What’s next for the Bulls in the offseason?
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The Bulls entered a dangerous place in sports this week: Better than your talent. It got everyone awards and made for an exciting and maybe-all-things-are-possible playoff run. In the end, they succumbed to superior talent that their intangibles of chemistry, teamwork and effort could not offset.
But there are no apologies in sports. The Bulls’ sin in losing to the Miami Heat became not being better than they had no reason being. But now comes the hard part. The conference finals and 62 wins becomes the baseline. Which is fairly unreasonable, especially the 62 wins, as the Bulls aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. Still, you get judged against your last failure. The larger problem, which everyone among the Bulls has long understood, is they have some huge holes and need to get better to perhaps remain where they were.
Management knew the need for a shooting guard or wing player to shoot and create a shot, but with the massive new roster it wasn’t very easy to get that kind of player. The fact is there aren’t many around.
Many names come up, like Rudy Fernandez, O.J. Mayo, Courtney Lee, J.R. Smith, Marcus Thornton, Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Rush, Randy Foye, Nick Young, Shannon Brown, Wayne Ellington, Corey Brewer, Roger Mason, Jerryd Bayless and even Jerry Stackhouse. And while many would have been an improvement over Keith Bogans, really, were these guys playing Dwyane Wade?
Look, that’s the target, Miami. Teams generally build to counter whom they have to beat. It’s clear for the next five years in the East you have to beat Miami. I don’t see any of the above making that much difference, especially since the price for the better ones would be at least Taj Gibson or Omer Asik.
Richard Hamilton’s name has come up again, though it would have to be if he were traded and released, which still remains problematic. His contract is way too high. There’s constant mention of Dwight Howard, and even if he tells the Magic he isn’t re-signing, they aren’t doing anything until the new collective bargaining agreement, which could have a franchise tag element like the NFL. Of course, you’d trade everyone but Derrick Rose for Howard. So would just about everyone. That’s a long, long, long shot and more fantasy than possibility.
Here’s the big gulp. If you are going to make a major change and try to match up with Miami, the only player the Bulls might be able to trade to get anything worthwhile would be Joakim Noah. Would they? He was the center of the defensive core and they wouldn’t trade him for Carmelo Anthony, and I didn’t disagree. Anthony wasn’t twice as much improvement over Luol Deng and you’d still have needed a shooting guard. Plus, Anthony is a poor defender whom LeBron James usually lit up for 40.
There is a possibility if the Bulls cannot find a shooting guard they can move Deng there and go for a small forward, say like Tayshaun Price, though he probably is out of their salary range as well as a free agent. The Bulls will have no money to go after free agents and it’s doubtful there will be a mid level exception in any new labor agreement. It’s the same problem if Deng moves. The field of small forwards you can get, like Rodney Carney, Vladimir Radmanovic, Mike Dunleavy, Matt Barnes, Omri Casspi, Julian Wright, Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Howard probably isn’t enough or too costly. And you have the same matchup issues.
The Boozer/Noah tandem didn’t work out quite as planned, though in part because of injuries to both. The record was good when they played together, but the defense often wasn’t and they ended up sitting out the end of the closing game with Miami.
Noah looked like a core piece with Rose going forward. Could you give him up? Would you?
It became clear against the Heat the Bulls were lacking, primarily, the offensive matchup to both score, take pressure (and defensive attention) off Rose, and give Miami someone else to defend so they couldn’t use so many players to smother Rose in the lane.
So here’s proposal 1: Joe Johnson.
It obviously would take Noah, and it might not be possible with Noah a base year player now, though there’s been talk of eliminating base year in the labor agreement. Johnson didn’t have a great season after scoring the biggest contract in free agency, and you sensed he’d taken the money and run from where he wanted to be, Chicago. Yes, he’s 30 this summer, but not a high flier who needs explosiveness. So he shouldn’t decline much. His contract is huge, which is why the Hawks might prefer to go with Jamal Crawford. And they’d love Noah to move Al Horford to power forward. Maybe it makes Atlanta too good. Johnson would look good with Rose and need plenty of attention, and a rotation of Asik, Boozer, Gibson and maybe Thomas would certainly be enough defensively.
Proposal 2: Monta Ellis.
