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.