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Chicago Bulls (5-5) at Houston Rockets (4-7) Preview: Old Friends

November 21st, 2012 at 10:27 AM
By Caleb Nordgren

Omer Asik wasn't the first domino to fall in the Chicago Bulls' depressing offseason, but he was the largest.

Faced with potentially paying the luxury tax for the first time ever, the Bulls had a decision to make when Asik signed a 3 year, $25 million offer sheet with the Houston Rockets. With Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer set to make a combined $26.3 million in 2012-13 — not to mention Taj Gibson's looming extension —  spending that much on a backup center for a team that would be without its star for most if not all of the season was too rich for Jerry Reinsdorf, so he let Asik walk.

(As you can tell, I wasn't thrilled with how the offseason went.)

I won't inherently disagree with the assessment; the contract would have paid Asik approximately $15 million in the third year had the Bulls matched it, which is kind of a lot. Then again, with the way Asik has played in Houston, maybe he would have been worth it.

But the loss of Asik has been significant for the Bulls to start the year. Joakim Noah is playing the fourth most minutes per game in the NBA, at 38.8, and while he's been brilliant, the Bulls have been terrible when he's been out. This is due, in part, to how badly Nazr Mohammed has played, but also because Tom Thibodeau seems oddly reluctant to either play small with Luol Deng at the four or to play Gibson and Boozer together. We did finally see some of Deng at the four on Sunday, and it didn't go well. The Bulls are built in large part on elite rebounding, and during the smallball stretch, Portland killed them on the glass. 

The bench unit has also been awful defensively, which is odd when you consider that Taj and one of Jimmy Butler and Deng are almost always out there. Admittedly, when the other three players on the floor are Mohammed, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson, it's hard to compensate for that, but still. Nonetheless, when Asik and Gibson shared the floor last year, they allowed 86 points per 100 possessions. That is an absolutely insane number, one that is 9 points lower than the Bulls' overall mark last year, which nearly led the league. With a defensive tandem like that, it almost doesn't matter who else is on the floor.

Asik's contract was ridiculed at the time, in large part because nobody thought he could score. And while he really didn't score in Chicago, that has a lot to do with his limited playing time and the simple fact that he wasn't asked to. He's actually not shooting as well this year as he did in Chicago, but he's making free throws at a respectable rate and drawing them much more often. And for all that his rebounding numbers look extraordinary, they're actually about the same as they were with the Bulls, he's just getting more playing time.

This is the first time the Bulls have faced a former member of the Bench Mob this season, and it comes at a terrible time. The Bulls have been killed by their lack of bench production in each of the last three games, salvaging a win in Phoenix mostly because the Suns just aren't that good. But against the Los Angeles Clippers, the bench turned a close game into a blowout loss, and against the Portland Trailblazers turned a substantial first quarter lead into a halftime deficit. And Portland's bench is terrible! Seeing Asik thriving in Houston throws into stark relief how different the Bulls could look this year had they actually made "basketball decisions" over the summer.

Leaving Asik aside for a moment, the Rockets also feature Jeremy Lin and James Harden, among others. Harden, much like Asik — OK, so maybe we won't leave him aside — has thrived in his transition from bench player for a really good team to starter for an OK team. He's come back to earth since the start of the year, when he was pouring in points from all over the court, but he's still averaging 24 points per game, even after playing only 17 minutes against the Utah Jazz on Monday because of the flu. He's getting to the line even more than he did in Oklahoma City, and his assist numbers have gone up too. 

Lin, on the other hand, has struggled to adapt to playing off the ball, although everything except his shooting has been pretty solid. The problem is that his inability to hit jumpers makes it harder for him to function as a weakside second option, which hurts Harden as well. But, given that they're both young and have been playing with each other for all of 4 weeks, one would imagine that will get better as time goes by. 

The Rockets are a dangerous team, and the Bulls are going to need to play much better defensively to win. They can't afford to let Houston shoot as well as Portland did, or to allow them to get to the rim like the Clippers did. They need to get back to the frenetic defense of old, or they're going to be in trouble.

Key Matchup: James Harden v. Luol Deng

Assuming Harden's recovered from his bout with the flu — and all indications are he's well enough to play — he represents the key to the Houston attack. Which is why Deng and Jimmy Butler figure to hound him all night. There's no way that Thibs entrusts Harden to Rip Hamilton or Marco Belinelli. Depending on how the lineups shake out, you might see Kirk Hinrich take a turn or two on him, but that seems unlikely. Anyway, if Deng/Butler can limit and/or frustrate Harden, the Bulls will stand a much better chance.

Also, things could get interesting on the other end. The Rockets will have to choose between having Harden chase Rip around screens all night or putting him on Deng, where Deng enjoys something of a size advantage. Harden's not a bad defender, but whoever he's guarding needs to make him work defensively to help limit him offensively.

Personally, I'd put him on Deng. Harden isn't that much smaller than Luol, and Deng isn't quite as good offensively as you'd like him to be. Rip, on the other hand, has been the Bulls second most productive offensive player in the early going and is a really tough man to guard because of his mastery of screens and flawless conditioning. A good chunk of Hamilton's defensive value actually comes from tiring out his man on offense. Given how important Harden is to Houston's offense, that would seem counter productive.

Key Matchup II: Matchup Harder: Taj Gibson v. His Jumper

As former Editor of Bulls 101 Jay Patt noted here a little over a week ago (scroll down a bit), Taj Gibson has fallen in love with his jumper this year. Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm and tweeted yesterday that Taj has taken 27 jumpers and made 6 of them this year. While his shot was noticeably improved last year, it has regressed significantly and it would be really nice if Taj would get to the rim a little more. Per HoopData, Taj is shooting 15/22 at the rim and 6/34 elsewhere. Get to the rim please, Taj.

Tags: Bench Mob, Chicago, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, James Harden, Jerry Reinsdorf, Luol Deng, NBA, Omer Asik, Rip Hamilton, Taj Gibson, Tom Thibodeau

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