He’s one of my longtime favorites. He’s not the defender Johnson is, which could be an issue. But his quickness with Rose would make that backcourt unguardable. Golden State hasn’t been sure how to use him and Stephen Curry and you figure they’d love a center like Noah to go with David Lee. Maybe the deals builds and the Bulls can revive Andris Biedrins.
Proposal No. 3: Kevin Martin.
There has been no indication the Rockets would deal him. But you figure with Kevin McHale now as head coach they’ll be anxious to get a big man, as McHale is a great tutor with big men and accelerated Kevin Garnett’s development. The Rockets pushed hard for Omer Asik last winter when the Bulls were supposedly pursuing Courtney Lee. I could see the Rockets more seeking to move the much higher earning Martin. Perhaps Yao Ming returns in limited minutes and you’d have a pretty good front line with Asik and Luis Scola. Martin makes $11.5 million next season, which would require the Bulls adding players like Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer to make a deal. You wouldn’t move Asik for Lee. But for a 20-point type scorer like Martin, though a poor defender, perhaps you’d have to listen. Martin and Derrick Rose likely would be the highest scoring backcourt. You also assume the Rockets would go for Noah, which could require some economic gymnastics given Noah’s base year status, at least for now. Though I don’t think Noah would be worth Martin. Hasheem Thabeet, anyone?
The point is to deal with James and Wade, you may need All-Star level talent and not just a piece. Though with a piece, just a shooter and defender like maybe Lee or Mayo or Brown, assuming you could even get them, maybe that is enough with the dominance and size inside that got the Bulls as far as it did this season.
Of course, if Rose hits one shot to end Game 4 and then James or Wade misses just one bad three pointer, the Bulls are up 3-2 and likely playing a seventh game at home to go to the NBA Finals. So why make any major changes at all?
Heat vs. Mavericks, best Finals ever?
-- It may be the best NBA Finals ever starting Tuesday in Miami. How great will it be to see Larry Bird at his best against Michael Jordan as his best? Which is also how ludicrous sports and media have become in this era of everything is the best because we just saw it. Dirk Nowitzki has a few good games and he’s Larry Bird and LeBron James having joined up with a Finals MVP throws in a few off balance threes and he’s Michael Jordan? As they both go for their first NBA titles with a combined 21 years in the NBA. It’s opinion, I understand, and as the old saying goes, opinions are just like, say, armpits: Everyone has one—though they still might stink.
This isn’t exactly the greatest matchup, though they are the teams who are there so they deserve to be. But the Mavericks may have the league’s worst starting lineup, at least offensively, with Nowitzki surrounded by Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson. They have one All-Star. This is the ’94 Rockets again. The Heat has three All-Stars, though a few weeks ago we believed Chris Bosh was Channing Frye. Miami comes in with the worst combination point forward/center to ever play for a title.
I assume Miami wins this because I’m still surprised the Mavericks got out of the first round. Really, if J.J. Berea gets to the basket again every one of those coaches has to be fired. This sets up as the perfect series for the Miami lineup they never play, and they probably won’t, so it will be a longer series than it should be. With Chandler and Brendan Haywood, who if they played one-on-one might not score in a day, the Heat should play Bosh at center as he doesn’t have to guard anyone, anyway, since he doesn’t. Then you put LeBron on Nowitzki and there goes all those free throws Dirk has been shooting. Sure, Dirk makes some jumpers, but the free throws, more than anyone in the playoffs, go away as LeBron isn’t fouling out. Miami will decide James would give up too much offense, but that’s ridiculous. They’ll play James only on Dirk late and decide they are geniuses if it works. They could lose, though. They wouldn’t if LeBron defended Dirk all game as Dallas has basically no other scoring options if you don’t have to double Dirk.
Then you play Mike Miller at three on Marion and step away if he tries to shoot. Wade can play Terry when he comes in and, yes, Jason Kidd might make some threes. So what? Stevenson is the guy who used to taunt James in those Wizards-Cavs series and always end up looking stupid. But Miami is too smart to do it the right way.
So Udonis Haslem will get time on Nowitzki, and Haslem was big in the 2006 Finals in beating up on Dirk, the strategy then. But now Haslem will be called for a lot of fouls. And, please, not Bosh. He should carry the Boozer red hankie on defense the way he waves it at guys coming at him. You can do that all day with Chandler and he likely still won’t make a layup.
