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Bulls need to add a star, but how and when?

As the Bulls move forward in a seemingly very winnable Eastern Conference, you have to wonder: Is it about competing until Derrick Rose returns, which will happen perhaps late next season or the season after? Or is it about trying to have the pieces in place or the flexibility to go for a championship when he returns and thereafter?
"The Bulls the way the East is breaking down did seem to have a chance this season for a title," writes Sam Smith. "But they also seem to have the same issue of the lack of another star player. So then the question becomes, how do you get another star?"

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.

Sam Smith Mailbag

They have to be calling it the Leastern Conference now, which if not making for great basketball in the Eastern Conference playoffs certainly has to give everyone hope of making the Finals next season.

What, you can’t beat the 76ers, who have now won four playoff games when they shot below 40 percent (and 40.8 percent in a fifth)? Is that even allowed?

The Celtics are on the verge of being broken up with Kevin Garnett, now a perimeter shooting center, and Ray Allen free agents. The Pacers have emerged, but, quick, someone name an All-Star? Someone who deserves to be, anyway. Nice team. But just nice. OK, Chris Bosh will be back, but the way this playoffs has been going for Miami, we don’t know on which team. How about being stuck with Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem for $30 million combined over the next two years? I’d say they’d take Carlos Boozer for them.

This, of course, makes it all the more depressing for the Bulls, knowing how close the Finals might have been. And maybe it does give the Knicks real hope with Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire. So it should be a wide, wide open East next season with about everyone but Charlotte in the playoff race.

That should include the Bulls assuming, as expected, they retain Omer Asik. With four front court level starters, the Bulls should be playoff competitive even without Derrick Rose. And if they can add just one decent free agent guard like Kirk Hinrich, Andre Miller, Ray Felton, Goran Dragic, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd or Jonny Flynn, then the Bulls should be competing for a top four spot as well.

But is that good enough and is it worth the effort?

That may be the larger question facing a team like the Bulls. Is it about competing until Rose returns, which will happen perhaps late next season or the season after? Or is it about trying to have the pieces in place or the flexibility to go for a championship when he returns and thereafter?

The Bulls the way the East is breaking down did seem to have a chance this season for a title. But they also seem to have the same issue of the lack of another star player. Luol Deng did make the All-Star team, and Joakim Noah presumably would have a chance. But are they true go to guys you can count on? Oklahoma City in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden seems to have three. The way ESPN set up a bureau in Miami when their Big Three settled there, we assume the Oklahoma City ESPN bureau will be next.

So then the question becomes, how do you get another star?

The draft is one way. Do you try to trade Deng or Noah to get into a pretty good draft this season? Rarely do teams trade lottery picks for players. But the Pacers and Spurs did last season, George Hill for the rights to Kawhi Leonard. And both teams remain pleased. Of course, a team has to have cap room to absorb the player. And that could take them out of free agency. But if they are a small market team maybe they can’t attract someone. Maybe someone takes a shot. It sets you back next season, but perhaps you pluck someone who can be a star level talent in two years as Rose returns and you go for it again in 2014-15 when you also probably can bring over Nikola Mirotic from Europe.

The question then facing the Bulls is whether this team is done and has gone as far as possible and is time to break it up. Or just work Rose back in next season and you have given up maybe a half season or so? And the way the East is why not take another shot with what you have?

Then there’s Free Agency 2.0.

It didn’t go as planned in 2010, though in getting Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson with coach Tom Thibodeau the Bulls put together a deep enough team to be a serious title contender.

But say the Bulls withdraw next season: They keep Rose out, maybe deal Deng or Noah for a pick and miss the playoffs. So then they get another lottery pick in 2013. They bring those young players back with Rose in 2013-14, and then in the summer of 2014, here are the possible free agents:

LeBron James
Dwyane Wade
Chris Bosh
Paul Pierce
Kobe Bryant
Dirk Nowitzki
Ty Lawson
Rodney Stuckey
Monta Ellis
Danny Granger
Andrew Bogut
Emeka Okafor
Andre Iguodala
Evan Turner
Marcin Gortat

Even if the Bulls don’t trade one of their core players, Deng’s contract expires after the 2013-14 season and with one season left they would be in position to use amnesty on Boozer. That would again put the Bulls far enough below the salary cap to attract two top players. The Bulls thought they had James in 2010. He liked Thibodeau. Miami may not work. He’ll hardly be too old, and he’ll still be a star.

And Rose will be just 26 with three years left on his Bulls deal. Rose then would have less pressure to rehabilitate and given two years to work back would be as close to healthy as he’ll ever be, presumably, if not fully recovered. And who knows what the Bulls can turn that potential 2016 Charlotte pick into by then. It’s just two seasons. Try now or try later? It’s a good question.

