The reserve big-man duo of Omer Asik and power forward Taj Gibson closed out the game for the Bulls for the second consecutive evening, but although attention is newly focused on that trend, the pattern actually goes back to last season's playoffs, when Tom Thibodeau kept the young tandem in for the stretch runs of contests against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Thibodeau said all the right things afterward, reminding reporters that struggling starters Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer often carry the team, but it was telling that he listed how the quartet of big men bring different strengths to the table.
After praising the "lockdown defense" ability of Gibson and Asik, the coach talked about how some of his post players bring scoring, indicating Boozer's strong suit, while others bring defense before throwing in that some bring playmaking, a nod to Noah's unique ball-handling and passing, which is, at the present moment, his only advantage over his fellow big men, as he's struggled to score the ball this season. Boozer, though one wouldn't know it from his solid field-goal percentage, has also experienced scoring issues -- after coming into the season in top-notch physical condition, he again seemingly has difficulty finishing, due to a lack of explosiveness, and has regressed in terms of running the floor in transition -- making Gibson and Asik, both of whom continue to have increasing confidence on offense, particularly the latter, the logical choices to play crucial minutes, contracts aside, especially when one considers how much Thibodeau emphasizes the team establishing a defensive presence.
Noah took responsibility for his recent downturn in production and Boozer was diplomatic when questioned about his dwindling fourth-quarter playing time, and on a team with the chemistry of the Bulls, there's unlikely to be a rift, but the scrutiny placed upon the ongoing saga will only intensify, even as the team keeps winning. Keep in mind, however, shooting guard Rip Hamilton hasn't been healthy for much of the season and is still making an adjustment to his new squad, but in the limited time he's been on the court, his subtle play-making skills have directly benefited both Boozer and Noah.
At the same time, Noah's perceived regression on offense could fuel new-found rumors about the Bulls' willingness to engage Orlando in a potential deal to acquire Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard. Although Chicago didn't make his list of desired destinations, Magic general manager Otis Smith has a tough decision to make -- whether to trade Howard by the March 15 trade deadline or risk losing him in the offseason -- and the Bulls could have the right pieces to tempt him, as a more-than-serviceable center in Noah (it wouldn't hurt that fans of the University of Florida, where Noah won two national championships, would likely be less disappointed in losing Howard with the arrival of the former Gator), a top-five NBA small forward in Luol Deng (after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, is there a player at the position outright better than Deng, one of the league's best two-way talents?) and a young power forward in Gibson (paired with holdovers Glen Davis and Ryan Anderson, the Magic would have a solid frontline, even with Howard's departure) and a combination of the Bulls' coveted, currently-protected future first-round draft pick from Charlotte (acquired from the Bobcats in the Tyrus Thomas deal) and their own 2012 first-round pick, as well as potentially a role player like swingman Ronnie Brewer or the rights to 2011 draft choice Nikola Mirotic (though the Bulls are on high on the European prospect, who won't arrive in the NBA for at least another season or two, and ideally, wouldn't want to part with both him and Gibson), in exchange for Howard and possibly Hedo Turkoglu and his massive contract would have to at least intrigue him.
That said, the Bulls are a 10-2 team and with the current roster -- again, don't forget that Hamilton hasn't been at full strength -- appear poised to be one of the top-two teams in the Eastern Conference again, if not better. Furthermore, simply renting Howard for the remainder season and banking on a newly-constituted team finding instant chemistry, as well as the center wanting to return to Chicago, regardless of the results, is a calculated risk and perhaps one not worth it, considering the talent the Bulls would have to jettison to make it happen.