There are five guys back from the 2006 Finals, Dirk and Terry and Wade and Haslem. Oh, yeah, Erick Dampier, who switches to Miami and might even play against the immobile Haywood. Remember, this was the guy Dallas decided they needed to win a title. So they let Steve Nash go and the best two-man game in basketball with Dirk and paid Dampier the same amount. And you wonder why Dallas still is looking for its first title.
2006 Finals still haunts Griffin, Mavericks
-- The 2006 Finals still haunts Adrian Griffin, as it does those Mavericks players. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry get another shot, but there may never have been so many what ifs than for those Mavericks, who led 2-0 with a 13-point lead late in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Miami and lost in six.
“We were very confident we were the better team,” said Griffin, now a Bulls assistant but then one of the guards trying to defend Dwyane Wade. “If we played the way we played that season we would have won that championship. The turning point, obviously, was that Game 3. We weren’t able to stop that momentum or come back with a run and that took some of our confidence away.”
Many around the Mavericks to this day insist it was a league conspiracy against owner Mark Cuban, who lambasted the league and officials during and after the series and was fined $250,000. Cuban’s stayed quiet in these playoffs. But Wade did attempt an extraordinary 97 free throws in six games, 45 in the last two games that were separated by a total of four points, while no one on the Mavs got more than 55 free throws. The Heat shot 52 more free throws in the six games.
“We didn’t have a handle on Wade,” said Griffin, not an excuse maker. “I (also) guarded him and was not able to do my job and stop him. It’s a team effort, but I didn’t do my job. It was very frustrating. He’s an extraordinary player. He was able to hit his mid range shot. You can’t take everything away. Our primary focus was to keep him out of the paint. When he was hitting that jumper it became more difficult.
“But we could have done things differently when you look back,” said Griffin. “Maybe we should have shown a little more attention to Dwyane, hit him (trapped) in the back court, got the ball out of his hands (Wade averaged 34.7 in the Finals. The next most was Antoine Walker at 13.8 on 39 percent shooting). There were a lot of factors, but you couldn’t touch (Wade). They found our vulnerable spots.”
Still, Griffin said the Mavs were in position, in overtime in Game 5, in a three point game in Game 6.
“We had opportunities to win,” Griffin said. “I don’t know if we panicked or not. But you’re up two and lose four in a row you did not do something right.”
It actually was chaos after those Game 3 and Game 4 losses in Miami. Cuban went berserk at the NBA and coach Avery Johnson moved the team out of Miami to a remote hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. The players were paired up with roommates like in high school.
“There were a lot of things going on,” said Griffin. “I didn’t understand it all. If we had to do it over again, I think we would have done a lot differently. But that was well coached Pat Riley team with a good game plan against us, being physical with Dirk and trying to wear him down. We needed to win just one more game and we would have gotten that confidence back.”
And so has Dallas learned?
“You’ve got two heavy hitters, very talented, so it’s going to come down to whose will is stronger,” said Griffin. “Dirk needs to win this badly to solidify himself as one of the all-time greats. He’s a sure Hall of Famer. But will he be mentioned with the superstars or the ones who were almost but not quite? LeBron is in the same boat. He’s definitely a Hall of Famer. But Dwyane has a championship and LeBron does not. I see both of them putting everything on the line because their legacies are on the line. I think it will be a great series.”
From high to low for the Bulls
-- That sure was a quick trip for the Bulls from something special to choking dog losers. It doesn’t take long, though you have to commend the brilliant scheming of the Miami Heat to get LeBron and Wade to throw in three consecutive off balance three pointers when even they admitted they didn’t know the score. No one among the Bulls will dare say so because they had their chances and didn’t come through. You deserve to lose. But Miami had given up that game and was going home for the Game 6 they always expected to win. Why else shoot such bad shots? It was like boxing the longshots on the last race because all you had was $10 left and coming home the big winner and genius. Anyway, the Bulls go home after what really was a remarkable season given I couldn’t find one preseason prediction—including mine—that had them ahead of Boston and Orlando. And with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combining to miss 57 games. None of the other top teams lost starters for nearly as many games. And then without ever winning a playoff series for most, they went to the final four. But fans don’t want excuses. They want to get drunk and sing, “We are the champions.” Media analysts are more complex in their breakdown: Win = Good. Lose = Bad.