Free agents of 2010 coming up short

-- Of course, if you take a look back at the Greatest Free Agent Class ever, it doesn’t look that great two years later:

Carlos Boozer: Out in first round. No longer considered an All-Star;

Amar’e Stoudemire: Out in first round. Injured again and seemingly in decline;

Chris Bosh: Perhaps out in the second round and considered most likely Heat to be traded if the Heat were to lose to the Pacers, though the series now is 2-2.

LeBron James: MVP, but also if out in the second round on verge of becoming the most decorated player in NBA history without a title;

Dwyane Wade: They’re even speculating in Miami with Bosh hurt and the Heat in a tough series with Indiana that if they don’t win he should be traded given he appears to be breaking down;

Dirk Nowitzki: Did win a title last season, but out in first round this season as team starts another rebuilding;

Joe Johnson: Out in the first round after shooting below 40 percent in the playoffs;

Rudy Gay: The Grizzlies paid substantially to keep him out of free agency. But with a first round elimination there’s talk of him being traded as a bad fit with Zach Randolph;

Paul Pierce: Has been a relative value returnee as he’s maintained a consistent game in helping keep the Celtics competitive if not for titles;

Ray Allen: Also returned to Boston and has limped through an injury plagued year this season;

David Lee: Missed the playoffs again with the Warriors;

Josh Childress: Missed the playoffs and out of the regular rotation with the Phoenix Suns;

Luis Scola: Resigned with the Rockets, but they tried to trade him in the preseason Chris Paul deal and the Rockets missed the playoffs this season;

Ray Felton: Signed with the Knicks, who let him go to Denver, which let him go to Portland, who is now letting him go.

There was also the likes of Shaq, Richard Jefferson, J.J. Redick, Travis Outlaw, Al Harrington, Mike Miller, Jermaine O’Neal, John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas. So what were we all excited about?

NBA’s Competition Committee should bring needed change

-- Quietly during the playoffs, the NBA announced a new Competition Committee, the committee that was formerly general managers that considers rules changes. There are some credible new members, like Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Lionel Hollins, Sam Presti and Bryan Colangelo, but also owners Dan Gilbert and Joe Lacob. There’s various speculation about why Commissioner David Stern did this, but it’s going to be an important committee after watching these playoffs.

So many of these games have turned into legalized wrestling matches because the league has allowed defense to get way out of control. You see it all the time—Kevin Durant trying to get free off the ball for a shot at the end of Game 3 and Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum holding him and no call. The freedom of movement that was so trumped a few years ago with changes to allow zone is all but gone. Players run half way across the floor and jump in front of someone and that’s called defense. All the complaining about flopping? It’s the league's fault for allowing all those charging calls when guys aren’t really playing defense. Kevin Garnett’s moving screen? The reason the Celtics were so upset was Garnett sets the same illegal screen every time he sets a screen. Yes, why call it then? I agree. They should have fouled him out three minutes into the game.

The scores are down with scoring just over 90 per game and the shooting is down, but not because players can’t shoot. Officials are allowing defenders to mug cutters, forcing all sorts of isolations. If Stern’s idea to change the committee was to save the game, he’s on the right course. These playoffs should be all the evidence he needs.

Former Bull Boozer was a member of franchise’s first team

-- The Bulls lost an original late Saturday night when Bob Boozer, a member of their inaugural team in 1966-67, died, apparently of a brain aneurysm, back home in Omaha, Nebraska. That team remains the only NBA expansion team ever to make the playoffs, and with three current or future All-Stars in Boozer, Jerry Sloan and Guy Rodgers. “He was a good veteran who knew the ropes and really helped us,” recalled Sloan. “Making the playoffs as an expansion team is quite a feat. He’d post you, shoot his jump shot from the elbow, was great in the lane with good hands and could finish. He wasn’t real huge, but steady and there for you every day, a really good guy.”

Boozer was a bright player who was the star for Tex Winter’s relatively starless Kansas State team. But with the use of the triangle offense, K-State with Boozer was instrumental in beating Wilt at Kansas in Wilt’s last collegiate game and then splitting with Robertson’s Cincinnati power house in consecutive NCAA’s. Boozer went on to be drafted No. 1 by the Royals. But in a terrific show of loyalty, he skipped going pro to play amateur ball in Peoria so he could try out for the 1960 Olympic team. He worked or Caterpillar so he could play for their industrial league team, then considered a high level of basketball with so few NBA teams. That was the root of the AAU, and Boozer led them to the title and he was named MVP in waiting to try out for the Olympic team. That USA team of true amateurs was the first real Dream Team, a powerhouse that won its games by more than an average of 40 with Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas and other future NBA players like Terry Dischinger, Darrell Imhoff and Adrian Smith. That team was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Boozer went to the Royals after that, and Robertson still is bitter the Royals sold Boozer’s contract to the Knicks so they could bring back Larry Staverman. “It just showed how bad our management was,” Robertson said Sunday like it was 40 years ago. “You don’t trade the top guy off your bench, an all-American. “They destroyed the team.” Robertson still burns because that 1963-64 Royals team with Jerry Lucas had beaten Boston regularly that season and was 45-19 when Boozer was sold. The Royals slumped after that and lost to Boston in the conference finals. Robertson always felt that was their best chance to break Boston’s dominance, though Boozer was with Robertson in Milwaukee in 1971 when they won the title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson and Boozer remained close and Robertson said they’d talked only Thursday. “He said his health was fine,” said Robertson. “That’s why it was such a shock. He was a great pro and a great teammate, a great guy.”

