HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets have their center of the immediate future. No, it’s not Dwight Howard.
The Rockets announced Tuesday that Turkish big man Omer Asik is headed to Houston after the Chicago Bulls decided not to match their three-year, $25 million offer sheet.
The 7-foot Asik averaged 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and one block in 66 games last season. He helped Turkey earn the silver medal at the 2010 FIBA world championship. Turkey didn’t qualify for the 2012 OIympics in London.
“A defensive presence in the middle, a 7-footer that we haven’t had for some time,” general manager Daryl Morey said.
The Rockets have needed a solid big man since Yao Ming retired last summer, his career derailed by foot injuries. Houston has reportedly been in the mix to land the All-Star Howard, but so far, Orlando seems content to keep him for now.
Asik averaged 14.7 minutes per game last season, playing behind Joakim Noah for the Bulls. He’ll be Houston’s starter heading into training camp, barring another acquisition, and Morey is confident that he can smoothly make the transition to that role.
“Free agency is very hard to find players to add in and have them fit into the overall structure of what we’re trying to do,” Morey said. “One way to do it is to find a guy, who hasn’t played much, that we really believe in, and then add him to our team. We think he’s a 10-plus-a-night rebound guy, one of the best defensive bigs in the league.”
Morey concedes that Asik needs to show improvement on the offensive end. Asik is averaging only 2.9 points in his two NBA seasons.
“He’s right now, a one-way defensive presence,” Morey said. “We think that’s the most important thing for your ‘5 man’ (center) to be. Obviously, he has upside to his offensive game, because it’s limited right now.”
Asik was a second-round pick by Portland in the 2008 draft, and he was immediately traded to Chicago. He played in Turkey until joining the Bulls before the 2010-11 season. He broke his left fibula in Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals against Miami, but recovered in time to play the entire 2011-12 season.
“I’m really looking forward to working with Omer,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “I’ve admired his physical style of play over the past two seasons as he’s made the transition to the NBA. In his limited minutes, he has proved himself to be an exceptional defensive post player and we will be working with him to continue his progress. Omer has a great understanding of how to play defense and how to move without the ball and I know he will fit in very well with our needs in the low post.”
The acquisition of Asik is the latest in a flurry of moves for Houston this offseason, headlined by the acquisition of Jeremy Lin. The Rockets have missed the playoffs three straight years, and Morey has virtually reconstructed the roster.
Along the way, Morey has drawn the Rockets well under the salary cap as he continues to build toward the major move that could turn Houston into a legitimate contender again. Before last season, Houston would’ve nabbed Pau Gasol before last season in a three-team deal that would’ve sent Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans, but commissioner David Stern nixed the deal on behalf of the league-owned Hornets.
“Our goal is always to take the next step forward, if we can,” Morey said. “You don’t know when that’s going to happen, you don’t know when those opportunities will come about. Last year, one of those opportunities we felt came about, and it didn’t happen for the various reasons it didn’t happen. You can’t force it. You’ve just got to be prepared and ready and when it happens, make the move.”
The Rockets started making moves a few days before the draft, trading Chase Budinger and Samuel Dalembert in separate deals. The initial goal was to collect draft picks and other assets to entice Orlando to consider trading Howard, a six-time All-Star widely regarded as the best center in the game.
Houston couldn’t pull off a deal on draft night, and used their three first round picks on Connecticut guard Jeremy Lamb, Iowa State forward Royce White and Kentucky forward Terrence Jones. Morey opened free agency by getting Asik, a restricted free agent, to agree to the offer sheet.
Dragic, an unrestricted free agent, signed with Phoenix, so Morey turned to Lin, who was in Houston’s training camp for two weeks in December before joining the New York Knicks. Houston traded point guard Kyle Lowry, waited for the Knicks to make their decision, then introduced Lin at a packed press conference on the practice court at the Toyota Center.
Houston also decided to waive the popular Scola, using the amnesty clause, and dealt guard Courtney Lee to Boston via a sign-and-trade.
Also Tuesday, the Rockets announced they waived guard E’Twaun Moore, who was acquired in the Lee trade to the Celtics.