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Sam Smith: Why not the Bulls in 2010?

The Bulls may wind up in position to try and lure some of the top free agents in 2010, a group that could include LeBron, Wade and Bosh.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith:
Why not the Bulls in 2010?


LeBron James LeBron James sounds open the possibility he will leave the Cavs, saying this weekend: "When I make that decision (on the future), it will be based on winning multiple championships. If it's moving elsewhere, I will have to weigh all my options. It's a business. Franchises do what's best for the franchise. We have to do what's best for us."

Why not us? Why not in 2010?

The big news in the NBA last week was the multiple trades by the New York Knicks, who acquired former Cavs star LeBron James.

What? Not yet? It seemed from what I was reading in the New York media it was fait accompli. Or as they explained it with a wink, "Done deal ova dere."

Laugh at the Knicks now if you will—as you have for the last several years—but there are two vital elements to this that suggest major changes in the NBA in the upcoming years and the way teams are thinking.

And the question for the Bulls is, because of the former, do they begin to pursue the latter?

The first is the rich get richer thing, though not necessarily teams rich in success. The Knicks, like the Detroit Pistons a few weeks ago, are lining up to strike in 2010 free agency in a new concept of development effectively reinvented by the Boston Celtics.

Instead of building through the draft, which has been the historical method in the NBA, you do the quick fix in free agency or trade and, presto chango, you can succeed big time.

Instead of mining the draft for young talent, the Celtics cashed it all in for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and appear perhaps headed this season to their second consecutive NBA title. At this point, only the Lakers seem to stand in the way.

This goes in line with what seems like the continuing split in the NBA of richer and poorer, somewhat mirroring our own economy. The teams in the major markets and those doing the best financially appear poised to get into a battle for the league's top talent while the smaller markets will have to scratch around and perhaps just get lucky.

Chicago is one of the league's major markets and most profitable franchises, one of the world's great cities with a championship tradition with Michael Jordan and a big market for endorsements as even shoe deals typically carry a 10 to 15 percent bonus for players in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And don't you think the NBA would love those three great TV markets with great teams and great stars again, especially at the same time?

The Bulls' philosophy has been to build through the draft with young talent. It hasn't exactly worked out with the Bulls having 10 top 10 picks—seven in the top five—in the last decade and still not advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs, and yet to develop an All-Star, though Derrick Rose seems on course.

So perhaps it's time for the Bulls to follow the latest NBA trend of getting in position for perhaps the greatest free agent class in team sports history.

Here's who can be free agents after next season:

LeBron James
Dwyane Wade
Chris Bosh
Amare Stoudemire
Joe Johnson
Dirk Nowitzki
Paul Pierce
Ray Allen
Tracy McGrady
Richard Jefferson
Steve Nash
Shaquille O'Neal
Manu Ginobili
Jermaine O'Neal
Carlos Boozer
Mehmet Okur
Peja Stojakovic

And that's not including potential restricted free agents like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay.

Here's all the Bulls have to do to become a player for two of those free agents, like the Knicks are with the supposed plan also of attracting someone desperate for a championship like Nash for a minimum salary, like the Lakers did with Karl Malone and Gary Payton in 2004.

The Bulls can get in position to add two maximum salary players with the contracts of Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes expiring by the summer of 2010 and let Ben Gordon go after this season. They also easily could deal either or both of Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni for expiring deals and then be committed to, effectively, Rose and Luol Deng. And that's two pretty good players as a base, likely better than the Knicks would be able to offer.

That is said to be the Pistons’ plan, that they'll have Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey in place as an appeal to James and Bosh. But a team like the Suns could have Stoudemire, and enough to add one of those free agents along with one of the players on their roster, like Leandro Barbosa. There'll be others pursuing those players as well.

Look at the teams that have won championships this decade: The Lakers did it from 2000-2002 after getting Shaquille O'Neal as a free agent, the Pistons did it in 2004 after trading for or signing as free agents Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, the Heat did it after trading for O'Neal and the Celtics did it after trading for Garnett and Allen. Only the San Antonio Spurs won with players they drafted.

But there's a cautionary tale in all this and no one knows it better than the Bulls, which is why this thinking was out of fashion until the Celtics pulled it off.

The Bulls had been eying McGrady for years. Then general manager Jerry Krause tried to trade Scottie Pippen after the 1996-97 season to Boston for three No. 1's, with one being used to select McGrady, who went No. 9 to Toronto. Celtics chief Rick Pitino, burned when the lottery balls didn't come up for Tim Duncan, immediately began seeking a veteran and put together the package for Pippen.

But managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf vetoed the deal in saying he refused to break up the championship run prematurely. Of course, Reinsdorf was accused of that after the sixth title in 1998, though I know how deeply that team had splintered, that Phil Jackson had left and Jordan was telling everyone there was no way he'd play with that group again without Phil, who declined a longterm offer to return, Jordan having been burned out worse than he was in 1993 when he first walked away.