Boozer had been that in returning to Omaha after his playing career, working for the telephone company, the state parole board and helping kids at Boy’s Town. After going to New York and to the Lakers, the Bulls selected Boozer in the expansion draft and he went on to become an All-Star with the Bulls and one of the team’s most popular players. He averaged 20.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in three seasons with the Bulls before being traded to Seattle for Bob Kauffman and a 1971 draft pick the Bulls would use for Clifford Ray. But Boozer would get his title and return home and when you’d see him he never had anything but great things to say about the NBA and his career and how proud he was to represent the country.

NBA news and notes

-- You get a pass when you’ve called so many great last second plays, which is why there wasn’t much heat on Doc Rivers for his gaffe in Game 2 against the 76ers. With the Celtics down one and the 76ers with the ball with about 28 seconds, the obvious play was to play it out and have maybe four or five seconds left after a miss. Boston had a timeout and Rivers is great calling those plays. But not being in the penalty yet apparently confused the Celtics’ staff since Doug Collins had to foul twice in Game 1 to get into the penalty late to play the foul game and time eventually ran out. Apparently, considering that, Rivers had a baffled Rajon Rondo foul with 14 seconds left, thus then forcing the Celtics to foul and enabling the 76ers to go up three with the free throws. But Rivers has generally been so good most everyone let it pass. That’s why basketball is the greatest game—you have hundreds of decisions like this every game compared to say, four, in any baseball game. … The greatest test of whether you really are about winning may be for Deron Williams this summer with the Pacers, basically having everything but a star, with enough cap room to make Williams a big offer. And though Roy Hibbert has helped put the Pacers potentially in position to beat Miami at 2-2, he is a restricted free agent and also probably moved himself into the eight figure neighborhood. I’ll admit that’s one of the biggest surprises to me as he is one of the most awkward big men I’ve seen. But look what guys like Nene, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan got last season. It’s good to be tall. George Hill also is a free agent and it could mean luxury tax to keep both. But the Pacers could emerge as a true championship contender with Williams. Hey, Williams went to college in Champaign-Urbana. He can’t be that choosy.

-- When I caught up with Jerry Sloan Sunday to talk about his former Bulls teammate, Bob Boozer, he was back home in southern Illinois doing some work around his home and said he was looking to get back into the NBA for one more coaching gig. “I’d like to get back in, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” said Sloan. He said he’d talked with four or five teams, but there was nothing solid yet. “There’s a lot of competition for those jobs, and rightfully so,” said Sloan. But like when Hubie Brown came back to revitalize the Memphis Grizzlies, someone is missing a chance to hire a great one who still has a lot of energy and knowledge and is nothing but a winner. … Maybe Luol Deng’s Great Britain team can win a medal. The USA team may be further falling apart with Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury and now who knows what’s wrong with Dwyane Wade. Does Kobe Bryant want to try out those knees for another summer? Dwight Howard is gone after back surgery. The U.S. may have pushed too far with the players from 2008, and this could be a tough summer in London depending on who shows up.

-- Dwyane Wade showed in Sunday’s big Miami win that he’s still talented. But he also may be the league’s dirtiest player. I wonder sometimes if he needs that anger management more than Ron Artest. It seems more than coincidence now with Wade injuring so many players, and always after he didn’t get a call or someone made a play against him. There was Wade last year causing Rajon Rondo’s dislocated elbow after a Rondo steal from him. Wade also ran across the floor with a shoulder block into Paul Pierce in that series. There was Wade breaking Kobe’s nose in the All-Star game, of all places, after Kobe put a move on him that froze him and left Wade looking bad. There was Wade throwing Richard Hamilton into the stands in Miami after Hamilton had made some driving plays against him. There was Wade’s body block from behind against Darren Collison in this series after a steal. Wade seems to have for some reason become something of a menace and a cheap shot player and the NBA needs to begin paying attention to the blind shots before someone really gets hurt.

