Bulls: Omer Asik
The Turkish center, who signed with the Houston Rockets over the summer after the Bulls declined to match a three-year offer sheet worth about $25 million, shined brightest on the Christmas stage, scoring 20 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in the win.
"It's been a little weird," he admitted before the game at the United Center. "But it's OK. I've been here a lot."
"I don't talk to him that much, but sometimes I see the backgammon set that's still on the plane and we used to play backgammon together a lot," Noah said after Monday's practice. "Nobody else knows how to play backgammon so sometimes I get bored on the plane, I think about Omer. It's kind of corny but it's true."
Noah won't get a chance to play backgammon with Asik on Christmas night when the Bulls take on the Houston Rockets, but he will get a chance for some payback on the floor after Asik and the Rockets knocked off the Bulls last month.
"It's always challenging," Noah said of facing Asik and the Rockets. "He's a big boy and somebody who rebounds the ball very well, very athletic, very high IQ. He's going to run into a lot of high pick and rolls. We know that he can affect the game in a lot of ways so we got to have the right mindset. They have some good stretch fours too, so we have to be ready for a lot of things."
ATLANTA -- Not even 24 hours after his team's biggest win of the season, Joakim Noah found himself sitting inside his locker stall in the back of the visitors' locker room in Phillips Arena trying to figure out what had just gone wrong. A night after scoring 110 points in a win over the New York Knicks, Noah and the Bulls followed that up by playing their most lifeless game of the season, losing 92-75 to the Atlanta Hawks. It was a performance that the center and his teammates would just like to forget.
It would be easy to blame the loss on scheduling, especially considering the Bulls flew in early Saturday morning after an emotional win in Madison Square Garden, but Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wanted no part of that excuse. As he pointed out, the Hawks played in Philadelphia Friday night and were finishing off a stretch of four games in five nights.
"It's a will game," Thibodeau said. "And it's 21-17 (after the first quarter), you're ready, you have a lead, and then we got to do better. And then you've got to play for 48 minutes; and some nights on the road or at home you may not make shots, you've got to be able count on your defense, your rebounding, taking care of the ball. When you do that you give yourself a chance to win. When you don't do that, when you allow frustration to set in because of a missed shot and you don't sprint back and protect your basket, you don't stop the ball and you don't find your most dangerous guy, then you're asking for trouble."
The Bulls found plenty of that throughout the night. Their defense was not sharp, their offense had no rhythm and they were outscored 61-33 in the second and third quarters combined. The Bulls had no answer for anything the Hawks did, which infuriated Thibodeau even more.
Having gone from playing between 12 to 15 minutes last season with the Chicago Bulls to 40 with the Rockets, the affable big man admits that it's a little more challenging these days in Houston.
"It's a little bit tiring," Asik said with a laugh before Wednesday night's game against his former team. "But it feels good to stay on the court more and get more minutes. When I get more minutes I feel like I'm getting much better every game."
"When you look at what he did throughout his career, the two years in Chicago, each year he got significantly better," said coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Bulls play the Rockets on Wednesday. "For him, he was playing behind (Joakim Noah) so there's not a ton of minutes there, but we felt strongly about how good he was and we knew that.
"And we also understand that he has the right characteristics, the right makeup. He's seven feet, he's got great drive, great character and great intelligence, so those type of players always improve. So it's not surprising; he's getting more minutes so his production's going to be better."
The Bulls believed all along that they would re-sign Asik last summer, but the Rockets swooped in and offered him a three-year deal worth over $25 million that had a "poison pill" third year, and the Bulls decided not to match.
The young, big man, who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Houston Rockets over the summer that the Bulls decided not to match, has been tearing up the league through the first month of the season. After averaging three points and five rebounds in 15 minutes per game last season, Asik has started strong this year -- to the tune of almost 11 points and 13 rebounds in 32 minutes per game through the first eight contests of the season.
His former teammates and coaches have taken notice of his success.
"He's doing great," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said before Friday morning's shoot-around at UCLA. "I'm hoping he gets (the) Most Improved (Player award) because he's getting the starting minutes he deserves and he's taking advantage of it. He's playing almost 40 minutes a night."
While each player and coach have their pictures taken and are asked by the media, it's Rose whom everyone wants a few seconds with. Rose is the center of the Bulls' universe -- a fact which becomes even clearer on days like media day.
Rose may still be in attendance Monday during the organization's annual media day but it won't be the same. With Rose working his way back from a torn ACL, the reality has changed for the foreseeable future and everyone within the organization knows it. They're trying to prepare for what's coming: A season full of uncertainty surrounding the most important piece of the organization.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the biggest questions facing the Bulls as they head into the 2012-2013 season:
2. Is Thibs getting a new deal?: The answer is probably yes, and it could happen soon. There is a sense of optimism among some in the organization that this deal could get done before the regular season begins. Thibodeau has quickly become one of the best coaches in the league and has earned a reputation as a hardworker. The fear among some around the team is that at some point players may get sick of his hard-charging message. But there is little question that Thibodeau has earned the extension of a top-tier coach. The longer the Bulls drag their feet on giving him the extension, the bigger distraction this will become.