So the Bulls cashed in everyone for the free agency summer of 2000, the previous biggest with Duncan, Grant Hill, McGrady and Eddie Jones among the stars. The Bulls were assured by McGrady's advisors Chicago is where he wanted to be and where his sponsors wanted him. Likewise, Jones, who supposedly even agreed to a deal. The Bulls even began thinking bigger, making a trip to see Hill, who said he'd reconsider going to Orlando and might sign with the Bulls since his family was pushing him to go to Chicago. And the Bulls wondered how could Duncan turn them down given the city size and roster potential.

Duncan resigned with the Spurs, Hill and McGrady went to Orlando and Jones to Miami. The Bulls came out of it with Ron Mercer and Brad Miller, whom they later dealt for Jalen Rose, who was on TV Friday night saying he is guaranteeing James and Bosh sign with the Knicks.

We in Chicago know about such guarantees, and you can imagine what a frenzy it will be in New York when the Cavs play there Tuesday against the Knicks. James ought to walk into the building with a Knicks' jersey like Pippen used to do on Western Conference trips that final season in Chicago when he had one foot out of the door.

James is now for the first time seeming to leave open the possibility he will leave the Cavs, saying this weekend: "When I make that decision (on the future), it will be based on winning multiple championships. If it's moving elsewhere, I will have to weigh all my options. It's a business. Franchises do what's best for the franchise. We have to do what's best for us."

Which brings us to the most delicious possibility of all: Do the Cavs dare try to trade James now? After all, if they believe he's leaving, don't they have to try to get something major instead of being like the Timberwolves after dealing Garnett? Imagine the package of players they could get. Of course, they're saying they want to add a star to join James and do have the salary cap room for after next season. And they weren't that far from beating the Celtics in a seventh game in last spring's playoffs. And James could leave wherever he's traded. But say he comes to the Cavs and identifies somewhere to play and assures that team he won't opt out. How much would James be worth at a time when he's on target to be the league's MVP at 24?

You know this story is only going to get bigger for the next 18 months. But you should know which teams are trying to get into the bidding by how they begin to manage their payroll. The Bulls certainly could be one and perhaps make a better case now than they did in 2000. Because if James and Bosh come together, and the Lakers stay as they are, and, say, Miami adds someone to join Wade and Stoudemire gets someone or Nowitzki in Dallas, the path to a championship is going to be blocked for a long time.

-- Yes, P.J. Carlesimo got the blame and the first coaching firing of the season with the now 1-13 Thunder, booed at home last week as the Clippers were on a 42-12 run, having trailed by at least 30 in six games this season. Carlesimo was no locker room favorite and his head coaching career likely is done after 20-62 while still in Seattle last season. One major flaw most saw was continuing to play Kevin Durant at shooting guard. Opposing coaches were in amazement as Durant was getting embarrassed chasing shooting guards and firing up so many bad shots. Durant dominated forwards in college, and now interim coach Scott Brooks moved him at least to small forward when taking over, though I'd have him at power forward with his size and quickness. But this was a management disaster way beyond Carlesimo right down to the firing. One of the informal rules of firing a coach is you don't put the new guy in a bad position. So GM Sam Presti fires Carlesimo with games coming up against the Hornets, Suns and Cavs. Then it's Minnesota, Memphis and Charlotte. "It shows their inexperience," said one team executive. Also, Carlesimo had no chance with the veterans as he obviously was under orders to play their youngsters, so competent veterans like Chris Wilcox and Damien Wilkins sat and watched Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook get overwhelmed. That's no way to build a team. Which was the biggest problem of all. They didn't have to be this bad. They gave up Ray Allen for the rights to Green and lost Rashard Lewis fore nothing. Both would have enabled Durant to come along much better as opposed to being attacked by defenses, as he is now. They could still have been a competitive team as Lewis wanted to resign. Instead, it's a team embarrassing even a loving home community. And then, despite needing a center, they pass over Brook Lopez. I, by the way, had him No. 4 in my mock draft I did last June when I was writing for Sporting News. It messed up my mock draft order, but that's the problem when you know what a team should do and they don't. Lopez is averaging 14.6 points and nine rebounds as the Nets have won four of the last five and shooting 59 percent in that stretch with double/doubles two of the last three games. How he got to No. 10 will be one of the great misses, like when Paul Pierce fell to No. 10 in 1998.

-- Michael Beasley is averaging 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, good for a rookie, but you don't hear rookie of the year talk anymore, that reserved for Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo. Beasley has been a horror on defense, worse than your typical rookie, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn't play him in the fourth quarter in four of the last five games before Beasley finished Saturday. Beasley, in foul trouble virtually every game, has taken it well and admitted he never played one-on-one defense in his life nor ever attempted to take a charge. "I'm not going to back off at all on the accountability and expectations," Spoelstra told South Florida reporters. Beasley also got taken to the police station last week after a speeding arrest, though it seemed something of a mixup. It's something to credit Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. Though Spoelstra hardly is trying to ridicule Beasley, Del Negro does seem to be gaining some credit with the team for never singling out a player, though it's frustrated reporters seeking headlines and story angles. The forlorn J.J. Redick is actually playing. He got a start when Mickael Pietrus was hurt and has been in the rotation for the first time in the NBA the last three games, though only has shot seven of 19. Atlanta's Marvin Williams, a 23 percent career three point shooter, is 56 percent this season and credits shooting consultant Mark Price, who lives in Atlanta. The 76ers Thaddeus Young also worked with Price this summer and improved.

