Inside Hoops

Jeremy Lin's brilliance hides Rockets flaws (briefly): But McHale knows he must demote Omer Asik to the bench

Jeremy Lin's brilliance hides Rockets flaws, but Omer Asik's benched

Jeremy Lin Manila
Jeremy Lin took over the game and grabbed the headlines for the Houston Rockets. Photo by Mike Young/Getty Images
Omer Asik
But Omer Asik's impending demotion to the bench is the bigger story in the scheme of the season. Rockets roundball
Dwight Howard post Rockets
Dwight Howard and Omer Asik are both better playing as the lone big. Photo by Mike Young/Getty Images
Jeremy Lin Manila
Omer Asik
Dwight Howard post Rockets

Jeremy Lin still possesses the ability to inspire delirium, to produce so much distraction via dramatics that focus yields to fawning and intent analysis submits to yet another starry moment.

Such was the case late Monday night at Toyota Center where, in the warm afterglow of Lin carrying the Houston Rockets to a 110-104 double overtime win over the Toronto Raptors with fearless forays to the rim and sublime shot-making from the perimeter, perspective was lost. In the micro view Lin was the lede, his 31 points off the bench constructing a bridge to victory over which the injured and infirmly could safely traverse.

Lin championing over the flu, bruised feet, sore backs and strained knees that debilitated his teammates warranted first mention.

 Asik logged only 19 minutes in the double overtime win over, including just six-plus minutes from the start of the fourth quarter on as the outcome swung in the balance. 

But the macro perspective presented the first glimpse of Rockets coach Kevin McHale dismantling the latest iteration of a twin towers pairing: Omer Asik and Dwight Howard. McHale had acknowledged prior to tipoff that this grand experiment of playing two centers simultaneously was teetering on the brink of deconstruction, and by the start of the second half McHale unceremoniously pulled the plug, inserting a traditional power forward (Terrence Jones) into the starting front court alongside Howard while relegating Asik to an unsavory reserve role.

And it's come out that Asik will begin at least the next two games — Wednesday night at Philadelphia and Thursday night at New York — on the bench.

Before Lin triumphantly (yet humbly) took center stage in the Rockets' opulent locker room Monday night, McHale spoke glumly over his personnel decision. While he did not fully commit to scrapping the plan that inspired dubious curiosity throughout the league, McHale seemingly eulogized its inevitable failure. His words were as accidentally revealing as they were carefully measured.

"I've been thinking about it, so, you know," McHale said, seeking answers that weren't readily available. "Take a look at the film, look at everything, and we'll see where we go from here."

Because Lin set the narrative with his dynamic performance, no one remembered to query Howard on the end of his alliance with Asik. As is his postgame custom, Asik was long gone by the time the media gained access to the player sanctuary, and while Howard gleefully held court as usual, the conversation revolved around the Rockets' resilience in overcoming Toronto and their own confounding issues.

The mood was one of relief, not analysis, yet even if he were at his diplomatic best, Howard could not put a positive spin on this unmitigated disaster.

More Asik, More Problems?

Asik and Howard are averaging just 11.6 minutes per game together, consistently starting the first and third quarters in tandem before Asik routinely departs midway through both periods only to reenter to spell Howard just prior to the close of those two periods before playing well into the second quarter and fourth quarter. And by every statistical measure their union disastrously undermined the Rockets' prolific offense while, counterintuitively, the Rockets failed to dominate defensively or on the glass with Asik and Howard on the court in lockstep.

Despite their occasional lack of aesthetic appeal, the Rockets nonetheless rank sixth in the NBA in offensive rating (104.2 points per 100 possessions), effective field goal percentage (52.0 percent) and pace (100.5 possessions per 48 minutes). Their defense, criticized at this early stage of the season for having the rigidity of cheesecloth, ranks 10th overall (99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), a baseline ranking for any legitimate championship contender.