Declining the Asik offer, which after several weeks of waiting on the Bulls have now seen, and locking up Mohammed isn’t the only change the Bulls will make. Veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich already signed a two-year deal worth just over $6 million Next, the Bulls are expected to sign veteran Marco Belinelli, according to a league source. Multiple reports over the weekend indicated that Belinelli and the Bulls were discussing terms of a deal, and while the terms are still being finalized, the Bulls are expected to sign Belinelli to the bi-annual exception, thus putting them in a hard cap for this season. The Bulls would still have the ability to add minimum salaried players to fill out their bench, but the vaunted Bench Mob, which became such a staple over the team's success over the past two years, would have a completely different look to it.
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While the organization still hasn't seen the offer sheet Asik has reportedly signed with the Houston Rockets, it seems they have decided to move on without him. A league source confirmed late Saturday night that the Bulls are on the verge of signing veteran center Nazr Mohammed.
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CHICAGO -- Gar Forman sat at the podium after the Bulls drafted Marquis Teague late in June and uttered a statement has already started to haunt him amongst fans. Forman, one half of Chicago’s basketball brain-trust, stated the team would be making "basketball decisions, not financial ones," as it pertained to free agency this summer.
Given the organization's recent decisions and its lack of enthusiasm regarding going deep into the luxury tax, Forman's statement falls flat for fans.
The truth is that pretty much every decision the Bulls have made this summer, and the decisions they'll make in the coming weeks, all are financially based. It's the way of life when you're running a business, and make no mistake, the Chicago Bulls are just that.
Jerry Reinsdorf has made a ton of money while owning the Bulls. The United Center is filled every night and the Bulls are one of the profitable, and recognizable franchises in the world. That's the issue with a large portion of the fan base right now. Reinsdorf has more than enough money to cover any luxury tax hit, but the organization has clearly made it a point to make financial decisions, not basketball ones in the past few weeks. Recently traded guard Kyle Korver admitted as much after he was dealt.
"What do you do?" Korver said last week on ESPN 1000. "You learn this is a business and teams are going to make business decisions and that's all right ... I knew it was going to come down to dollars. I'm not really going to take it personally because I don't think (the trade) is because of my play, so they traded me or something like that, I think it was a dollars decision and I understand that."
Former Bulls guard C.J. Watson echoed that sentiment in recent weeks. He acknowledged that much of his talks between the Bulls’ front office revolved around the luxury tax. Couple this with the fact that NBA capologist Larry Coon said on Wednesday night on ESPN 1000 that he has been hearing that the Bulls don't want to go into the tax at all.
It's miserable. It's cruel. Most of all, it's frustrating. Executives and players hate it because they know their team is good, but they also realize it’s not good enough to pull off the ultimate goal of winning a title. And fans detest it because they see the same thing.
They have enough to win games throughout the regular season, but they don't have enough to win a title. Derrick Rose will be out for a big chunk of the year as he continues to rehab his injured knee. The Bulls' bench, one of the deepest in the league the last two seasons, likely will be filled with veterans or rookies willing to play at a minimum salary. Given how close the Bulls were to a championship in the last two years, that’s tough to accept. C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver have either been waived or traded for next to nothing while free agents such as O.J. Mayo, Brandon Roy and Ray Allen have signed with other contenders.
While many contenders appear to be improving, the Bulls are stuck in place. Not only are they waiting for Rose, and possibly Luol Deng to get healthy, they don't have enough cap space to add a piece that makes them that much better. Not only do the Bulls not have the cap space to add pieces, they no longer have the cache that they had two years ago. Allen went to Miami for less because that's where he thought he had the best chance to win a ring. The Bulls can't sell players on a championship because of all the uncertainty surrounding their organization and its reluctance to go deep into the luxury tax.
When I asked coach Tom Thibodeau in Las Vegas if he had considered the possibility of losing Asik, his answer offered a clue about the Bulls’ next potential move.
"We're not going to look at things that way," Thibodeau said. "To me, it's all part of the game. We'll see how it unfolds. You can only control the things that you can control, so for us, the guys that we do have, they're in every day, they're working hard, getting ready for next year, and that's the way we're going to look at it."
It would hurt Thibodeau if the Bulls decided not to match the offer. Asik is the Bulls' best interior defender, and Thibodeau still believes the young center can get a lot better. The Bulls have invested several years into Asik's development, and they don't want to see the Rockets bear the fruit of the time they've already put in. Plus, the Bulls didn't get much of a chance to work with Asik last summer given his commitments to Turkey for the European Championships and the fact that there was an NBA lockout at the time which precluded players and coaches from working together.