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Steve Aschbruner

Despite the success of the current Bulls core, free agents haven't lined up to join the team.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Chicago falls short when it comes to free-agent destinations

Posted Dec 13 2011 10:55AM

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The Chicago Bulls went into the spectacular free-agent summer of 2010 and all they came back with was a lousy T-shirt, er, Carlos Boozer.

Over the past two weeks -- with players, agents, general managers and pretty much anyone with a Twitter handle running amok while the ink dried on the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement -- the Bulls have positioned themselves to ... add an aging shooting guard (Richard Hamilton) once every other team in the league passes on a chance to snag him.

In the Great Mating Dance between NBA teams and current or soon-to-be free agents (or even just foot-stomping trade-demanders), the Bulls ought to be the guys who are flashing their 62 victories from last season, flaunting their Coach of the Year (Tom Thibodeau) and dazzling prospective acquisitions with their defending Most Valuable Player (Derrick Rose). Yet they get as much action as a guy with a cold sore.

Chicago is a terrific city, a popular road stop for pro athletes and a place where basketball fans fill United Center, not just now but also during the Eddie Robinson-Dalibor Bagaric-Tim Floyd era. It's the franchise from which Michael Jordan launched, well, everything: six championships, unparalleled endorsement success, worldwide acclaim and what now is a proliferation of sports statuary across America.

"Be Like Mike" echoes long after that particular sports-drink campaign was shelved. Heck, it provided the soundtrack for many of the players in the league today. Yet for some reason, "Play Where Mike Played" falls flat. Never made it onto the charts at all.

As far as desirable destinations for NBA players, Chicago doesn't even make the first team. The Lakers understandably rank near the top year in, year out, for their traditions, their bankroll, their climate and their rank -- stars among the stars! -- within the southern California culture. New York elbows its way onto the list through sheer bigness and brashness (never mind the Knicks' routine badness), along with a Gotham-centric media that sends its emissaries to every major city in America pressing the question to pro athletes, "When are you coming to play in New York?"

Miami is a relative newbie, its surf, sun and spendiness now outweighing the decay of its urban area and the front-running fan base. All it took was the validation of LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade, making it seem O.K. in an industry that's based on competition to buddy up with, rather than beat, the best.

Dallas gets attention, certainly, as the defending champions. That, at least, is a more sporting and noble reason than the flat-screen TVs, plush bathrobes and every other salary-cap skirting nicety that owner Mark Cuban threw at the players in his early days of ownership.

New Jersey is a player now, too, among key free agents. The Nets are owned by a Russian billionaire of mysterious means who might, for crying out loud, get himself elected president there. The grandiosity of it all has a natural appeal to NBA stars with self-conglomeration dreams. Besides, the Nets will be playing soon in trendy Brooklyn, which makes them a New York II franchise rather than, well, wherever it was they will have played for the past 35 years.

And the fifth starting spot among the NBA players' destination dream team? It seems to be held by a rotation. Boston is a franchise that can bring out an almost religious reverence in its players. Houston and Atlanta are popular sites with NBA players for their year-round residences.

An occasional player is eclectic enough to seek out Golden State while Philadelphia is sort of a "Boston lite" in terms of hoops tradition. San Antonio still gets respect as the smartest organization in the league, based on its four NBA championships, pillars still in place (Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan) and that remarkable sequence of lottery events in 1997.

Phoenix, once the most elite country club in the NBA, has dimmed the last few seasons. Orlando, once so prized by Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, cannot seem to satisfy all-NBA, Superman-stying centers. The Clippers, of course, are the Clippers, and for all the wonderfulness going on in Oklahoma City, there may not be a player in the league who would have stepped foot in that town the first time without at least two days' per diem and a return flight home.

Chicago? Save for its winters -- when all righteous basketball players are supposed to crave little beyond gym time anyway -- it would seem to have everything an NBA player might want. Yet you don't hear Chris Paul or Dwight Howard making noise about getting to the Bulls, anymore than you saw Carmelo Anthony last season pushing for Chicago or seriously thought James would take his talents to Rush Street.

The Bulls have mostly been flirted with in free agency -- Eddie Jones, Hill and McGrady were among the players who used that team for leverage. Kobe Bryant allegedly was going to get traded to Chicago a few years back but that, too, was more about Bryant getting the help (Pau Gasol) he wanted to stay in L.A.

Prior to last season, Boozer was the Bulls' big "get," and things promptly headed south with the fans thanks to the power forward's early broken hand, his turf toe injury late in the team's run and his inconsistent play in between. VP John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman smartly found caulk guys like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans. But the cornerstone players still seem to look elsewhere, despite the Bulls liking what they see in the mirror. Thomas just took a two-year deal with Portland.

"I'm biased," Forman said, "but the sense that I get in talking to a number of different agents is, Chicago is a very, very attractive place to go at this time. We've got the best fans in the league. We've obviously got a very good young team that centers around Derrick Rose, who I think guys are attracted to play with.

"We've got a first-rate coaching staff. Obviously a major market, a great city. So my feeling is, moving forward, this is a very attractive situation and will remain [one] for quite a while."

Said Boozer: "I think it's high on the list. For the guys that want to win, they see what we are as a group of guys and they'd like to be part of it. For most free agents out there, they probably have us on their list of teams, in my opinion."

The fact that Chicago has only a $5 million starting salary, with the mid-level cap exception, is a hurdle. But then, players have signed and continue to sign with Miami for less-than-market value, which isn't happening in Chicago.

Maybe it's the burden of living up to the Jordan era, though the 1990s are growing increasingly distant to today's stars. Maybe it's the ghost and lingering taint of Jerry Krause, the former Bulls GM who was ridiculed by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and others for his attitude toward players in spite of all the winning -- though Krause is long gone, too.

Maybe there's some innate jealousy or leeriness around Rose, the local kid who will remain this team's "centerpiece," as Forman calls him, no matter how many big names join him in Chicago. Maybe it's Thibodeau's defensive bent and the work that entails.

Maybe it's the sense that the Bulls are content with an old-school approach to team building, where complementary parts, clearly defined roles and chemistry presumably make up for marquee wattage and individual, even advanced stats. Or maybe it really is the wind chill.

Howard could do much worse than to seek out a pairing with Rose. But the next time he or any other NBA superstar demands a trade to Chicago or, as a free agent, targets the Windy City as his preferred destination will be the first.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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