PHOENIX—There’s two schools of thought when it comes to the “Bench Mob,” the Bulls’ beloved bench from the past two seasons.
One is that the organization should have done whatever it takes to keep them, while the other camp understands that the realities of the new CBA, coupled with the fact that with Derrick Rose’s uncertain status for this season, didn’t make sense to keep the group intact if contending for a title wasn’t a sure thing.
Regardless, what’s done is done and, except for holdover Taj Gibson, who was recently rewarded with a new long-term contract extension and is averaging 7.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per night in 21 minutes, the group dispersed to various locales over the summer: Kyle Korver was traded to Atlanta, Ronnie Brewer waived and eventually signed by New York, C.J. Watson suffering the same fate but going to the borough of Brooklyn instead of Manhattan, John Lucas inking a free-agent deal with Toronto and Omer Asik famously signing a three-year deal worth nearly $25 million in Houston, as the Rockets’ poison pill in the final season put the Bulls in a tough position.
It’s only two weeks into the NBA season, but now that the old favorites are settled into their new homes, it’s worth checking on how they’re faring.
Asik, Gibson’s former tag-team partner, was quietly yearning for not only more playing time, but a starting role, something that the presence of Joakim Noah prevented in Chicago. Now in Houston, Asik playing north of 32 minutes an outing and has shown remarkable offensive development—though not entirely unprecedented, judging from his play in international competition while representing his home country of Turkey—as well as being a defensive anchor for the Rockets and one of the league’s top rebounders.
Used as a screener on high pick-and-rolls for the much-ballyhooed backcourt of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, Asik has fared well—something Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau could have predicted, given his praise of Asik’s ability to set picks—but more surprisingly, he’s displayed better hands and touch than witnessed in Chicago, resulting in 9.9 points per game, to go along with his monster 13 rebounds a contest. While field-goal percentage is extremely low for a center at 42.1 percent from the field, what’s shocking is the 72.4 percentage from the foul line from a previously dismal free-throw shooter.
Some of his more impressive game statistics include a career-high 19 points, including 11-for-14 from the charity stripe, to go with 14 rebounds in the Rockets’ loss to the Heat on Monday, as well as a 19-rebound effort—although he was scoreless, shooting 0-for-7 from the floor—in a Nov. 2 game against Korver’s Hawks.
Houston is currently 3-4, as opposing defenses have stymied Harden after his brilliant start, but Asik continues to be effective.
While Asik had less fanfare coming to Houston than Lin and later, Harden, he wasn’t nearly as close to being an afterthought as Brewer when he was acquired by the Knicks. But with instant-offense scorer J.R. Smith more productive in a sixth-man role, Chicago native Iman Shumpert sidelined with an arduous rehabilitation process, he was slated to be New York’s starting shooting guard at the outset of the season.
Just like when he came to Chicago, Brewer endured a injury that affected him through training camp, but the versatile swingman recovered and after Amar’e Stoudemire got hurt, New York head coach Mike Woodson opted to start him at small forward, using veteran Jason Kidd in the backcourt with fellow point guard Raymond Felton, shifting All-Star Carmelo Anthony to power forward, the position at which he was perhaps his best last season.
The oldest team in modern league history has thrived in the early going, racing out of the gates with a 5-0 record and while Brewer is one of the least high-profile players on the squad, he’s been a big part of the Knicks’ success.
Averaging nine points and 6.2 rebounds in 26.8 minutes an evening, Brewer adds a dose of athleticism to a mostly ground-bound roster, as well as a strong defensive presence and somebody who can flourish in transition. It remains to be seen whether Brewer will continue to start when the Knicks have their full complement of players, but as Chicagoans know well, nights like his 13-point, 10-rebound performance against Philadelphia on Nov. 5 can occur for the Arkansas native no matter his role, just as long as he plays.
