With center Omer Asik trailing him, New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps beamed like a man holding the keys to a treasure chest on Tuesday afternoon.
Asik was formally introduced as a Pelican during a news conference at the team’s media facility. Demps originally reached a trade June 25 with the Houston Rockets for Asik, a fourth-year veteran, agreeing to send a protected 2015 first-round draft choice. However, the trade could not become official until 11 p.m. July 9 after an NBA moratorium.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans and Rockets worked to complete a three-team trade with the Washington Wizards to free salary cap space that finally brought Asik and his one-year, $8.4 million contract to New Orleans. Apparently, some details were worked out before the beginning of the news conference, which started two hours later than the initial time set.
“We just completed the trade to acquire Mr. Omer Asik, and we couldn’t be more thrilled,” Demps said. “Sometimes when you look to acquire a player, it’s because you want him, and sometimes it’s because you need him. We think it’s both here.”
The acquisition of Asik (7-foot, 255 pounds) addresses the Pelicans’ biggest need, a big center to pair with emerging star power forward Anthony Davis and give the team a strong defensive presence in the middle.
“We feel he is one of the top centers in the NBA,” Demps said. “He is going to be the anchor of our defense. He’s an elite rebounder who brings playoff experience. We think it’s going to be a great fit, not only for our team but our team culture.”
Asik helped lead Houston to the playoffs in 2013, his first year with the Rockets, averaging 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.06 blocks. He played all 82 games.
The Rockets acquired center Dwight Howard before last season started, and Asik became a backup, a development for which he voiced his displeasure. He averaged just 5.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 48 games, playing 20.2 minutes per game.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Asik said of coming to the Pelicans. “I think, hopefully, this year, everybody will be healthy, and we will have everybody together, playing, and have a great year.
“I’m really happy to be playing for coach Monty (Williams), too, as a defensive coach. I think we’ll be good.”
In the trade, New Orleans obtained Asik, small forward Omri Casspi and $1.5 million from the Rockets and sent recently acquired small forward Alonzo Gee and guard/small forward Scotty Hopson and the first-round pick to Houston. The Pelicans also traded power forward/center Melvin Ely to the Washington Wizards.
As part of the trade, the Rockets acquired small forward Trevor Ariza from Washington and sent the Wizards an $8.5 million trade exception.
Curiously missing from Tuesday’s news conference was Casspi. He has a one-year, nonguaranteed contract, and his absence seemed to lend credence to reports that he will be released. The Pelicans signed small forward John Salmons to a one-year, $2 million contract on Monday.
Much more important is that the Pelicans have Asik. However, he is entering the final year of his contract and can become a free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season, so obtaining him appears to be a big risk. Demps, though, said it is well worth it.
“We anticipate that with Omer coming here, it will be a great fit,” Demps said. “I think we’re willing to take that risk. We’re excited about that opportunity, but we just think that the team that we have put together, he was the missing piece. We wanted to go out of our way to make sure we obtained him.”
NBA rules do not allow the Pelicans to offer Asik a contract extension. The team must wait until he is a free agent next summer. However, they hold the Larry Bird rights to him, meaning they can outbid any team to retain him.
Demps said the Pelicans initiated the talks that led to the trade, which isn’t surprising considering their need and that Asik was available. And, the Pelicans had gone after him last summer after Asik requested a trade when Howard was signed. The Rockets sought 3-point shooting ace Ryan Anderson in return, and Demps said no.
Now, he is betting that the Pelicans, who have assembled a team of young talent, will win. That and money should be enough to keep Asik, who sees his new team doing well with point guard Jrue Holiday and Anderson coming back from season-ending injuries.
“The Western Conference is really tough,” he said, “but our team is very, very healthy, and it’s like the pieces are coming together.”
The Pelicans also announced Tuesday that second-round draft pick Russ Smith had been signed to a contract. The Pelicans do not release information on deal terms, but a league source said it is for two years, both guaranteed, with a team option for a third.
Second-round picks usually do not receive guaranteed contracts. However, Smith impressed the staff with his quickness and defense in summer league practices and has backed it up with his play in the games in Las Vegas.
Smith, who won a national championship with Louisville in 2013, was obtained in a draft-night trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for point guard Pierre Jackson.