Here is a closer look at Chicago’s roster, their role this season and what’s to come:
Derrick Rose: He was great. Like Mike. Like Kobe. Like Isiah. Like West. Like Elgin. Like Oscar. Oscar was the MVP in 1964 and out in the conference finals in five games. No one was defended in these playoffs like Rose. I recently watched Jordan’s 63-point playoff game and he wasn’t trapped once. Rose was trapped on every possession. Still, he tried right down to the last with teammates throwing the ball back to him within seconds to make a play. He averaged 27.1 in the playoffs, two above his season average. He’ll come back with a better three point shot and probably a post game. The Bulls will pay him a maximum extension the moment they can.
Carlos Boozer: It was a rough postseason for him, averaging 12.6, his worst playoffs of his career. He did have the turf toe injury and some residual ankle problems, but he never seemed to develop the lift he had previously and needs to return in better shape. Given four more seasons at an average of about $15 million and likely lower maximums in the new labor deal, his contract is considered untradeable. He and Joakim Noah only started 29 games together, but were 24-5. They both could use a season healthy.
Joakim Noah: His postseason was erratic as he averaged 8.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. Combined with Boozer, they didn’t provide nearly enough offense and Noah needs to get back to shooting at least that free throw line jumper, which he basically abandoned. So teams played off him and further smothered Rose. He never seemed right after that midseason surgery and his $63 million/five year extension kicks in starting next season. The Bulls passed on Carmelo Anthony for him, and if that’s not fair, they have to have a higher level of production from him, even rebounding, which was just 9.8 against a small Miami team and shockingly poor 31.7 percent shooting without taking outside shots.
Luol Deng: He grew into the second option when the Bulls were hoping he could be fourth. In many respects, he saved the season with his consistent all-around play, but they never will be good enough if he’s their second best player. He has three years left at an average about $13 million, and no one’s complaining anymore. He averaged 16.9 points and played an average of about 43 minutes in 16 playoff games. He also was third in rebounding and second in assists and first on the team in steals while defending the opponent’s best offensive player.
Keith Bogans: It’s not his fault, but your starting scoring guard cannot average 5.1 points. He averaged 19.2 minutes in the playoffs and worked hard. In some respects, he reflected the team, playing beyond his expectations. He has one year left at $1.7 million if the Bulls pick up his option for next season. Questionable if he’ll return.
Ronnie Brewer: Never could win back the starting job he was signed for, which wasn’t a great sign against Bogans. He only averaged four points in the playoffs, hardly enough to start at that position without a reliable three point shot. Another hard working, overachiever type. He is paid $4.7 million next season with a team option for the 2012-13 season. He is one of the players along with Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson since they only have one year guaranteed who could be used in deals depending on the rules of the new labor agreement and whether some teams will need expiring contracts.
Kyle Korver: The team’s best shooter, though he never really got it going in the playoffs and shot 38.8 percent overall and 31.8 percent against Miami. Defenses played him harder than he’s used to with the Bulls having so few true scoring options, and he didn’t get enough minutes or shots to break through. With more scoring, he’s still a valuable reserve. He makes $5 million next season with a $500,000 buyout afterward.
C.J. Watson: Probably a shooting guard. The Bulls tried at times to play him with Rose, but he couldn’t do the ballhandling stuff they had with Kirk Hinrich playing with Rose. He is more the volume scorer and often seemed uncertain with a limited role behind Rose. He makes $3.4 million next season with a team option for the following.
Omer Asik: One of the bigger surprises as the team didn’t expect him to play much this season and he developed into maybe their best interior defender. But they kept him as a defensive specialist and he never developed any offensive confidence, which held him back. He has one season left at $1.7 million and when teams have tried to trade with the Bulls, they almost always tried to get him. He’s very popular around the NBA and may be problematic to retain after next season without some creative financial maneuvering.
Taj Gibson: Probably took a step back this season as he was the good soldier but seemed uncertain of his role with Boozer taking his starting job. He opted to be more defensive specialist and slipped back from a reasonable midrange offensive game. After averaging 7.6 in the playoffs last year, he averaged 5.9 this season and 5.6 against the Heat, though in only about 18 minutes per game. He makes $1.2 million next season with a team option for 2012-13 and probably needs a more defined role and playing time.
