Numerous teams consulted by ESPN.com in recent days have said they are convinced the Rockets will indeed go ahead with a trade headlined by Asik before their self-imposed deadline of Dec. 19, with sources saying Tuesday that the Boston Celtics are increasingly active in the Asik talks.
As a result, the Celtics now are widely regarded as the strongest rivals to the Philadelphia 76ers in terms of the likely destination for Asik, with many rival executives expecting the final form of a trade built around the 7-footer from Turkey to feature at least three teams.
Sources have described the Atlanta Hawks as Houston's preferred trade partner because the Rockets came to the conclusion last month that, despite their attempts to placate Asik, they eventually would have to give in to the unhappy center's long-running desire to be moved in the wake of Dwight Howard's arrival in July. Yet it remains unclear, sources say, how interested Atlanta really is in parting with coveted forward Paul Millsap -- who's considered an ideal frontcourt complement to Howard -- in exchange for Asik.
Although sources say there has been dialogue between the Rockets and Hawks this week, it's believed that Atlanta officials are lukewarm on Asik. Asik is owed nearly $15 million next season thanks to a balloon payment in his contract that the Rockets inserted during the summer of 2012 to dissuade the Bulls from matching Houston's offer. Sources say, though, that such a high figure for a defensive specialist does not trouble the 76ers or Celtics, who have emerged as the two teams most frequently mentioned as landing spots for Asik.
Cleveland is another team that has been frequently linked with Asik the past several days, but sources close to the situation maintain the Cavaliers like the fit of Anderson Varejao in their frontcourt rotation better than Asik and thus are more likely to participate in such a trade as a third-team facilitator rather than as the team that winds up with Asik.
One possible scenario that has emerged, sources say, is a three-way trade in which Boston lands Asik, Cleveland absorbs the contract of Celtics forward Jeff Green and Houston scores no fewer than one of the future first-round picks it covets for surrendering Asik. Other players would have to be involved in such a trade to make the salary-cap math work, but it's the sort of trade that would fall in line with Cleveland's well-known focus on upgrading its options at small forward.
The Cavaliers pursued Green in free agency two summers ago before Green re-signed with Boston and, as ESPN.com reported Sunday, have shown far more interest recently in finding a new small forward than going ahead with the rumored Varejao-for-Asik swap.
There likewise are league sources who have maintained all month that the Rockets' plan to trade Asik by Dec. 19 -- as first reported by ESPN.com on Dec. 6 -- was hatched in part because of general manager Daryl Morey's confidence in being able to strike a deal with Philadelphia, where former Rockets assistant general manager Sam Hinkie is now running the Sixers' front office.
Sources say the prospect of acquiring center Spencer Hawes and at least one future first-round pick would be Houston's aim in a trade with Philadelphia, although it's believed the Rockets and Sixers also would require at least one more team to complete a deal. Hawes not only possesses a cap-friendly expiring contract valued at $6.6 million this season but also has the offensive skills and shooting range -- unlike Asik -- to be able to play alongside Howard as well as back him up.
ESPN.com reported Sunday that Celtics forward Brandon Bass is another possible trade target for the Rockets, despite the fact that his contract runs for one more year than Hawes' deal.
Sources say the Rockets are conflicted about taking back Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young or the Celtics' Green because each player has two more seasons left on his contract after this one. If either Young (owed $19.4 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16) or Green (owed $18.4 million over the same span) is involved in the eventual Asik trade, Houston almost certainly will need a third team to absorb the contract of either player. The Rockets need to maintain as much future flexibility as possible to re-sign forward Chandler Parsons, who quickly has blossomed into a key cog in Houston and will command a huge raise when he eventually makes it to free agency.
The combination of a thigh injury and Asik's clear frustration since being dropped from Houston's starting lineup in mid-November has limited him to just eight games since Nov. 20, with stints ranging from seven to 23 minutes in those appearances off the bench behind Howard. Houston tried playing Howard and Asik together and initially was hesitant to entertain trade offers for the 27-year-old, based on the premise that the luxury of having either Howard or Asik on the court at all times was too valuable to surrender so quickly. However, Asik's angry reaction to losing his starting spot changed the dynamic.
The Rockets began calling potential trade partners Dec. 6 to inform them that they were determined to deal Asik between Dec. 15 and Dec. 19, hoping that establishing such an exact time frame would persuade potential suitors to put their best offers on the table quickly. Houston established that window because Dec. 15 was the first day most players who signed new contracts in the offseason could be plugged in to trades and because Dec. 19 is the last day any player involved in any trade can be repackaged with other players in an subsequent deal before the league's Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Asik has wanted a new address from the moment Howard arrived in July and privately has requested a trade numerous times in the months since, sources said. He started his first 90 games as a Rocket after signing as a free agent in the summer of 2012 before declaring himself unavailable to play the Knicks in New York on Nov. 14, snapping a streak of 239 consecutive games played in the regular season. Asik is averaging a mere 18.3 minutes per game, down from last season's career high of 30.3, and is averaging just 4.4 points and 6.8 rebounds.