In a league going small, Omer Asik sticks out like a moose in Death Valley. Asik made his name and bread being a bulky paint-clogger who rebounds excellently and blocks shots pretty well. He did the little things that you can't count on from most 7-footers. Things degraded a bit when he moved to Houston, and even more when Dwight Howard arrived to supplant him. His defense has further degraded in New Orleans -- the Pelicans made the playoffs despite a mediocre defense last season, and they've been largely awful on that end this year. Now he's not even rebounding that well. He's just taking up space, which in today's NBA is a bad thing.
That begs the question of whether Asik has gotten worse, or whether the game's quick evolution has left him in the dust.
The fourth quarter of the Pelicans' thrilling win over the Cavaliers Friday is a perfect example, albeit with an unfair protagonist. Asik was in there trying to keep Tristan Thompson off of the offensive glass. So LeBron James ran high screens with Thompson, leading to a New Orleans switch and isolation on Asik. LeBron isolating on Omer Asik. How do y'all think that went?
LeBron James makes Omer Asik buffer pic.twitter.com/oB74xl8qYu— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) December 5, 2015
Now LeBron's a special case as one of the very best players in the league and a master of the dribble-drive attack. The defense behind Asik did him no favors either. But as a big man switching out on the perimeter in today's NBA, you have to be able to credibly slow or divert the attacker into more helpful places. Asik isn't quick or long enough to make life difficult for even players far lesser than LeBron. His size, which worked in his favor as he entered the league, is now an albatross.
Anthony Davis has played more center this season than at any point in his career (roughly 60 percent of his minutes). Part of that has been necessity as Asik began the season injured and Alexis Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins have been unavailable at times. But the switch should happen by dictat. Per NBA.com/stats, Asik doesn't appear in a single Pelicans lineup with a positive net rating over 15 minutes. The team's best lineups tend to feature Davis, Ryan Anderson and Dante Cunningham up front, with some combo of Eric Gordon, Ish Smith and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.
That puts a lot of defensive pressure on Davis -- making him more of a full-time center means he has to deal with guys like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan. That's a heavy task (literally). But the Pelicans just aren't competitive with Asik out there, and threatening Davis as a pick-and-roll switcher might actually discourage teams from running them purely to isolate the New Orleans big out on the perimeter. As seen with two critical steals late in Friday's game, Davis is as dangerous defensively 20 feet from the hoop as he is a shotblocker in close. He can disrupt what teams are doing far more than Asik can.
The downside is that teams will just attack Anderson off the pick-and-roll more often. Against most teams, though, Davis will be able to collapse and help if playmakers attack off the dribble. The playing rotation behind a Davis-Anderson frontcourt is also a concern; it might help to let Cunningham get more run as a power forward (or even center in some rare circumstances) and put Quincy Pondexter in the same situation when he heals. Hell, even Tyreke Evans could do some time at power forward if it'd mean letting Holiday handle the ball more and so long as the team defense is communicating well (admittedly a struggle with this team). With a still dilapidated roster, Alvin Gentry might need to get really creative.
The first step has to be losing Asik, though. He's just not doing anything well enough to justify his presence on the floor. If Anthony Davis is up for the challenge of becoming an NBA center, it's time to let it fly.