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Sam Smith: As trade deadline nears, so does the Bulls’ great debate

While recent losses have been tough, the decision at hand for the Bulls is whether to begin cashing in players for free agency in either 2009 or, especially, 2010, or begin adding pieces through trades to continue on an upward curve from now.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: As trade deadline nears, so does the Bulls’ great debate


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 its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Yes, that Bulls home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday was awful. But that really isn't the main issue for the franchise.

Sure, there's concern over what to do about it, though no one connected with the Bulls believed this season was one to be a serious competitor in the Eastern Conference. The point of this season was to begin to develop a defensive identity and bring along the young players, trying to improve as the season went on. Injuries have gotten in the way of limited success, though there has to be concern about the lack of an identity.

Still, the principal issue remains where to go from here and it impacts what the team will do at the trading deadline. The decision, and my sense is there isn't agreement yet on which direction to head, is whether to begin cashing in players for free agency in either 2009 or, especially, 2010, or begin adding pieces through trades to continue on an upward curve from now.

The 2010 strategy is de rigueur these days with the New York Knicks the most prominent example. It's a chance to add stars, and if there's one constant in the NBA, it's that success comes only once you have multiple stars. Which is why the Cleveland Cavaliers probably are not quite there yet. The downside of that is what if it doesn't work? The Bulls know about that since they built their entire post-Michael Jordan strategy on free agency in 2000, when the class was the best to date, featuring Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Eddie Jones and Tracy McGrady.

The Bulls lost out on all, ended up with Ron Mercer and Brad Miller and draft picks, and started over again in 2001 in drafting Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, when they realized they still didn't have a star. You know, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice….

The Bulls seem better positioned now that it appears they do have a future star in No. 1 overall draft pick Derrick Rose. But having someone like Rose, do you build with him now with some well placed trades and not risk waiting until 2010 and maybe being shut out? Or give up one season with the chance to get a true star like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire, and suddenly be a serious championship contender with enough decent pieces that will have been cultivated by then? Of course, you could do all the right things and it still may not work. It's why the sports business is easier to second guess than manage.

The poster child for this strategy, and for doing it the right way but it coming out wrong, is John Gabriel, now personnel director for the Knicks.

Gabriel was the general manager of the Orlando Magic when stubborn ownership allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to steal Shaquille O'Neal away in 1996. The Magic still had Penny Hardaway, who was an All-Star, along with Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, a good team that won 45 games. Gabriel lured Chuck Daly there to finish his Hall of Fame coaching career, and the Magic somehow tied Miami and Indiana for the best record in the East that 1998-99 shortened season, 33-17.

But Gabriel decided the key to success, like the Magic was having with Shaq and Penny, was stars. So he decided to pack it in. The Magic hired a former player and broadcaster with not one day or one game of coaching experience, Doc Rivers. The idea was to develop an identity, grow some kids and go for the jackpot.

"The league always is going to be about great players and we had just gone through a scenario of developing a young team and how hard it was," said Gabriel. "I was going off the principal it needed to be about great players again. The franchise still had some positives about itself (from being in the 1995 Finals). We felt we could attract guys. And talent begets talent. People want to play with other great players. It's on the lips of older players particularly. You see that with Boston. Guys want to win and be on champions, especially as they get older. We were hoping to get Tracy (McGrady), Grant (Hill) and (Tim) Duncan, all three of them. We could have done it, and then guys would have followed."

And Gabriel almost pulled it off, signing Hill, then regarded as probably the league's best perimeter player, McGrady, the rising young star, and within a breath of adding Duncan, who only returned to the Spurs with a short term deal when David Robinson flew back from a Hawaiian vacation to virtually beg Duncan not to leave. It was one of the great "What if" moments in league history. But the Magic wasn't done with Duncan and Duncan wasn't done with Orlando.

Duncan had been attracted by the small town feel, the deep pockets ownership and the proximity to his home in the Virgin Islands. Duncan had told friends he was only going to a team where he didn't have to wear socks (off the court).

"It was just San Antonio and Orlando," said Gabriel. "They were the only places he was considering."

