As most of Chicago was jumping for joy at the news of the Bulls and Taj Gibson agreeing to a new four-year contract extension, my attention was glued to Detroit, Michigan.
On the same night the Bulls opened their season against the Sacramento Kings, just over 200 miles away, the Houston Rockets opened up their 2012-13 schedule against the Detroit Pistons. While I tuned into this battle for mediocrity to catch the debuts of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, I couldn't help but be amazed by a seven-foot center with tremendous defensive presence and solid footwork, whose nose progressively turned darker and darker shades of red as the game progressed.
While the soft hands and ability to finish around the basket threw me, the unmistakable hue of the nose was a clear give-away that this player I was watching was none other than former Bull Omer Asik.
The juxtaposition of Asik's 12 point, nine rebound performance (followed by a 19-board game) to Gibson's contract extension, which will pay roughly the same annual salary as the contract Houston signed Asik to in the summer, begs the question: did the Bulls make the right decision in choosing Gibson over Asik?
What the Bulls see and like in Gibson is understandable as the now fourth-year power forward is long, athletic and has proven to be an adept shot blocker, rebounder and versatile defender, capable of guarding threes, fours and fives. Drafted in 2009, Gibson has been a critical member of the Bulls' "Bench Mob" ever since, assisting the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Coming over from Turkey at the start of the 2010-11 season, Asik brought size, rebounding and rim protection. After an initial period in the doghouse of Tom Thibodeau, Asik had Bulls' brass believing he would one day sit near or atop the list of best defensive big men.
Who would you have kept?
In a perfect basketball world, both Gibson and Asik—arguably the best defensive big-man tandem in the game—would have remained members of the Bulls for a long time to come, but with heavy money committed to Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, general manager Gar Foreman ultimately chose Gibson.
That decision may ultimately prove costly as the Bulls passed up on what would seem to be the rarer commodity—a legitimate and talented seven-footer. While the "Turkish Hammer" wasn't and likely never will be confused with the second coming of Kareem Abdul-Jabar, just look around the Association and show me all the "great" big men. In a league where Joakim Noah can be considered top five at his position by way of rebounding and energy alone, a 26-year-old who has shown elite portions to his game would seem like a player an organization would want to hold onto.
An endorsement of Asik is not a knock on Gibson. Rather, it is a statement on the quality—or lack thereof—of today's NBA centers as compared to the list of NBA power forwards. On face value alone, Gibson and Asik are comparable players. Where Gibson is a tad better offensively, Asik is the better rim protector. But for all of the positives that Gibson brings to a team, he is probably best suited in the back-up role he has played the majority of his career.
The power forward position has matured since its days as the blue-collar worker of the NBA. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, Kevin Love and even Carlos Boozer show that in today's NBA, you need offense out of your four position. Four years in and at 27 years of age, Gibson has yet to make anyone believe he can fill that role.
Those quick to defend Bulls brass will point to the poison pill—or $15 million owed to Asik in the final year of his contract—as the reason why Asik had to go, especially with Rose, Noah and Boozer on the books for $45.8 million in the same season. However, resigning Asik would have given the Bulls flexibility, in the sense that they would then have two quality and starting caliber big men. Without going too Sam Smith-ish with trade scenarios, the Bulls could have later flipped Noah or Asik, possibly for that elusive backcourt mate for Derrick Rose. Gibson doesn't give you that same flexibility, as he's just not starter material.
Essentially the Bulls chose the older, smaller and less special player. Seems odd doesn't it?
Omer Asik will never break records, win MVPs or become the game's best big man, but he's a rare commodity in a league where finding quality big men appears to be getting more and more difficult each and every year.
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