-- It was curious to see Miami players and coach Erik Spoelstra hide from the media the day after their Game 3 loss in Indianapolis by declining to practice and thus avoid an NBA fine on a technicality. It was just a second round loss to go a game down, which should hardly invite panic and failure to stand up to your professional responsibilities. Plus, the South Florida media following the Heat tends to be, like most local media, very supportive. When the Bulls lost in Miami in March after beating them twice, one of the local ESPN writers actually taunted Joakim Noah in the locker room after the game in asking him now if he felt the Heat was Hollywood, a throwaway comment Noah mentioned a year before. All that was missing was the reporter’s nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. Noah shook his head and walked away. I agree the Heat over the last two years has gotten an inordinate amount of scrutiny, though much has been celebratory with ESPN setting up a virtual local staff in Miami. You’d wish they’d be as professional in tough times as they are when things are going so well. Of course, maybe that is a flaw. … Yes, a coach has to be creative when losing a top player, but Spoelstra’s starting of Dexter Pittman in Game 3 was one of the more bizarre moves in a playoff game. Pittman was out after three horrible minutes, but it pointed to Spoelstra failing to develop a rotation all season with head scratching lineups. Of course, he doesn’t actually have that great a roster after his three main guys. Though players should adjust, it’s a given in basketball that players like to know their roles and teams must settle on a regular rotation. Pittman hadn’t played a minute in the post season. It was akin to the Bulls’ starting Brian Scalabrine. Maybe the Bulls didn’t have that much to worry about after all with Miami stealing Ronny Turiaf from them. … In Miami they are asking if LeBron is now playing with a worse supporting cast than he did in Cleveland. Ouch.

-- Perhaps the greatest thing about Gregg Popovich’s coaching is the way he changed his philosophy to adapt to his team. Long playing through the post with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Popovich changed the Spurs philosophy about two years ago when it seemed Duncan was in decline to play more through Tony Parker and open the court in a bigger scoring game. They swing the ball side to side as good as any team in years, something the Bulls did well. And it would work for Popovich down the stretch in sweeping the Clippers in Game 4 Sunday. By intentionally fouling the Clippers’ poor shooting big men, Popovich chased the Clippers into a small ball game that the Spurs could take advantage of with their incredible ball movement. Thus the Clippers lose a six-point lead late in the fourth to end up being swept. Advantage: Pop. … While the Lakers and Kobe Bryant were pointing at Pau Gasol for a late turnover in the Game 4 loss to the Thunder and not attacking enough, sharing the blame has to go to coach Mike Brown. The Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions to counter, at least some, Russell Westbrook’s speed and run the team. But Brown again went late with Steve Blake, who is a good shooter but cannot run the offense. As a result, Kobe Bryant ended up having to run the offense, thus leaving Pau standing outside as Andrew Bynum is the post man. So Pau was limited in what he could do and the ball was constantly in Kobe’s hands. So he shot. It wasn’t Pau’s fault. That team needed more coaching. … Ozzie Guillen. Yes, him. He weighed in on the Wade/Spoelstra dustup in Game 3 saying he would have kicked the posterior of any player who did the Wade “Get out of my face expletive” to Spoelstra. So, yes, Ozzie loves Castro but hates Wade?

-- Kevin Garnett has been terrific this season, and again against the 76ers in the second round until nine points and seven turnovers in the 76ers comeback win in Game 4. Garnett gets called dirty and a cheap shot guy a lot, but the real story about Garnett always has been he doesn’t like physical play and contact. It’s why he became so good at that fading jump shot because he was backing away from contact. So the 76ers roughed him up in Game 4. And they’ll continue to do so as much as they can with slow moving Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen. Not your toughest guys. But we’ll see if Garnett will play through it. “All of their big guys are playing physical and bumping,” Garnett said. “You go through side picks and it’s physical. I can’t tell one guy from the next. Spencer Hawes is being just as physical as the young kids. It’s all the same. They’re very aggressive.” The Celtics are 1-3 this postseason when Garnett takes 12 shots or fewer. … The Bulls can complain all they want about their bad luck, but watching the Thunder and Lakers the other night make 67 of 70 free throws should tell the Bulls what they have to practice. Their 74 percent this season was 28th in the league and in the playoffs they shot 64.9 percent, the worst in the league. So don’t blame Omer. He had plenty of company. The games wouldn’t gave come down to one shot or free throw if the Bulls weren’t the league’s worst playoff free throw shooting team. Heck, the Clippers had two guys opposing teams fouled off the ball, and they shot better than the Bulls overall. … I loved that Kobe explanation of why he doesn’t try to take a charge: "I learned from my predecessors. (Scottie) Pippen had a (messed) up back taking charges. (Larry) Bird had a (messed) up back taking charges. I said, 'I'm not taking charges.' I figured that out at an early age." Great story. Unfortunately, it’s ridiculous. Pippen had back surgery after his rookie season when he didn’t play much and hardly was taking any charges. And Bird famously hurt his back fixing his driveway at home in French Lick. But since it’s sports, who really cares as it makes a good story. Right?

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