What do the Sixers want with Rockets center Omer Asik?

What do the Sixers want with Rockets center Omer Asik?

Dec. 15th is a date worth keeping an eye on for Philadelphia 76ers fans, and/or general Sam Hinkie acolytes. It's the date at which free agents signed over the course of the previous off-season can first be dealt, greatly expanding the pool of tradeable players. Naturally, it's also the date at which league-wide trade talk is expected to ramp up, for what should be a pretty busy swapping season between teams looking to contend this season and teams looking to rebuild for the future.

The Sixers, of course, fall squarely into the latter category. Hopes of some sort of historic over-achievement for the Liberty Ballers this season have been largely quashed by a 2-9 run over their last 11 games--incredibly, they're still just 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the miserable East, but at least the Celtics' recent three-game winning streak means the Sixers probably won't be taking back over the Atlantic anytime soon.

For this and a number of other reasons, the Sixers have long been presumed to be sellers at the trade deadline, jettisoning the likes of Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and possibly even Thaddeus Young for likely combinations of cap relief, young talent and future draft considerations, as they look to slip even further to the bottom of the standings and higher up on the draft board for next June. However, in recent discussions, the Sixers' name has come up in discussion surrounding perhaps the most-discussed trade piece of the early NBA season--Rockets center Omer Asik.

Sixer fans will no doubt recall the Turkish center Asik from his days of playing off the bench with the Chicago Bulls--after all, it was Asik who missed the two free throws at the end of Game Six of the Sixers' first-round series with the Bulls two seasons ago, then fouled Andre Iguodala at the other end, allowing him to hit the go-ahead freebies that secured the Sixers their only playoff series win of the past decade.

Anyway, Asik signed with the Houston Rockets a couple summers ago, and in increased minutes, he proved to be one of the league's elite defensive centers, with Houston's defensive rating being about six points better with him on the court than off. He also averaged nearly 12 rebounds a game, and proved competent enough as a finisher on offense, scoring about ten a contest on 54% shooting, though not without the occasional fumble out-of-bounds and layup left on the rim.

Though his first season in H-Town proved he was a worthy NBA starter, Asik was relegated to the bench this season with the Rockets' acquisition of All-NBA pivot Dwight Howard. Houston coach Kevin McHale attempted a twin-towers starting lineup with his two big men, but the duo proved incompatible, killing the team's floor spacing on offense and badly hurting their perimeter defense at the other end.

With Asik discontent to return to a substitute role, he repeatedly asked Rockets management for a trade, even sitting out a couple games out of apparent frustration. Though he's since returned to the team's regular rotation, Houston has apparently acknowledged the futility of the situation and consented to trade him--reportedly by Dec. 19th, which is late enough for potential deals to include just-signed free agents, but early enough that players acquired in such a deal can be included in subsequent swaps before the Feb. 20th trade deadline.

So where do the Sixers come in with all this? Well, ESPN's Marc Stein, one of the more reliable sources of NBA scuttlebutt, has cited Philly as one of the more likely Asik landing spots. Sez Stein:

Keep your eye on Philadelphia. Front-runner would be overstating it, but the notion that the Sixers are a viable destination for Asik is increasingly making the rounds. And that certainly makes sense given (A) Philly's front office is run by a certified Asik fan in former Rockets exec Sam Hinkie and (B) Philly has a frontcourt player to send back to Houston in Thaddeus Young, whose skill set can click with Dwight Howard's, albeit not as well as seemingly unattainable dream target Ryan Anderson; and (C) there really isn't an Asik for Philly to draft with the high pick it's likely to snag in the 2014 lottery.

Stein goes on to say that the Rockets would much prefer to send their fallen center to the Eastern Conference, likely to avoid strengthening any of a number of possible playoff contenders in their own, already much stronger conference.

From the Rockets' perspective, I can see the Sixers' attractiveness as a trading partner. I don't totally love the fit of Thaddeus Young alongside Dwight Howard in Houston, because he's still not a reliable enough an outside shooter to be considered their much-coveted "stretch four," but certainly Thad is athletic enough to play the four in Houston's run-and-gun offense, and he's certainly a better defensive option than Omri Casspi, Terrence Jones or anyone else the Rockets currently have to stack up in the frontcourt alongside D-12. The two players' contracts are fairly similar, so no further cap fodder would be needed to make the deal match, unless one team insisted their asset was more valuable than the other.