And Duncan's plan supposedly was just to ride it out with Robinson as a gesture of respect and then go to Orlando as a free agent in 2002. But the Spurs—and give general manager R.C. Buford big time credit for this—saved their future while being successful by pulling Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker from nowhere, Ginobili a second rounder and Parker the 28th pick in the 2001 draft. Still, the Spurs were desperate and uncertain of keeping Duncan, which is no longer an issue. So they made a big time run at Jason Kidd at one time with Kidd finally turning them down later in 2003.

Orlando was playing every angle, though. Rivers, who still lives in Orlando, had developed a close relationship with Duncan while Rivers was a Spurs broadcaster. So even if Duncan would return to San Antonio, it was a chance to watch the Magic grow with Hill and McGrady and then move on once Robinson retired.

Gabriel pulled off 55 transactions in 15 months, breaking down the team to open the 1999-2000 team with a roster whose career averages combined was about 60 points per game. The Magic gave the Suns what was declared "Backcourt 2000" with Hardaway and Kidd and what many felt could be a title. But Rivers got a coach of the year season and .500 record out of them as they were the hustling hit of the NBA.

It seemed everything was in place.

"We were quite aware of the competition," said Gabriel.

It was the Bulls offering one of the nation's biggest media markets and the Heat with Pat Riley.

Orlando stared both down and got Hill, who was regarded as the big prize after Duncan, "the next Michael Jordan they were saying," noted Gabriel. And then McGrady decided to fly over Chicago for home in Florida.

Hill, of course, had the ankle issues that effectively ended his era as a star, and though the Magic had a few decent seasons but no playoff series wins with McGrady, they eventually had to start over.

"I think some of the rules in place now lend themselves to more of the possibility of teams resigning their own players," says Gabriel, a great asset to the Knicks in someone who lived the plan they are trying to execute. "And there's the additional salary a player can get for staying with his team.

"We never used the word 'rebuilding,'" said Gabriel. "We used, 'relaunching.' We felt we did not have enough of a quality team with adding a few draft picks that we could take off again. But once you step on the gas and head down that road, there's no looking back."

And so we get back to the Bulls.

They are in position for three options:

1. Identify a core now, perhaps Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, or some combination, and trade Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni, Drew Gooden and maybe their No. 1 draft pick for players. One team you could see entering in a deal with the Bulls would be Charlotte, and maybe you go for the defensive big man in Emeka Okafor and give them the kind of hard playing types Larry Brown would prefer like Hinrich, Nocioni, Sefolosha and maybe Noah. You might take back someone Charlotte doesn't desire like Adam Morrison. Those numbers don't work yet, but you could find something. Though that's just one potential example.

2. Let go Drew Gooden and Ben Gordon after the season, trade Nocioni and Hinrich for expiring deals and make a free agency run this summer for someone among those who could be free agents, including Carlos Boozer, Lamar Odom, Al Harrington, Mehmet Okur, Anderson Varejao, Shawn Marion, Allen Iverson, David Lee, Ron Artest, Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, Michael Redd and Chris Wilcox.

3. Cash it all in while marking time next season and try for the big strike in 2010 with money to go after at least two top players to go along with Rose among LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Ginobili, McGrady, Steve Nash, Marcus Camby and Ray Allen all potential free agents. Or one to combine with perhaps someone picked up this coming summer, like the Magic hoped would work in a second run at Duncan.

The decision and strategy is going to have to come soon with trading deadline next month and issues ahead about whether to re-sign players from this roster like Gooden and Gordon.

