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Cap-strapped Bulls must make tough choices during offseason

Omer Asik #3 Chicago Bulls knocks ball away from EltBr#42 Philadelphi76ers Game Five/ | Getty Images

Omer Asik #3 of the Chicago Bulls knocks the ball away from Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five/ | Getty Images

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Updated: June 15, 2012 10:48AM

What made Omer Asik’s mid-range jumper in the first quarter of the Bulls’ season-ending loss Thursday to the Philadelphia 76ers so surprising was that he had passed immediately — and somewhat frantically — when he got the ball in the same spot a few minutes before.

Asik lacked confidence all season. In fact, it’s probably fair to say he was the only Bulls player whose play regressed this season. That’s what made his two missed free throws near the end of the game Thursday even more problematic.

Asik had played what might have been his best game of the season. A player who averaged 14.7 minutes during the regular season was on the floor for 39 minutes, 25 seconds Thursday. Not only was he one of the worst free-throw shooters in
the league, but he was gassed
when he stepped to the line with 7.7 seconds left.

Asik wasn’t around after the game. He’s friendly but prefers not to speak with the media. There’s little doubt he’s taking things hard, though, which might affect his confidence moving forward. That’s important because the salary-cap-strapped Bulls’ best chance to improve significantly next season might lie in the continued development of players on their roster.

Asik will be back with the Bulls next season. He will be a
restricted free agent, which means other teams will be able to offer him a mid-level salary-cap exception, but the Bulls can be expected to match that. Joakim Noah and Asik are critical cornerstones to the
defense coach Tom Thibodeau has built the franchise around.

Asik never is going to be an
offensive force, but the hope is he continues to develop offensively, making the strength of the Bulls even stronger.

‘‘When they’re healthy, the Bulls’ front line is incredibly formidable,’’ 76ers coach Doug Collins said. ‘‘They’ve got size with Noah and Omer, and you have the strength in [Carlos] Boozer and a combination of all those different things with [Taj] Gibson. That front line is
really a problem.’’

The Bulls hold options on Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson, but they aren’t all likely to return because the Bulls need to clear some cap space to re-sign Gibson, who will be eligible for free agency after next season.

Jimmy Butler likely will fill Brewer’s role. Keeping Korver and Watson will be difficult decisions because Rose and Luol Deng likely will miss the first couple of months of next season while recovering from knee and wrist injuries. That means the backup point guard will be crucial and the Bulls will need scoring, which Korver provides.

But the Bulls will be bumping their head on the salary-cap ceiling. No matter how much they might want to keep Watson and Korver, something will have to give.

Watson never should have made the pass to Asik that sent him to the free-throw line Thursday, but he was a warrior while playing hurt for much of the season. The decision about whether to bring him back is fairly simple. If the Bulls can find someone better and cheaper, great. If not, Watson will be needed.

Korver’s situation is more complicated. He’s the only real scoring threat on the Bench Mob and
receives a lot of attention from
opposing defenses. When he gets the ball off a screen, he has to launch his shot immediately, sometimes without time to line it up. If he played more with Rose, he likely would get kick-out three-pointers when Rose penetrates, which would allow him to gather himself before launching his bombs.

John Lucas III might be able to develop into a three-point specialist with a cheaper price tag. Lucas
might be a better third guard than he is a backup point guard,
although he would be a defensive
liability at shooting guard.

There’s a lot for vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman to consider. The way the season ended will influence their thinking, as will the likelihood of starting next season without Rose and perhaps even Deng. But they don’t have much salary-cap space to work with, which limits their options.

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