HOUSTON -- Omer Asik's ascension to one of the better centers in the Western Conference doesn't surprise many on the Chicago Bulls. Having watched him as a reserve for the past two seasons on the Bulls, they knew the 26-year-old center would develop.
And Asik has done that this season for the Houston Rockets, averaging 10 points and 12.3 rebounds a 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.
Although the organization doesn't regret the decision given the financial predicament it would have put them in later on, it has become obvious how valuable Asik was to Thibodeau's team the past two years. The Bulls' new Bench Mob is not the same without Asik playing 10-15 minutes in place of Noah.
"I think that everybody who saw our games knew that Omer was a big part of what we did last year," Noah said. "I honestly felt like I had the best backup center in the entire NBA. But I understand (his decision). He wanted to play a bigger role, and he's showing everybody what he can do."
Even with Noah playing in front of him and Thibodeau trying to hide him away on the bench, the Bulls still couldn't prevent Houston from presenting him with an offer he couldn't refuse. Taj Gibson knew Asik was capable of this kind of production if he got the minutes.
"I always saw it in him because he works hard," Gibson said. "He's blue collar, he works out every day before practice, he stays late, being productive. One thing about him was always the minutes. It was just tough to get him in there because you had so many different guys, you had Joakim, one of the most athletic bigs in the game that can handle the ball, pass.
"But I used to see Omer go at Joakim every day at practice. It would make it tough on him trying to get rebounds, and then when Joakim was hurt we would always count on 'Big O' to come in and get his 10 solid rebounds with no problem. And to finally see him get almost 43 minutes a game -- he's playing a lot of minutes, almost up there with Luol (Deng) -- it's good to see."
Noah believes part of the reason Asik left is due to how last season unraveled for the Bulls after Derrick's Rose's injury and a premature exit from the playoffs.
"To us, everything happened so fast," Noah said. "It was like nobody was expecting us to lose in the first round. We definitely weren't. Just the way everything ended last year probably changed a few things, but at the end of the day he showed what he was capable of doing and he got paid accordingly."
Thibodeau has tried to take the same approach while discussing Asik. He got the sense that Asik would have liked to stay in Chicago, but then the Rockets made their offer and changed everything.
"That's part of the league," Thibodeau said. "We felt good about him the way he performed for us, and plus we knew that he liked it there. In the end he's got to make a decision that he feels is best for him and his family, and he did that. That's part of it so you move on and you move forward."