-- Rafer Alston had some celebrated meltdown and clashes with then coach Sam Mitchell when he was in Toronto. There was much talk about Delonte West suffering from depression last fall, and it always seemed Alston was hiding that then as one time he even tried to retire. Still it was interesting to hear his always frank comments, and you could fill in several teams when he talked about what brought down those 2005 Raptors: "We had pretty much me-first guys. We had guys in contract years. We had Donyell (Marshall) in his contract year, MoPete in his contract year (actually, he wasn't, but it's still a good story). So instead of going out and getting the wins, you've got guys who were like, 'Hey, I've got to get my numbers.' You have to think team first, and you have to think you second, sometimes you third." Alston then went on to talk about his current team, the Rockets, who have had their usual injury problems, though when asked whether his teammates were on the same page, he responded: "Not at all. Not one bit." No names were mentioned, but this is the Tracy McGrady conundrum in Houston. McGrady is the problem, though no one wants to come out and say it and fear losing what little they can get from McGrady. It was just over a year ago that McGrady and new coach Rick Adelman were at odds over the offense and McGrady was quietly talking about being traded. Adelman adjusted and they had a strong finish even with Yao hurt. But McGrady cannot be counted upon with knee problems and continues to surprise the team about when he will or won't play. McGrady always has been a half court type player despite his athletic talent. The Rockets would like to run and speed the game, but they cannot with McGrady on the court. You can see they are much better without McGrady, though their record now is better when McGrady plays. I don't see it for the long run. So would some team take a chance on McGrady? Perhaps with a new environment, which he's shown he needs to get energized every few years (three years and he wanted out of Toronto, four and he wanted out of Orlando and he's now in his fifth season in Houston), he can play past his knee problems. I don't know that there's much demand for McGrady, but he should be an interesting name come trading deadline. Often teams proper when they use addition by subtraction.

-- With all that's written about Stephon Marbury, you'd think he wasn't a selfish, underachieving locker room cancer and selfish loser. But, hey, I'm not criticizing. Anyway, the latest was Marbury talking about how much he loved Minnesota and yearned for the days playing with Kevin Garnett. You may recall Marbury forcing his way out of Minnesota because one of the reasons was he said could never play with someone lesser than him like Garnett who made more money. Anyway, Marbury has been pining to join the Celtics all season and has been talking openly about it of late. He continues to say he won't give up money (or much) in a buyout, though at this point some around the league are saying it would seem foolish for the Knicks to release him, have him end up in Boston and then perhaps even face them in the first round of the playoffs with Boston in desperate need of a backup point, which is entirely possible in the wide open battle for eighth in the East. With all the damage he's reaped on the Knicks franchise, I'd let him dangle the rest of the season.

-- Kevin Garnett to reporters on players around the NBA starting to say Boston players talk too much and embarrass the game: "We're not here to be liked. And when we're out there, a lot of times we're talking to ourselves. We're communicating amongst each other and it has nothing to do with the other team, and the other team likes to jump in or say little (expletive). A lot of that we let go. We don't even comment on a lot of stuff, because half the guys who are talking we don't even know their names. But a couple of the times we do have conversations with some guys, now it's coming off like we're non-classy. But it's never told what's being said to us. When you're dealing with idiots who don't know what they're talking about or guys who are just talking out their (tail) or just talking out their mouth, then that's a whole other level." Got it! The bigger issue for Boston trying to repeat is the issue that had everyone questioning them last season: Three 30-plus guys and no bench. And then losses last week in L.A., Golden State and Portland. Garnett is 32 and played 97 games last season from late October to mid-June. Paul Pierce is 31 and played 106 games last season. He averaged 36.6 minutes. Ray Allen is 33 and played 99 games in the title run and averaged just under 36 minutes. This season, there's no James Posey, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, on the roster but not playing. Last season they were better than we predicted. Dikembe Mutombo returned with Houston and Robert Horry is out there, but he jokes that it was Celtics general manager Danny Ainge then the Suns coach who got him traded when he threw a towel in Ainge's face. Though I think if Horry could still play Ainge would forget. The Celtics again are trying to get someone on the cheap with a big payroll and probably are looking to Saturday when contracts are guaranteed for the season and numerous veterans figure to be released. Perhaps Juwan Howard, now with Charlotte, if he has anything left. He's a hard working pro who would fit the Celtics' mentality.

