The result of the game Thursday night was almost secondary to what happened behind the scenes in the cavernous tunnels of Madison Square Garden.
Unhappy with his role and the lack of playing time, Omer Asik reportedly asked for a trade at some point before the Knicks and Rockets took the court, as broken by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
After Houston’s 109-106 win over New York, Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said he didn’t know about the trade rumor and claimed that Asik said he wasn’t feeling well in the hours before game time on Thursday. “I talked to Omer today, and I don’t know about any trade rumor, but he told me today he wasn’t feeling good and he didn’t know if he could play. That’s why I went with Greg [Smith].”
Asik played just four minutes in Wednesday night’s overtime loss to Philadelphia and showed little to no interest in playing in Thursday night’s contest, where he didn’t play at all without any official reason why. Houston went 11 deep in the game, yet Asik did not see the court.
Asik looked completely emotionless and listless on the sideline, seemingly totally detached from what was going on during the game. He was either at the back edge of the team huddle during breaks in the action or not paying attention at all.
As Houston went back on the court during the second half, and Asik had no emotion either. Someone standing just outside the tunnel wondered if he was sleep-walking. For all intents and purposes, he was.
After the game, Asik slipped out of Madison Square Garden without talking to the media. When asked by Sheridan Hoops, a Houston Rockets PR official would not comment on the Asik situation and gave no reason for his abrupt exit from the building.
One unnamed source said that Asik’s trade request had already been denied and that he would definitely play again for the Rockets this season.
Feigen reported earlier Thursday evening that Asik made the request within the last 48 hours. Asik’s agent, Andy Miller, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey were both at MSG on Thursday, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, and Feigen got this quote from Miller in his Chronicle story:
“I would say the situation is very frustrating right now and were trying to work through it,” Miller said. “For Omer, the objective has always been to continue to develop and grow as a player. That’s why we came to Houston in the first place. If that objective can’t be met, if we can’t get the right platform to grow and contribute as a player, it’s certainly frustrating.”
Houston head coach Kevin McHale seemed oblivious to the trade demand, and the “frustration” felt by both player and agent, before the game.
Before the game, McHale attributed the change in the starting lineup from Asik to Terrence Jones to the stretch-type big men Houston would face, Spencer Hawes of Philadelphia and Andre Bargnani of New York, along with Thaddeus Young and Carmelo Anthony. “I just thought it’s the better matchup for us,” he said. When the Sixers went small, Houston went small, McHale said. Thus the four minutes for Asik, McHale claimed.
Sheridan Hoops then asked McHale what Asik’s role would be going forward. After fumbling his words for about five seconds, McHale said “I liked a lot of stuff what he and Dwight [Howard] did together. They were big, they protected the rim. It’s gonna be a lot of it [about] matchups, a lot of it about how things work. He’s gonna have to get out there and play. Is he gonna start some nights? Against some bigger teams, possibly. I guess we’ll have to see.”
And with that, the pregame press conference ended.
McHale stumbled through the response and mainly spoke in generalities. One would think the head coach knew something was up, which could have had to do with his lack of playing time on Wednesday and his non-existent playing time on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Houston big men Dwight Howard, Jones, Greg Smith and Omri Casspi scored a combined 17 points on 4-for-13 shooting. Yet no sign of Asik. Is that based on the matchup? Not likely. Was it because Asik wasn’t feeling good and would not give it a go? That’s Houston’s stance. It seems like Asik is in the Houston dog house, perhaps due to his trade demand.
Last season, before Howard came to town, Asik thrived with the Rockets. He averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds on 54.1 percent shooting in 30 minutes per game. With Howard this season, Asik’s minutes are down to 20.7 per game, and his scoring numbers cut by more than half.
After Asik’s trade demand and McHale’s seeming unwillingness to play him, it’s certainly possible that Asik’s next game comes with another team, depending how quickly this newly escalating situation develops.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.