Evaluating Project Asik-and-Destroy

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Published: January 3, 2015

For two years, the Pelicans struggled to find a center to play next to Anthony Davis. Last season, the Pels featured the 3 headed monster of Withey, Stiemsma, and Ajinca. Before that we had Robin Lopez, whom a lot of people apparently feel quite strongly about. For better or worse, none of these guys fit Dell or Monty’s vision, not even Mr. Lopez.

Last offseason the New Orleans Pelicans traded for Omer Asik. By trading for Asik, Dell reveled exactly what he wants out of a big man next to Anthony Davis. He wants defense and rebounding. It was that simple. Offense wasn’t even really part of the calculation. That is why some one like Lopez, who struggles to rebound and has defensive limitations, was ultimately moved in his own trade.

Of course, Asik was known to be an elite defender and rebounder. However, there are always questions of how a player will preform in a new situations. The Pelicans have played 33 games, and now, seems as good time as any to begin to evaluate Mr. Asik. Naturally, we should keep in mind what Demps has already told us. When evaluating Omer Asik, it really is all about defense and rebounding. Let’s look at his season so far.

  • This is a weird place to start, but Omer Asik is playing 25.8 minutes per game this season. That puts him sixth on the team in minutes per game. He has also missed a few games due to injury so he has only played in 28 games. Of course, Asik has never been a big minutes guy. The most he has ever played per game was during his first season in Houston, when he averaged 30 minutes per game. This is anecdotal (so possibiliy irrelevant), but I do feel like there are diminishing returns to Asik’s production after 20 minutes. He just seems to get gassed and tire out. At any rate, the number of minutes he plays isn’t all that interesting by itself, but it is worth keeping in mind.
  • Asik is a fantastic rebounder and clearly the best on the team. This season he is tying a career high in total rebounding percentage at 22%, which is elite. Interestingly, his offensive rebounding percentage (15.3%) is much higher than it has been in the past. All in all, he is a great rebounder and fits the mold of what Dell and Monty wanted from a center in that regard.
  • I say this every time I talk about defense, but here it is again. Defense is harder to measure than offense and rebounding. Considering Asik’s main role here is to improve the defense, we will have a hard time measuring his success with statistics and simple arithmetic. I’m going to start with some stats, but I want to give some eyeball reviews and my own opinions on his affect on the Pelicans woeful defense.
  • Anyway, let’s talk about defense, specifically interior defense. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Omer defends about 12 2 point shot attempts per game. When Asik is defending, the other player hits their shot 49.2% of the time. That’s about 2 percent lower than league average. Things get better as the other guy gets closer. Players defended by Asik shooting within 10 feet and 6 feet from the basket shoot 53.5% and 57.8%, respectively. That is 2.6% and 3.3% lower than league average. That’s pretty good.
  • Seth Partnow at Nylon Calculus makes it clear just how good Asik is a protecting the rim. Using data from the NBA’s tracking, Partnow calculates that Asik saves the Pelicans 1.05 points per game by protecting the rim better than an average big man. That is 13th best in the league. Adjusted per 36 minutes, he saves 1.45 points. The rest of the results can be found here.
  • Earlier this year, a lot was made about Asik’s on/off stats. That is, when he was off the floor the data appeared to suggest the team was better defensively. That’s no longer true. According to NBA.com/stats, the Pelicans have a defensive rating of 105.4 when Asik is on the floor. The Pelicans defensive rating is 106.6 when he is off. Overall, the Pelicans have a defensive rating of 106.1. In other words, this suggest the team’s defense is better when Asik is playing. Simple enough.
  • Let me tell you about his best friend. Well, I mean on the court. I don’t know about off. You see, it is Anthony Davis, because when AD and Asik are on the floor together our opponents points per possession is 1.041, according to NBAwowy.com. If AD is off and just Omer is on, then our opponents ppp goes to 1.263. If AD is on and Omer is off, then ppp is 1.124. Over the whole season regardless of who is on the court, the Pelicans opponents’ ppp has been 1.097. What does this all mean? Our defense is best when those two are on the floor together.
  • We can’t ignore offense completely, so here it goes. This season Asik’s true shooting percentage is at 53%, which is average to just below average for a center. His turnover rate is the lowest of his career, but it is 14.5%, which is really only average, at best for a big man. He is shooting 57% on free throws, which is abysmal (but also higher than his career average). 147 of his 156 (94.2%) field goal attempts have come within 5 feet. He is shooting 53% from that range, which is just below the league average of 58.6%. Long story short, he is pretty much what we expected on offense. He is rough around the rim, and his hands are incredibly frustrating. He just doesn’t offer a lot on that side of the ball outside of rebounding, though he is playing the best offense of his career, in some small ways.

It seems like fans are beginning to turn on Omer Asik. I can understand that, though I don’t agree. He was supposed to be the missing piece on this defense. Things were supposed to be different with him acting as an anchor in the paint. Nevertheless, we are still atrocious, and he can be downright difficult to watch on offense.

However, just because the defense isn’t better than last year doesn’t mean he hasn’t made defense better than it would have been. There is no way of knowing, of course, but that is the problem with defense. When a team plays defense well, it isn’t always about the data that is generated. It is often about what doesn’t happen or, in other words, what a team deciders not to do. For example, having a good center, like Asik, may prevent teams from doing certain things, like attacking the rim, but it is really hard to put a number on something like how much a team doesn’t attack the rim because one player is on the floor. Furthermore, a team might just game plan around one good defender and attack the weaker ones. Given the quality of our wing defense this season, maybe we shouldn’t have excepted a much better defense. Good defenses don’t have major weak links to attack. The Pelicans have plenty of links to attack. In fairness, it has been a long December. Maybe we should wait to reserve judge this defense once and for all.

Personally, I’ve felt that Asik has brought about what I expected to the team. He has played solid defense, and his rebounding has been superb. I recognize he hasn’t improved the offense, but I never expected him to. His hands and ball control around the rim have frustrated me at times, but I’m willing to sacrifice those easy lays ins for his defense. Part of me is worried about his minutes and apparent lack of explosion at time. It could be nothing. However, I do wonder if he is still recovering from his back injury from earlier this season. I’m not in a position to speculate, but it is something worth keeping an eye on.

For now, I’m pleased with Asik’s play, but we will really know something after the middle January. I’ve been thinking about and studying defense a lot lately. I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that over the last 10 years (or since the defensive rule changes) team defense has grown in importance. I’m beginning to think that the largest contributing factor to the quality of team defense is simply continuity. It just takes a lot of time on the floor. Now, I have no idea how much time or how many games, but I do know that in January, we face a lot more weaker offensive teams than we played in December. The Pelicans will also naturally have had even more time to develop continuity on the defensive end. If the defense hasn’t shown improvement by then, there maybe be larger issues to examine and other things to begin to question. For now, I call project Asik-and-Destroy a mild success, and I’m optimistic he can continue to improve.

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