-- Here's the big fear in Toronto, as pointed out last week by one local writer about Chris Bosh's malaise of late: "Bosh was surrounded (on the court) by Will Solomon, Jake Voskuhl, Jamario Moon and Joey Graham. Now that's the kind of lineup that'll convince him to stick around Hogtown!" Yes, it was a meat packing center once not unlike Chicago with its stockyards. Hey, I thought we were Hog Butcher to the World. ... Vince Carter is much maligned for a talent that generally exceeds his passion. But he's now made two of the biggest highlight plays of the season, his backward dunk on an inbounds to beat Toronto and his 35 foot three last week at the buzzer to beat Atlanta after gathering a deflected pass in the backcourt. ... Nice run for Shaq, averaging 21.9 points and 10.4 rebounds the last seven with the Suns 5-2 as Shaq passed Oscar Robertson for eighth all-time in scoring. Certainly a surprise to those seeing him play the last two seasons. Maybe there is something to that Suns training with Grant Hill also pretty healthy. O'Neal deserves to be named a Western All-Star after missing for the first time last season. ... With the Clippers lottery bound again and Stephen Jackson telling reporters Baron Davis wants to return to Golden State (Corey Maggette back with Mike Dunleavy? Oh no), Davis' destination will be one of the big stories of the trade deadline. Clippers fans, meanwhile, have been chanting to "Fire Dunleavy."

-- You know you can count on Scott Skiles for that. The Bucks have quietly moved up to 10th in the league in opponents' shooting and 12th in points allowed despite hardly anyone in the lineup but rookie Luc Mbah a Moute who'd even be considered a good defender. Skiles from Plymouth and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich from Merrillville will be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in March. Said Skiles: "I told him, 'I'm getting in for my high school and college careers, and you're getting in for having won four championships.' I told him I'd definitely switch with him." ... He started 0-9 and 2-17 with the Cavs in 1984, but George Karl last week got his 900th NBA win and seems sure to get 1,000. "Every (newspaper) columnist in Cleveland was saying they're idiots if they don't fire me," Karl said. "I thought if I won 250, it would be a hell of a career." Congratulations. ... Cavs coach Mike Brown as a player at the U. of San Diego was 4-0 against Heat coach Erik Spoelstra at the U. of Portland. ... Tough to be a rookie playing for Don Nelson, as seemingly talented Anthony Randolph was called out and benched by Nelson, who said: "We're going to put him on ice for a while, until the assistant coaches tell me he's ready to play in an NBA game and my captains tell me he's ready. He's just going to have to grow up." Nelson started undrafted rookie Rob Kurz. Stephen Jackson, who recently was blamed by Nelson for hurting the team and supposedly told teammates he wouldn't mind being out of there, said he didn't know of any specific incidents that prompted Nelson's latest comments. It would only be more obvious if Nelson demanded to be fired. ... Amare Stoudemire on disagreeing with calls and getting ejected: "Refs don't like me as much as the cops didn't like Tupac (Shakur)."

-- Hawks coach Mike Woodson after reviewing film of the Hawks win over the Bulls: "How good is Rose? That guy is ridiculous. He's ahead of all these other young kids at the same stage. He has no fear. No fear. You'd be stupid not to pick him Rookie of the Year. He's the real deal. You can't double him. You can't keep him in front of you. He can go get his shot anytime he wants to. They showed a stat the other night that said he was 95-10 in high school and in college he was 38-2. All he knows how to do is win."....Dwyane Wade continues to lead the league in scoring, though more impressively is the way he's carrying a weak Heat roster to sixth in the East. In Saturday's overtime win over the Nets, Wade scored 15 points in the last seven minutes and had two late blocks of seven footer Brook Lopez. "I'm 6-4 on a good day," said Wade. "I love having the ability to get up there and challenge the big guys." The guy is having a remarkable season. ... Adam Morrison is so shell shocked coach Larry Brown is now ordering him to shoot as Morrison has more than one field goal made in just two of his last 15 games played.. ... Classic Steve Francis late reporting to the Grizzlies after missing a flight....several teams are eying the Thunder as trading deadline nears. Said Chris Wilcox: "We've got nine big men. Something has got to happen." ... That old sentimental Phil Jackson when asked about his New Year's resolutions: "I stay away from those. New Year's Eve is amateur night and resolutions are for fools."