this seems a fair deal, and one that should become tradeable, particularly when the cap jumps and when the non-guaranteed money can factor into other teams’ plans. Partially guaranteed contracts have good value in trade, as Rashard Lewis’ “untradeable” contract proved when it was traded.

I don’t buy this objection.

Objection: The Pelicans missed an opportunity to upgrade at Center.

Let’s assume this is true; we can argue the point later. The Pelicans had no means to add free agent that was as good as Asik. With the MLE, they could have added someone, looking at current annual salary, like Zaza Pachulia. If they wanted more space, they would have had to give up their rights to a number of players, and the Full Mid-Level Exception. This would have effectively gutted the team’s depth and flexibility. This would have been a Pyrrhic victory.

The options at Center were extremely limited. To question the team’s ability to significantly upgrade any position without a trade is to simply admit ignorance of the realities of the team’s cap situation and CBA constraints.

I don’t buy this objection at all.

Objection: The Pelicans should have maintained the flexibility to change direction at Center in case Asik did not work out.

Winning in the NBA, just as in most other sports’ leagues, is in part about calculated risk, costs, and benefits. The Pelicans paid a price for the moves that brought them to the playoffs last season. Part of that price is a lack of flexibility this offseason.

This was 100% foreseeable and avoidable. Yet, it was not avoided. This lack of flexibility limited their participation in free agency. Generically, this is seems like a decent objection, but in this case, the negative effects are less than the positive ones. First, the free agents this team was in the market for, if they had room, were not the top free agents. Second, and more importantly, is that Dell Demps simply does not make big moves in free agency and will likely only do so in special circumstances. For example, Dell’s restricted free agent moves to acquire Anderson and Evans were initiated as free agent deals, but they became trades. In these cases, the special circumstances were the limited competition for these players given their restricted free agent status. Other special circumstances could include going after a great player, not just a very good player, he feels the Pelicans can land. Last, if one feels Asik is not that great, then perhaps the trades during the season to acquire Cole and Pondexter are better received than that which brought in Asik. If you recognize that important moves have been made during the season by Dell, there is no reason to pine over the lack of free agent offseason moves. Rather, these examples illustrate that decent improvements can be made during the season. So, the team not only did not waste its primary means for making improvements, but it also preserved those means.

The coaching changes over the summer will change the values of players to this team. As such it may be better to wait to see what the present deficiencies are before making changes. Making this change does not excuse the lack of flexibility that was present, of course.

I buy this objection to a limited degree, but it’s not really an objection to Asik specifically.

Objection: The Pelicans should have changed direction at Center regardless of the constraints.

Much has been said about how Asik is just not the right Center. This may be true, but Asik has done his job well, despite persistent objections to the contrary by the subset of self-declared experts who have not actually looked at the data required to make that assessment.

Breaking down the Pelicans’ opponents’ shooting performance by distance along with make rate and value of the shots, we can get a damage assessment. Here is a summary of data from the 2013-2014 NBA season followed by similar data for the 2014-2015 NBA season. It is data on the Pelicans and the NBA average. The basic data is the percentage of shots attempted by opposing teams from various distance groups and the percentage of shots made by those opponents from those same distance groups. By multiplying these factors and the value of the corresponding shots, an expected point increase per field goal attempt (due to made shots, ignoring free throws awarded) can be determined for each distance. I’m just calling this “Damage” below since it sounds better than expected points for opponents per field goal attempt by opponents, even if that is more specific and more accurate.

The damage is then totaled, and the damage by distance is recast as a percentage of the total damage.

This is done for the Pelicans, and similar statistics are gathered from NBA averages to give a baseline for comparison. Lastly, these comparisons are tabulated. Note, rounding may cause apparent slight errors. The first set of tables is for the 2013-2014 season, the second for 2014-2015.

2013-2014 Season

Pelicans 0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Attempt % Allowed 0.310 0.161 0.103 0.147 0.278
Make % Allowed 0.663 0.376 0.420 0.384 0.357
Value 2 2 2 2 3
Damage (1.029 Total) 0.411 0.121 0.087 0.113 0.298
Proportional Damage 0.399 0.118 0.084 0.110 0.289
NBA Average 0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Attempt % Allowed 0.286 0.169 0.105 0.180 0.259
Make % Allowed 0.636 0.390 0.401 0.395 0.360
Value 2 2 2 2 3
Damage (1.002 Total) 0.364 0.132 0.084 0.142 0.280
Proportional Damage 0.363 0.132 0.084 0.142 0.279
0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Differential (0.028 Total) 0.047 -0.011 0.002 -0.029 0.018
Relative Differential 13.0% -8.2% 2.7% -20.6% 6.4%