 The Rockets might long to win with an improved defense, but it is their offensive potential that represents the greatest opportunity. 

And while the Rockets were maligned following consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, their net rating of plus-4.8 points per 100 possessions is sixth in the league. Maintain those standings and the Rockets will remain in pursuit of the Western Conference title.

But during those 12 minutes Asik and Howard share court space, the Rockets' efficiency ranks near or at the bottom of the league in offensive rating, effective field goal percentage and pace. Their offensive rating of 87.3 points per 100 possessions with the Asik/Howard pairing would rank dead last by a whopping 3.1 points per 100 possessions. Their 44.6 eFG% and 93.5 possessions per 48 minutes pace would rank 28th in the NBA while their net rating of minus-15.8 points per 100 possessions is nearly a full point worse than the winless Utah Jazz. 

Such unsightly offensive production would be palatable if the Rockets didn't allow 103.1 points per 100 possessions with Asik and Howard on the court and if their overall rebounding rates — offensive, defensive and total — weren't superior across the board without their twin towers attacking the glass in concert. Those statistical truths represent a startling revelation considering Howard leads the league in rebounding rate at 23.0 percent while Asik ranks sixth at 19.7 percent.

The rub: Both Asik and Howard defend or rebound better as the sole bigs.

With Asik on the court the Rockets are allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would rank sixth in the NBA. With Howard on the court their offensive rebound rate (30.2 percent) would be tied for fourth with the Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls while their total rebound rate of 53.9 percent would lead the league by 0.7 points over the Raptors.

Given that mounting statistical evidence, and the fact that revealing sample sizes are swelling by the week, McHale was left with no choice but to strongly consider charting a new course beyond just the next two games. If the Rockets were willing to alter their ideological approach on offense, perhaps the Asik/Howard pairing could reach a level of effective efficiency. But these Rockets are unchanged.

The Rockets established an identity of ferocious rim attacks, abundant free throws, and 3-point marksmanship en route to the playoffs last season, and while their accuracy from beyond the arc leaves plenty to be desired through eight games, the Rockets remain staunchly committed to their offensively philosophy. They continue to lead the league in both free throw rate (55.1 percent) and field goals made in the restricted area (175) while ranking fourth in 3-point attempts at 25.3 per game. The Rockets are just 23rd in the league in 3-point shooting (31.2 percent), but given the track records of James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Lin, positive mean regression is sure to come. The Rockets must run and gun.

All of which puts McHale and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in a quandary. Asik logged only 19 minutes in the double overtime win over the Raptors, including just six-plus minutes from the start of the fourth quarter on as the outcome swung in the balance. The implementation of the twin towers lineup was an acquiescence to Asik and his desire to remain a starting center. When Asik returned from a calf injury during the preseason he was immediately inserted into the lineup with Howard. After 11 total games, the poor results are undeniable.

 "He's a heck of a basketball player," McHale said of Asik, almost forlornly. 

The Rockets can't abandon their financial commitment to Asik, not with this season plus the 2014-15 campaign as part of his contract. Asik is a valuable rim protector and an exceptional rebounder, with Morey and McHale taking particular pride in having first projected his hasty development and then cultivating the growth in his offensive game. A removal of Asik from the starting lineup will only re-ignite discussions of his inevitable trade, and given the delicacy of this roster and the camaraderie that keeps it bound, such chatter could prove disruptive.

However, the statistical facts are harsh and unflinching. In the 26.6 minutes per game the Rockets play without Asik, their offensive efficiency numbers skyrocket. Their net rating of plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions should force all parties to consider an alternative roster that doesn't feature Asik, one that provides the Rockets access to an even more exceptional offense. The Rockets might long to win with an improved defense, but it is their offensive potential that represents the greatest opportunity to foster a reputation as an elite team, a legit title threat.

"He's a heck of a basketball player," McHale said of Asik, almost forlornly. "It's that he and Dwight are true centers, and the spacing does get a little bit jammed up there."