Omer Asik should still be a Bull (and Landry Fields should still be a Knick)
July 28th, 2012
Omer Asik is now officially a Rocket, his offer sheet (identical to that of Jeremy Lin’s) going unmatched by Chicago. This gives Houston an absolute defensive wall at the centre position, someone who last year was one of the best defensive big men in the league. On a par with Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler, albeit in considerably less time. We’ll see how well this holds up when he becomes a 25mpg+ player outside of the comfort of Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system; nevertheless, by paying him upon a highly favourable prediction of future performance, Houston got their guy, someone who can now break out akin to how Joel Przybilla did at the same age, if not better.
Asik’s value to Houston is more than it would ever have been to Chicago, which is why an expense that is difficult to justify for one team is much easier to justify for the other. In a situation very similar to that of Marcin Gortat and Orlando three years ago, Chicago had an awesome backup centre, and knew it, yet the secret was out. And while Houston could pay Asik to be a starter, Chicago couldn’t. Their self-imposed budgetary restrictions, combined with the presence of having a better player in front of him (and one with whom Asik has an ill-fitting skillset, making it unlikely the two could ever play alongside each other), made it a tough ask to match. While Carlos Boozer’s contract is the problem, losing others is its solution, and with Taj Gibson similarly up for a pay day, the Bulls had to choose between the two. They went for the better two-way player.
The choice Chicago faced concerned whether to play $8.3 million to a season to a player you can only play 15 minutes per game until the guy in front of him gets injured (which, while he inevitably will, is arguably a misappropriation of the very limited asset that is the Bulls’s financial flexibility), or lose a defensive anchor and a key piece of the thing that keeps you competitive. That’s no choice at all, a lose-lose situation. However, it didn’t have to be this way.
Asik was drafted in 2008 with the 36th pick in the draft; that is to say, he was not a first rounder. As a second rounder, Asik was not bound by the rookie salary scale – as long as you have the means to do so, you can pay second rounders whatever you want. They can get the maximum, in theory. In practice, of course, they often get the minimum. A combination of lack of leverage, team’s prioritising of their exceptions elsewhere, and not normally being good enough to merit anything more, leads to most second round rookies getting the smallest possible amount. And that’s if they get any contract at all.
The Minimum Salary Exception – which, as its name suggest, is a salary cap exception that allows you to sign (or trade for) players earning the minimum salary – is a maximum of two years in length. This limitation became an issue in the summer of 2004 when Gilbert Arenas, who had signed a two year deal via the MSE in 2002, hit free agency. Arenas signed a two year minimum salary contract using the MSE after being drafted, and then went on to be really quite good. As a result, he merited a big pay day. But the Warriors – over the cap and thus limited to the Early Bird exception, which offered only a contract that started at the value of the Mid-Level Exception – couldn’t give it to him. So when Arenas signed an offer sheet with Washington that was higher than the value of the MLE, Golden State didn’t have a salary cap exception with which they could match it. And thus they watched him walk.
[NB: Carlos Boozer, himself embroiled in an Arenas situation that summer, actually signed a three year deal using part of the MLE with a team option on the third year, one which Cleveland declined in the hopes of re-signing him long term cheaply. Similar, but significantly different.]
Arenas’s situation highlighted a loophole in the system, one in which a team couldn’t pay its own players as much as its competitors could. That’s the very thing the “Bird Clock” allegory was supposed to solve. So a remedy was sought. In the CBA negotiations the following summer, the loophole was supposedly closed with the invention of what was subsequently known as the “Arenas provision.” The specifics of its details are outside the remit here, but can be found at