On certain nights, the Bulls can have their cake and eat it, too. That was the case in Friday's home win over the Timberwolves, in which starting power forward Carlos Boozer scored a preseason-high 24 points and snagged nine rebounds, to go with four apiece of assists and steals, while understudy Taj Gibson notched a double-double of 12 points and 11 boards, along with swatting a trio of Minnesota shot attempts.
However, when games like that occur, it only complicates matters for the organization. It's no secret that the deadline for the Bulls to sign Gibson to a long-term contract extension is Oct. 31, the same day the team opens the regular season by hosting the visiting Sacramento Kings.
On multiple occasions, the fourth-year USC product has expressed his optimism at reaching an agreement, as has his agent, the Chicago-based Mark Bartelstein. Prior to Friday's game, Gibson had some uneven performances in the Bulls' first five exhibition contests, leading to quiet speculation that he was understandably preoccupied with his contract situation and not completely focused at the task hand.
That changed against the Timberwolves, as he played up to the standards -- in terms of his impact, as his value on the floor can't always be accurately measured statistically -- many observers had for him. When Gibson is at his best, he's a force on both ends of the glass, making dynamic plays, displaying his ever-burgeoning offensive game and showcasing his elite defensive abilities, it prompts Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to rave about his ongoing development.
"I think with his experience he has gotten more comfortable. The best leadership you can have is by doing the right things each and every day," said the coach. "He does that. He comes here early, he stays late, he practices hard, prepares well. Hes a good teammate."
His teammates, even new ones like fellow reserve big man Nazr Mohammed, gush similarly, if more overtly: "I love that guy. When you get young players in this league who work as hard as he works and are good guys, it's great to play with guys like that," proclaimed the veteran Chicago native.
"I've played with a lot of good guys and I like the direction the league is going in, as far as teams paying more attention to not only getting good players, but paying more attention to getting good people and he's one of those guys. Look at him, he's out there working now," he continued, pointing out Gibson getting in extra work at the Berto Center after Monday's practice, a common sight. "He's very versatile, can knock down elbow and corner jump shots. He's got a great post game, hook shots and pump fakes. He's explosive, good defender, shot-blocker. What more can I say? He does all the things that he needs to do well and he's still a young player, and he's still working."
Gibson is still most renowned to casual fans for posterizing Miami's Dwyane Wade back in the Bulls-Heat 2011 playoff series, but to those around the league, he's viewed as a solid player with upside capable of helping any team, as well as someone destined for a major payday, either by the end of this month or next summer. Whether the Bulls decide to ante up or not seems like a no-brainer to league sources, simply because of how the team has benefited from the former 26th overall draft pick's contributions since he first arrived in Chicago.
But according to a person with knowledge of the situation, the two sides are still a ways apart.
Part of that could be due to the fact that it's hard to put a price tag on what Gibson brings to the table -- versatility, efficiency and a host of other intangibles that don't necessarily include being a protoypical top-tier player at his position, with the 20-and-10 numbers to go along with that label -- and if he's seeking a similar deal to his peers, in the 8-10 million per year range, that would be tough to justify with four other players, including one, Boozer, who starts at his position already making eight-figure annual salaries. Because when Boozer's at his best, rebounding with authority, knocking down an assortment of mid-range shots, making strong post moves, setting up teammates with his underrated, passing, running the floor in transition and determined to make a concerted effort within the Bulls' vaunted defense, it leads Thibodeau to effusively praise the much-maligned player.
"I like the way Carlos played. He's been practicing well and I thought he got going early. He got into a good rhythm. We were playing inside-out. We've got to search him out more in transition. He was running the floor hard. We've got to make sure we're finding him," he said. "We've been stressing playing inside-out more. He's got to get touches in there and I thought they did a good job of seeking him out early in the game, and they were giving him more than one look. So, he's running the floor. If he has his man pinned in the paint with two feet in the paint, his numbers have shown that he's got to get the ball and he did a much better job, I think, of sealing when the ball was swung. He's got to continue to work on that and I thought his effort on the board was good. He was a multiple-effort type guy Friday and he's capable of doing that all the time."