From the Sixers' perspective, though, I'm not sure I get it. Asik is obviously a very good player, one who gives them something they definitely lack on their current roster, and one who undoubtedly makes the team better in the short-term. But the short-term isn't something Hinkie has ever really seemed concerned about, and indeed, improving our record for this year seems like something he's actively tried to avoid, lest it result in the Sixers picking lower in the most loaded draft in a decade. Heaven forbid Asik actually win us a couple games and we end up picking 8th instead of 7th next June.

Meanwhile, the long-term outlook of acquiring Asik is fuzzy to me. The Turkish center only has this season and next remaining on his deal, and while his contract is of fair value (a little over 8 mil per, though in actual cash payout it's going to be nearly twice that next season, due to a weird contract quirk that Houston GM Daryl Morey put in Asik's deal to make it less attractive for Chicago to match two summers ago), it's not particularly cheap, and an extension would likely cost the Sixers eight digits annually starting in the summer of 2015.

Similarly, for a player with only a handful of seasons of NBA experience, Asik isn't all that young--he'll be 29 by the time he hits free agency, likely to get increasingly plodding as he ages, and a weird fit for what should still be a fairly young and athletic Sixers team. Dealing the younger Thaddeus Young for him (Thad will be 27 in June 2015) seems like the kind of move you make when you're just one step away from contention, not when you're in a total rebuild like Philly.

There's also the question of fit for Asik in Philly. We forget he's lurking in the reeds sometimes ourselves, but if you recall, we already picked up a guy last June to be our defensive anchor of the future. Nerlens Noel is still recovering from ACL surgery and busy working with Coach Brown and company to totally rebuild his wonky shooting stroke, so we might not see him at all this season, but he'll be around soon enough, and when he does, he's going to be nearly as awkward a fit alongside Asik as Howard was--another pair of big men that can't shoot outside of five feet, clutter up the paint for potential drivers, and overlap a little too closely on defense.

You could say that Asik will be useful even next season, because Noel will still be on the long road back from recovery, and a little too raw on both sides of the ball to contribute right away, and Asik can man the middle in our starting lineup until Noel is ready to take over. Fair enough, but is it worth giving up Thaddeus Young--still a very talented player in the prime of his career--just to get a stopgap center for the next season-plus? There's a chance Thad and Nerlens could play together, which along with Michael Carter-Williams and whoever the Sixers get with their two picks in next year's first round, could give the team a really nice core for the future. Asik is a very good player, but not the kind of difference-maker it seems worth screwing with your team's long-term future plans for.

There's two potential explanations here. One is that Hinkie simply sees Asik as an undervalued trade commodity at the moment, and wants to pounce on him while his value is low--which, after a month of sulking, trade demands and mediocre backup play, it certainly is. If Asik is dealt to Philly before Dec. 19th, then they can play him starters' minutes for a couple months, prove that he's still good, ramp his trade value back up to where it was over the summer, and then deal him again for more complementary long-term pieces before the Feb. 20th deadline. (I have no idea how he and Spencer Hawes would fit alongside one another, but it'd be fun to find out, and it's possible Spence isn't long for this team anyway.)

Another is that we don't know for a fact that Thad is being included in any HOU-PHI discussions for Asik here. Perhaps Hinkie is trying to convince his old buddy Darryl that Spence and Evan Turner's statistical upticks this season are legit, and trying to sell him on a package based around those two guys in exchange for Asik and some other spare parts he sees lying around--say, forward Donatas Motiejunas and point guard Isaiah Canaan. It's unlikely Morey would go for it, but the point is, we don't know what's going on in their discussions, and to just assume that they're talking about dealing Thad for Asik straight up because that's the deal that makes the most sense on paper is probably foolish.

In any event, we'd be wise to continue to put our trust in Sam Hinkie, whose maneuvering to date has put the Sixers in pretty much the exact position they'd like to be moving forward for the next few years, and who has earned the benefit of the doubt in such matters for the time being. If he wants Asik, there's probably a good reason why, even if it might not be immediately clear, and if he doesn't, then that's probably for the best too. In the meantime, let's all enjoy being part of trade-rumor season, and be thankful we don't have to be abjectly terrified for no real reason at this time of year anymore.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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