LOS ANGELES -- Aside from Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are missing one player more than any other this season: Omer Asik.
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."
Asik didn't play many minutes the past two seasons, but his presence was undeniable. Along with Gibson, he was one of the Bulls' defensive stalwarts and an anchor for the popular Bench Mob. Gibson admitted that it's been strange for him to look over and not see Asik by his side. The pair usually played long stretches together, especially late in games -- a luxury Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau would love to have now.
"It's different," Gibson said. "We've been talking about it in film sessions and stuff, just having the belief and learning to trust the new guys that you're playing with, that's the whole key. But luckily we've got an 82-game season so I won't have to second-guess or worry about guys, I can just play. And that's one of the main things my coaches have been talking about in film."
The Bulls' front office thought they could plug in various veterans to help replace Asik and the other bench players who had been so successful over the past two years. While it's early and there is time to grow, what the organization has found is that the group's success wasn't built on individual players' accomplishments. The old group couldn't just be replaced with new pieces and come to life again.
The Bulls' bench was successful because it had a defense-first mentality, something Thibodeau loves, and it believed in one another. The players knew where each other was going to be on the floor and they knew exactly what to do when they got their minutes. That's just not the case with this group and the holdovers from the last two years know it. Asik's absence is just another reminder that Gibson's old group isn't coming back.
"That's how I feel about (not) having the whole Bench Mob," Gibson said. "It's just weird because Kyle (Korver) knew where I wanted to shoot. I could always allow Omer to back me up behind, rebounding the ball, blocking a shot. Ronnie Brewer, you always knew he was going to be in a spot. So that whole unit we had, we had guys recognize one another."
Gibson knows there is still time for his new group to jell and he knows he must play better to make it happen. He's averaging seven points a game and is still trying to find a rhythm.
But Gibson and his coaches know that the Bulls, especially the second unit, haven't been the same since Asik left. Nazr Mohammed has been a non-factor through the first month of the season, while Gibson has played most of the minutes in Asik's old role of backup center behind Joakim Noah.
While Thibodeau won't come right out and say it, he is badly missing Asik.
"I just follow the league," Thibodeau said Friday when asked about Asik. "I'm more concerned with our team and our next opponent. But I follow everything that's going on in the league and he's done well."
Thibodeau, like the rest of the Bulls' front office, talked openly about keeping Asik coming into the summer. They viewed him as a core piece for their future. That's why it's got to be even more frustrating for the them to swallow just how well he's been playing.
"He handled himself great here, he did a great job for us," Thibodeau said. "But I'm concerned about our team and our next opponent."
Bulls GM Gar Forman said that the Bulls would be making basketball decisions, not financial ones, heading into the summer in regard to Asik's deal and others on the horizon while the luxury tax threshold crept ever closer. The Bulls' hope was that no team would step up and offer Asik the poison pill type of contract that the Rockets did. As the NBA world realigns itself a month into the season, though, it's clear that the Bulls got burned.
Not so much by the fact that they didn't match Asik's offer sheet this summer; no matter how well Asik plays, he won't be worth over $15 million in the third season. More by the fact that despite their best efforts to hide him on their bench and keep him out of relative view from the rest of the league, they ended up letting a 25-year-old center, just coming into his own, walk away without getting anything in return.
Bulls fans shouldn't be mad the organization didn't match Asik's deal this summer, they should be mad the team didn't have the foresight that something like this was coming and do something about it.