More and more, Boozer himself shies away from specifically acknowledging his own positive outings, even when absolutely warranted, as he's perhaps weary of the constant brow-beating he takes from fans and the media alike, and more focused on letting his game do the talking.
"Every week, I'm getting a little better. Every week, we're getting a little bit better, getting a little more comfortable with each other out there again and improving. That's the biggest thing, trying to improve every day," he said. "The regular season will be here soon and I think everybody loves having a good game. That gets your confidence going."
In an ideal world, the Bulls would be able to hang on to both players, riding out one of the league's top positional duos until at least the end of Boozer's contract. But the reality of the NBA's new salary-cap structure forces the front office's hand, giving them the options of cutting costs significantly (the team hasn't yet used the amnesty provision, something every franchise can use once over the life of the current collective-bargaining agreement; presumably, Boozer would be the casualty next summer) in order to pay Gibson without penalty when his new deal kicks in, letting him hit the open market (a la the departed Omer Asik; Gibson would likely fetch a similarly appealing offer) with the ability to match, simply letting him walk or an even more unlikely scenario, trading him.
Believe the organization's brass when you hear how much they value Gibson, a point of pride for the Bulls, who unearthed a gem -- he was a first-team NBA all-rookie team selection and a starter for the majority of his debut campaign -- that many didn't even see as a worthy first-round pick. But also know that stranger things have happened and in comparison to the dilemma facing the Bulls' preseason opponent Tuesday night, Oklahoma City, they're in far less dire straits.
Reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner James Harden, a gold medalist from this past summer's Olympics, is in the same boat as Gibson and while the Bulls understand they'll have to make a hefty financial commitment to hold off suitors, it pales in comparison to the near certainty that Harden will command a max contract. The Thunder can appeal to the shooting guard all they want about the opportunity their current group, which includes scoring champion Kevin Durant, fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook and last season's league shot-blocking leader, Serge Ibaka -- who himself was rewarded with a new long-term deal over the summer -- has for years to come, but it's hard to argue that Harden would not only make out better elsewhere financially, but also have the chance to showcase his unique talents on an individual stage.
Mohammed, who remains close with his former teammates, reluctantly shared his view of the situation with CSNChicago.com.
"It's not for me to think about, to be honest with you. As a honest and as a friend, one thing every guy in this league always says is, 'Hey, get your money.' You want to see other guys get their money, get paid. He's in a position where he can do both win and get paid, so it comes down to how he feels about it," said the center, revealing a basic truth about both the NBA and the world as a whole. "I don't know how much they offered him, I don't know how far they're apart. All I know is that James is a good guy, I love the dude and I want him to get his money, and at the same time, I'm a fan of the Thunder organization, I'm a fan of his teammates and I would love to see him get his money, and still be able to stay with that organization, but it's business and I don't get into people's business. I wouldn't want anybody telling me about my business because they don't know what's going on behind closed doors."
That last sentence might be the most salient point when it comes to outside opinions about the contract negotiations of athletes, as fans, on an increasingly frequent basis, blister organizations for not doing enough to retained beloved players or accuse former favorite players, who typically have 15 years, at best, to maximize their earning potential after years of hard work to get to the highest level of their sport, of disloyalty for leaving for perceived greener pastures, financial or otherwise.
Look, based off a semi-educated guess, it appears likely that Gibson remains a Bull in the foreseeable future, but if he doesn't, that blame shouldn't rest with either the team or the player himself, but rather the fact that both sides -- in Gibson's case, making the best decision for his future and for the Bulls, predicting what basketball and financial decisions will get them back on the path of title contention -- have to make the most prudent long-term choice and unfortunately, that probably doesn't include the Bulls having their cake and eating it, too.