Kurt Thomas: One of the better pickups of the summer, surely best for the dollar. He produced every time he played even after weeks off. He made $1.8 million this season and will be tough to retain, like Brad Miller last season, as some team probably will overpay him going forward despite his age as the league’s second oldest to Shaq.
Brian Scalabrine: Good bench guy whom fans loved but didn’t play once playoffs began. He made a minimum $854,389 and could retire and go into broadcasting or finish his career in Europe as he still enjoys playing and stays in condition and is a very smart player.
Rasual Butler/John Lucas/Jannero Pargo: Picked up late for possible inclusion in trades, though Butler is a veteran shooting guard who could even end up starting next season if the Bulls cannot find a replacement for Bogans. Lucas isn’t likely to return. Pargo is possible.
NBA news and notes
-- Though I joke about it, Toronto is a great city, one of the best in the NBA. And, really, can not having ESPN be that bad? But here we go again with Andrea Bargnani having to explain he really loves Canada even though he told an Italian station the “politically correct” answer was to say he wants to stay but he’d prefer a warmer city. And we thought the Europeans were more sophisticated. Hello, if you say something in Italy on TV we can find out. Bargnani also wasn’t too thrilled with post season suggestions by returning GM Bryan Colangelo he should improve and said in the same interview, “(Colangelo) had some unfortunate and not very courageous comments about me... The facts are there for everybody to see and judge.” Colangelo merely questioned his defense and rebounding, hardly stunning stuff. And you can expect Bargnani will be in most Raptors trade talk, though apparently not yet. But given Bargnani was a No. 1 overall pick (in the Tyrus Thomas draft. Can we still call it that?), he won’t come cheaply. He sure can shoot the ball, Dirk like, really. Perhaps a change of scenery makes a big difference. … Two shooting guard prospects that can drift toward the bottom of the first round are Washington State's Klay Thompson and UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt while Providence’s Marshon Brooks is said to be a top 20 or 25 pick. The most interesting guy is Jimmer Fredette, who has been projected between the top 10 and mid 20s. … There’s nothing that’s even been suggested, but you can see Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks suffering the same A to B to C fate that befell Doug Collins after he led the Bulls to the 1989 Eastern Conference finals. The Thunder, certainly with young talent but enough veterans not to let it happen, were again and again confused and disorganized. GM Sam Presti, while quiet like his Spurs mentor R. C. Buford, isn’t one to waste his young talent as this situation with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant seems problematic. You’ll recall after 62 and 59-win seasons in San Antonio, coach Bob Hill was fired. Descriptions of the Thunder in local media as predictable and lacking composure likely don’t help.
-- I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but the same Portland columnist who commended Kevin Pritchard compared to Paul Allen and other Trail Blazers management just before Pritchard was fired quoted Rick Cho positively compared to Trailblazers leadership the day before Cho was fired. The unofficial word was Allen simply didn’t like Cho, who was guarded and didn’t talk basketball much with him. Hey, it is his toy. … The Arizona Republic reported Suns coach Alvin Gentry has met with the Spurs Don Newman, Houston’s Elston Turner and the Bulls Pete Myers about taking over as defensive assistant. Former Bulls head coach Bill Cartwright remains on the staff. … It looks like Showtime to Slowtime for the Lakers, who made the surprising hire of former Cavs coach Mike Brown. The credentials are fine as Brown is a defensive geek, though if you thought Tom Thibodeau didn’t have enough personality, he’s Charles Barkley in comparison to Brown. So Brown could work in a lot of places as he’s a solid person, likeable and smart. But L.A.? The local media was filled with columns blasting the hiring and local talk shows lit up about 75-25 against. Perhaps the most amazing image of Brown was peering into huddles in the playoffs while an offensive assistant diagrammed plays. It was said he allowed LeBron James to wave him off in some of the rudest language. The Lakers have since admitted not telling Kobe Bryant wasn’t too bright, and now you follow Phil Jackson with an aging team and superstar. If players can go for the money only, why can’t coaches with about $18 million for four years. Hey, maybe Brown is smarter than the rest of us.