Korver, one of the league’s preeminent sharpshooters, is sorely missed in Chicago, where the Bulls weren’t necessarily the most proficient outside-shooting team when he was on the roster, but are clearly in the dregs of the NBA now, even as replacement Marco Belinelli begins to find his stroke. It’s unlikely that he’ll admit it publicly, but Thibodeau feels the loss as strongly as anybody, twice having made reflexive references to Korver’s clutch shooting when asked about which players would close out games in Rose’s absence, by this writer’s count.
Korver has earned a starting role in Atlanta, which traded All-Star Joe Johnson over the summer, and although many believed the Hawks would take a big step back and enter a major rebuilding phase, at least at this point, there’s no reason to think they’re no longer a playoff contender.
Now anchored around the talents of athletic big men Josh Smith and Al Horford, as well as a young, quick guard cadre that includes Jeff Teague, the older brother of Bulls rookie Marquis Teague, along with the likes of offseason acquisitions Lou Williams, Deshawn Stevenson, Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow, Korver has already been identified as a go-to guy down the stretch of games for Atlanta, as evidenced by his 16-point outing, which included 4-for-6 shooting from long range in a win over Portland on Monday. Shooting 37.1 percent from deep and averaging 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals—the latter number a testament to his improvement as a team, if not individual defender, during his tenure in Chicago—in 26 minutes a night, the Hawks are 3-3 thus far.
Watson appears to be finding his niche in the league as a high-level backup point guard to some of the game’s elite floor generals, as he’s now the understudy to All-Star Deron Williams after playing behind Rose for two seasons. All the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Nets’ move to Brooklyn wouldn’t seem to fit his quiet personality, but Watson has been delivering on the court early this season.
Nagged by injuries in the preseason, he’s playing almost 25 minutes a night in the Big Apple, averaging 8.3 points a game on 44 percent shooting from the floor, as well as contributing 1.3 steals per contest for the 4-2 club. His season-high is a modest 15 points, notched in a Nov. 3 win over Lucas’ Raptors, but if Williams goes down with an injury at any point this season, it’s a fact that he’s capable of more prolific numbers.
Speaking of Lucas, just knowing that the journeyman finally achieved some security on the professional level by signing a multi-year deal with Toronto is a testament to his perseverance, as well as Thibodeau’s belief in him, which at least partially stemmed from both their shared time in Houston and the coach’s long-time relationship with Lucas’ father, his former boss in Philadelphia, back when the younger Lucas was a child.
After a strong preseason, however—he recorded separate highs of 16 points and eight assists—he’s been caught in a point-guard logjam, as Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has opted to go with marquee offseason acquisition Kyle Lowry as the starter and veteran holdover Jose Calderon, who got his first career triple-double Tuesday night, as the backup, with Calderon taking over the starting job in Lowry’s injury-related absence.
Lucas’ best regular-season game came Monday, when he had seven points and two assists against Utah, but on the campaign, he’s averaging just 2.1 points and 1.1 assists a night on a lowly 17.6 percent from the field in under 11 minutes a game for the 2-6 team. Still, many expect Calderon to be dealt at some point this season, which would open up minutes and a more definitive role for Lucas.
In between mourning the loss of the collective group and the various strengths of the individuals (Brewer’s athleticism, Korver’s marksmanship, Watson’s scoring ability, Asik’s defensive presence and Lucas’ knack for rising to the occasion) and fans’ similarly passionate ire when things didn’t go right (Brewer’s lack of outside shooting, Korver’s defensive issues, Lucas’ shoot-first tendencies and most famously, Watson’s decision to pass the ball to Asik, who missed a pair of free throws in Game 6 of the Bulls’ first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia, which eliminated the team), it has to be accepted that the “Bench Mob” era is finally over, with the old guard better off for the experience and the team’s new second unit still finding its way.
The first reunion, with Asik in Houston, during the Bulls’ ongoing “Circus Trip,” is soon to come and while it’s unlikely to be a tearful experience, it should certainly bring back some fond memories.
Tags: Kyle Korver
, Chicago Bulls
, C.J. Watson
, John Lucas
, Omer Asik
, Bench Mob