Posted Jul 16 2010 6:23PM
CHICAGO -- It was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do.
Even though, at the moment, it feels so wrong.
They had to take a shot. They had to take a shot. They had to take a shot.
And so Kirk Hinrich had to take a bullet. As did, to some uncertain degree, the Chicago Bulls' backcourt in the franchise's all-in gamble on NBA elite free agents.
To open up sufficient "salary-cap space" -- a bit of modern, sports-business jargon in which fans have become way too conversant these days, and that shows up in Chicago thesauruses alongside "snake oil" -- the Bulls gifted Hinrich to the Washington Wizards on Draft day. Gifted is the only way to put it, given the terms of the trade: Hinrich, the No. 17 pick in the first round and $3 million to Washington in exchange for (cough) the Draft rights to forward Vladimir Veremeenko, a 2006 second-rounder who didn't even make it to the Bulls' summer camp.
Chicago's move was less about giving than receiving; by shedding Hinrich's $9 million salary for 2010-11, the Bulls got very close to carving cap space for two maximum-salary stars. Visions of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson danced in the heads of management and fans alike. On a night when NBA teams are all about adding and building, the Bulls were busy tearing down because of the beautiful remodeling blueprints up in the offices of vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman.
Now a dog has gotten into the suite and eaten their homework.
Let it be known: This is not a second-guess. The Bulls did exactly the right thing by aiming high, in pushing to the middle as many chips as they could possibly muster in their attempt -- and surely the most sound in basketball terms with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng in place -- to create an instant Super Team.
But when neither James nor Wade chose Chicago, or Bosh or Johnson, the Bulls were the ones who had to stand up and leave the table. They scrambled nicely for Utah power forward Carlos Boozer, a nice piece and the low-post offensive threat the team has craved since trading away Elton Brand. But in size and approach, Boozer is enough of a defensive project that Tom Thibodeau should have been hired as his personal tutor, not as the Bulls' head coach.
Another Jazz man, Kyle Korver, was a nice "get" as well, a 3-point specialist who should spread opposing defenses enough to give Rose and Noah more elbow room. But with Orlando matching Chicago's three-year, $19 million offer sheet to J.J. Redick, the Bulls were left with about $12 million to spend and no remaining free agent who looked better for their purposes than Hinrich would have been.
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf recognized that and so did most Bulls fans -- even the ones who whined about the veteran guard's hefty contract and grumbled on his cockeyed shooting nights. "It was clear LeBron wasn't going to come [to Chicago] by himself," Reinsdorf told the suburban Daily Herald. "Somebody else had to come with him so we had to take that shot. It didn't work out, so now I feel bad that Kirk is gone, but I don't regret taking the shot."
Again, they shouldn't regret it. Even as they sifted through the second-, third- and steerage tiers of free agency for the best possible replacement-slash-facsimile. That particular green room emptied fast, though: Mike Miller latched onto the Super Friends in Miami, Raja Bell slipped into Korver's roster spot in Salt Lake City, Wesley Matthews left Utah for a mid-level deal with Portland, Shaun Livingston signed with Charlotte. Even John Salmons, a Bulls disappointment as a plug-in for Ben Gordon last season and a February discard in the Summer of 2010 gamble, opted out and promptly re-signed in Milwaukee.
That left Ronnie Brewer, another former Jazz player who agreed to a reported three-year deal worth $12.5 million, at the top of Chicago's list -- or rather, next after all the other names above him with lines drawn through them. Keith Bogans was thought to be next. A personal favorite, Randy Foye, slipped off from Washington to the Clippers while no one was looking.
Meanwhile, in Hinrich, Washington picks up a valuable member of the Class of 2003 who didn't host his own TV show last week, tease his hometown or Twitter away for two weeks from airports, hotels, nightclubs and parts unknown. Hinrich is a solid combo guard, a hard-nosed defender and a grown-up in a sometimes childish league -- which seems perfect for the Wizards, teamed with new kid John Wall and old kid Gilbert Arenas.
Underappreciated (and to be honest, overpaid) in Chicago, the seven-year veteran from Sioux City, Iowa, by way of Kansas has been overlooked so far in the nation's capital. No surprise there, given the rightful giddiness over Wall, the Kentucky point guard who was picked No. 1 and is an early favorite to join other recent novice playmakers Rose and Sacramento's Tyreke Evans as Rookie of the Year. The return of Arenas from his firearms foolishness figures to overshadow Hinrich come October, but makes the former Bull even more valuable to the Washington backcourt.
Beyond his mentoring of Wall and his stabilizing of the Wizards' locker room (for players and coaches) and image (for fans), the guy known in Chicago as "Captain Kirk" is an eager, aggressive defender and a leader on the court and off.
"Whatever plans you had, he directed," said Bob Ociepka, an assistant on Vinny Del Negro's staff in Chicago the past two seasons. "His defense was terrific, he did everything we asked. I liked the idea of adding a guy like Joe Johnson so we'd have a three-guard rotation with Rose, with Hinrich coming off the bench. But that number [$9 million] was high for a backup."
Ociepka, who oversaw much of the Bulls' defensive work, said he used to break down the team's stats "with Hinrich" and "without Hinrich" in games. The numbers were so impressive in the wiry guard's favor, Ociepka said, that sometimes, good-naturedly, he would "slap them" on Forman's desk.
Just as good-naturedly, Forman recently told him that, with Hinrich gone, the Bulls had to get Ociepka out of the office, too. Actually, the changes in the Bulls' coaching staff are the natural result of Del Negro's firing and Thibodeau's hiring, and Ociepka -- a respected and longtime NBA assistant coach -- appears headed to an important seat next to Nate McMillan in Portland.
"Hinrich is going to be hard to replace," Ociepka said.
The Bulls know that now and probably will feel that way in October, while hoping that the feeling subsides over time. The emotion in question isn't regret -- given the stakes, no successful team can regret bold moves made after careful consideration and eyes wide open to possible downsides. But it is a bit of nostalgia, mixed with anxiety, folded into some tardy appreciation.
That's why Chicago fans might end up reprising an old fright-flick gimmick ("To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a movie! It's only a movie!' "). Except in this case, it's: It was the right thing to do. They had to take a shot. It was the right thing to do. They had to take a shot. It was ...
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