2014-2015 Season

Pelicans 0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Attempt % Allowed 0.326 0.172 0.105 0.161 0.236
Make % Allowed 0.636 0.378 0.401 0.389 0.335
Value 2 2 2 2 3
Damage (0.984 Total) 0.415 0.130 0.084 0.117 0.237
Proportional Damage 0.422 0.132 0.086 0.119 0.241
NBA Average 0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Attempt % Allowed 0.288 0.165 0.103 0.175 0.268
Make % Allowed 0.628 0.383 0.403 0.394 0.350
Value 2 2 2 2 3
Damage (0.990 Total) 0.362 0.126 0.083 0.138 0.281
Proportional Damage 0.365 0.128 0.084 0.139 0.284
0 ft – 3 ft 3 ft – 10 ft 10 ft – 16 ft 16 ft – 3pt 3 pt
Differential (-0.007 Total) 0.052 0.004 0.001 -0.020 -0.044
Relative Differential 14.6% 2.9% 1.4% -14.8% -15.7%


At first glance, it may appear that with Asik the team was hurt more in a raw and in a relative sense by shots near the basket. Closer inspection reveals the same thing. This is because it’s true.

What is not true, however, is that the shift is an issue with Asik. While the average shot distribution in the NBA was unchanged from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, the distribution of shots against the Pelicans shifted more toward the basket. More of the shots were from 0-3 and 3-10 feet in 2014-2015 compared to the prior season. In fact, Pelicans’ opponents attempted a higher percentage from 0-3 feet than any other team’s opponents last season, nearly 4% (absolute) more than NBA average. The Pelicans, however, went from allowing the 5th highest percentage of such shots in the NBA and about 3% (absolute) more than the NBA average to allowing the 13th highest percentage and less than 1% (absolute) above the NBA average. In that season they were “bested” only by the Kings, Sixers, Timberwolves, and (I hate the) Mavericks.

So, while it is true that the damage done to the team by shots near the rim is higher than any other category, this is to be expected as it is true for the average NBA performance. Also, part of the reason for this is that teams attempt the more shots in that range against the Pelicans than any other team despite the Pelicans allowing around an average FG% there. These shots came from some where, and they came from . . . “advanced stats” pseudo-aficionados, brace yourself . . . from 3-point shots. Pelicans’ opponents attempted the 4th smallest percentage of shots from behind the arc, and more than 3% (absolute) below NBA average. They also attempted less than the average proportion of long 2-point shots, the category outside the two highest efficiency that is the most damaging in terms of field foals. This clear departure from NBA norms is likely due to the Pelicans’ relatively weak perimeter defense. One can try to point to the lower 3-point shot attempt percentage as good perimeter defense, but the claim simply does not hold up to close examination. The most efficient shots are those at the rim, and they are also likely to garner free throw attempts, so that is what teams decided to try against the Pelicans, but, as the data shows, it failed. This is because of the Pelicans’ improvement to about average defense at the rim despite all of this.

While the team remained a below average defense, their overall defense against shots was better than expected. So, while the opponents’ strategy worked, it did not work well enough. The reason it worked was because the Pelicans left their opponents with active plays more often, getting fewer turnovers and getting to the line less often, and because of penetration past the Pelicans’ perimeter. The reason it did not work well enough was the defensive combination of Davis and Asik inside. Davis got better last season, but Asik was truly a key element in defending the onslaught at the rim. Jrue Holiday’s return and more minutes by Quincy Pondexter through the season should help the situation even more by corking the leaks at the source.

So, in short, I don’t buy this objection.

Objection: You are just going to defend Asik no matter what.

Not even close. Asik is good at what he does, what he does is necessary, and Davis wants him or someone like him on the team. Sure, he’s far from “the answer.” His performance is above replacement rate, he’ll win and lose a couple games here and there, but he’s simply not what anyone should be looking for when you are looking for something major in a game. He’s a cog in the machine that is built around Davis, a player not yet on this team, and Jrue Holiday, should Holiday’s healing and training routine eliminate the persistent stress reaction / fracture. Asik’s offense is limited, he’s a liability from the free throw line, and he turns the ball over too much. He’s also among the best rebounders in the NBA and defends very well with relatively few fouls. Give and take, but that’s why he’s on this team. If the Pelicans trade him, and they could because his deal is relatively good, he could be used to garner a more well-rounded center by including another desirable asset. Until then, he’ll provide the skills the team needs while they cover for his deficiencies. That’s just how constrained optimization works.

I’m not buying this objection either.

If you have other significant and worthwhile objections, post them, and I’ll respond in an update here.

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