-- Former Illini Dee Brown is now starting for the 1-10 Wizards and without more than one basket in any game this season. Yes, Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood are out, but they have All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and shouldn't be this bad. The Arenas resigning could be one of the worst ever as Arenas—management had to love this—decided last week he might sit out the season so the Wizards could get a better draft choice if they don't improve in the next few months. With Brown and the erratic DeShawn Stevenson in the backcourt, you figure they again have interest in Larry Hughes. Madame Tussauds wax museum in Washington unveiled a life-size wax likeness of Arenas last week. It's as close to real action as he's seen in almost two years. Also struggling adjusting to Allen Iverson's scoring point guard game is Stuckey, who averaged 10.5 points pre-Iverson and 6.5 since and a woeful five turnovers and no-assists in being blown out by Boston Friday. Jerry Stackhouse, asking politely to get out of Dallas and not playing, told Dallas media he wants to be the next Jeff Malone: "Sometimes, that cycle comes," Stackhouse said. "When I came to Philadelphia, Jeff Malone was still a very capable player. But they said: 'Jeff, Jerry Stackhouse is the starting shooting guard here, and we're starting over.' He still went and played somewhere for a couple more seasons." Actually, seven games in Miami and he was done.

-- Not that he's their future, but last week I saw Quentin Richardson drive baseline and hammer a dunk down from the other side of the basket, the most athletic move I've seen from him since he played at DePaul. Maybe his back issues are finally gone. Fellow DePaul swingman Bobby Simmons, now with the Nets and perking up some, is with Jalen Rose on the James thing in telling New Jersey media: "There's only one team that this guy is going to. I don't know why everybody's making a big deal about it. You know he's going to the biggest market, to play for the Knicks. It's a business move. It's all about the marketing dollar."

-- With Jermaine O'Neal going down again Sunday against Boston in another bad loss, you can believe the pressure is growing on coach Sam Mitchell and the organization, especially after that brutal loss to the Nets on Friday at home. The Raptors failed to foul Vince Carter at the end of regulation and he tied it with a three and then won it with a backward dunk at the buzzer when the Raptors blew a switch, their big men sucked to the outside. It's hardly making the team look appealing to Bosh, who has 30 or more points in four of the last eight games with five losses in that stretch. They lost both times Bosh scored at least 40.

-- Chris Paul got his first triple double Saturday with 29, 10 and 10 against the Thunder and is putting up MVP numbers, averaging 21.1 points, 11.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 steals and a four-to-one assist/turnover ratio. But the Hornets aren't everyone's darkhouse champion like in preseason after going over .500 only after beating Oklahoma City back to back. And some are pointing the finger at Paul. "I think he's getting a bit carried away with wanting to be that 20/10 guy," says one coach. Some are saying Paul is looking for his shot too much compared with setting up his shooters, as he did last season and only David West is averaging more attempts.

-- Agent Jason Levien, who represents Luol Deng among others, is signing on as Kings assistant general manager with signs pointing to Geoff Petrie leaving as he declined an extension beyond next season.

-- The Bulls could get a break the rest of this week with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer out for the Jazz Monday (Williams said he may return Wednesday) and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili out for the Spurs, though Ginobili said he could return after ankle surgery. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan told Utah reporters this injury outbreak is the worst he's seen since his rookie season coaching the Bulls in 1979-80: "We thought we were going to have a pretty good team. But Artis (Gilmore) got hurt and it seemed everybody else got hurt after that, too." The Bulls went 30-52.

-- It's been a tough return home for Baron Davis with the Clippers a miserable 2-11. We'll see when Zach Randolph shows up, and I'm still convinced it means Chris Kaman can be had. Many wondered how it would work this season with control-oriented, disciplined coaches who call most plays like Mike Dunleavy with Davis and Rick Carlisle in Dallas with Jason Kidd. Both teams have been off to tough starts with Davis and Dunleavy with an uneasy truce. Said Davis to the L.A. Times: "I have to figure out how to fit more into his system, and he has to figure out how to relax his grip. I had no idea." He could have asked me or anyone who has played for Carlisle. "It's like every time we come down the floor, everyone is trying to figure out the play, and by the time I get it called out and everyone knows it, there is eight seconds left on the shot clock," Davis said. Davis also continues to be undisciplined in his own right with multiple off-court business activities as he has interests in the music industry.

-- The Bulls get the 76ers twice next week and the guy they better watch out for is Thaddeus Young, who shows just what showing up every game and playing hard does. The raw wingman picked No. 12 in the 2007 draft doesn't shoot particularly well, nor does he post up, or even have any plays in the offense. But he's run himself into being the team's leading scorer ahead of Elton Brand, Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala. "We don't run any plays for him," coach Mo Cheeks told Philadelphia reporters. "He kind of offensive rebounds, spots up, (runs) down on the break." It's really all it takes with some effort on defense. "Let's get this straight, I don't ever get plays called for me. I just go out there and play basketball," says Young. So why don't more guys do it? Good question.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.