by Russ Bengtson
I’ve been a Bulls fan for as long as I’ve followed the NBA. Yes, it started with Michael Jordan. No, they weren’t winning championships yet. When I started following the Bulls in earnest, MJ’s teammates included guys like Granville Waiters, Brad “10 Years Too Soon” Sellers and Dave Corzine. But you knew that the Bulls would eventually get it together. Jordan’s talent, and more than that, his will to win, was simply too strong. He was destined from the start to be more than just a shoe salesman.
Fast forward, through the building of a champion, six championships, the death of a dynasty. Jordan retired, Pippen golden parachuted away to Houston. The Bulls jab-stepped a rebuilding process, drafting Duke power forward Elton Brand and St. John’s small forward Ron Artest and plucking Purdue center Brad Miller from the undrafted masses before trading them all away for a mish-mash of veterans and a pair of high school kids that were supposed to lead them back to the promised land.
Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler were seemingly two halves of a whole, an offensive juggernaut and a defensive beast respectively, each of them possessing in excess what the other lacked. Curry was a hometown boy from suburban Chicago, Chandler an import from the city of Compton. One was skinny, one, uh, wasn’t. Even their jersey numbers were suggestive—Curry wore two, Chandler three. Two-three. Two parts of one whole that would hopefully lead the Bulls back to Grant Park as 23 did.
Well, we all know how that worked out. Perhaps had they kept Brand and lined him up with either Chandler or Curry, things would have been different. They weren’t. The Bulls were horrible, and—while attendance was still good, thanks to a lingering aftertaste from the championship years—that needed to change. Quickly.
Next plan. Enter fiery coach Scott Skiles, new GM John Paxson and a new approach to drafting. Out with the high schoolers, in with proven players from championship-level programs. Guys who were like, well, Elton Brand and Ron Artest. Guys like Jason Williams from Duke, Kirk Hinrich from Kansas, Ben Gordon from Connecticut, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon from Duke.
The young guys came in, bonded, grew up together. It was like a post-graduate program in basketball with Skiles as the crotchety old professor. When Williams crashed his motorcycle the summer following his rookie year, effectively ending his career, the Bulls selected Hinrich and plugged him right in. They were a young team, undoubtedly heading in the right direction. The city liked the team, the team all seemed to like one another.
Then they decided to skip a couple of steps. Chandler, the last holdover from the Jerry Krause era, was dealt to the New Orleans Hornets for scrap (J.R. Smith, the only true player the Bulls got back, was immediately waived), and the Bulls signed Pistons forward/center Ben Wallace, the lunchbucket centerpiece of Detroit’s championship team. It seemed, on the surface, a brilliant move—taking a key part from their biggest rival and at the same time adding a veteran with championship-level experience.
However, it also pushed the clock way forward. The Baby Bulls were babies no more. With the addition of Wallace, they needed to win, win now, and win big.
They didn’t. Sure, last year was a success to an extent. Forty-nine wins (the most in the post-Jordan era), a first-round sweep of the defending champion Heat, and a trip to the second round of the playoffs (the first of the post-Jordan era) where they lost to the Pistons. But more was expected.
Which brings us at long last to this year. So-called experts (including yours truly) thought this would be the year the Bulls pushed over the hump. That Wallace’s lackluster performance last year was just a fluke, and not a sign of permanent decline. That Gordon, Deng and Hinrich would build off their playoff experience, that Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas would make tremendous strides from their rookie seasons, that lottery pick Joakim Noah would provide a tremendous burst of energy off the bench. That the Bulls would contend from Day One as an Eastern superpower.
And virtually none of it happened. The Bulls opened the season with a loss to the Nets in New Jersey, and from there it only got worse. They lost at home to the lottery-bound Philadelphia 76ers, then were stomped there by the Toronto Raptors. As Thanksgiving approaches the Bulls sit at 1-5, dead last in the Central Division, with their annual November circus road trip just beginning. Forget winning the East, at this point it’s going to be a challenge for the Bulls to just make the playoffs. How have things gone this wrong? Well, I’m glad I asked.
SIZE. The Bulls are small. Really small. The starting backcourt of Hinrich and Gordon is 6-3. And despite Gordon’s chiseled physique, he can’t stop opposing two-guards. Which means Hinrich is stuck chasing guys like Richard Jefferson and Kobe, meaning he gets in early foul trouble almost every night. The 6-7 Sefolosha was expected to provide some help after he did an excellent job on (an admittedly banged up) Dwyane Wade during the playoffs last year, but he hasn’t shown much of anything this year. Chris Duhon is still ahead of him on the depth chart. An idea (first posited by Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith) would involve moving the 6-9 Deng to the two, starting 6-7 Andres Nocioni at the three, and bringing Gordon off the bench. Why not?
Unfortunately the Bulls are also undersized up front, with the 6-9 Wallace at center and all of one seven-footer on the roster, rookie Aaron Gray. In Detroit, Wallace could manage at center thanks to his freakish athleticism and the presence of Rasheed Wallace beside him (with fellow bruiser Dale Davis coming off the bench). But with Wallace’s physical abilities apparently diminished and youngsters Thomas and Noah as the other options, the Bulls frontcourt is as small as the backcourt. Also, none of them can shoot worth a lick.
BEN WALLACE. I still want to believe this wasn’t a bad signing. That despite his lackluster numbers, Big Ben has provided valuable leadership in the locker room and on the floor. I really want to believe it. Only I don’t. This year Wallace declined to even be considered as a team captain, citing it should be a job for the younger guys. Excuse me? Then what the heck did he sign on for, exactly? I don’t see too many of those 20-rebound games happening. Wallace scores less than 10 points a game, makes Shaquille O’Neal look like Mark Price at the charity stripe. And when I hoped he would pass certain things on to his younger teammates, I wasn’t thinking about his field-goal percentage. Others are worried about this as well.
(When you consider that Wallace was disgruntled under Flip Saunders, and that the Pistons were headed in a more offensive-minded direction anyway, you get the feeling the Bulls did the Pistons a $60 million favor. Don’t even get me started.)
What the Bulls really needed was an alpha-dog scorer. Which leads us to…
ADDITIONS. Or lack thereof. After being exposed by the Pistons last year for the undersized, streaky, jumpshooting team they are, what did the Bulls do to get better? Good question. They added Noah in the draft (who, despite his seemingly boundless energy, pretty much duplicates the offense-free skillsets of Thomas and Wallace) and plucked 32-year-old forward Joe Smith from free agency. That’s it. This was the equivalent of standing on 12 at the blackjack table with the dealer showing a face card. The Bulls still have no reliable low-post scorer, and no single go-to guy. Meanwhile Pau Gasol is still in Memphis, Kobe Bryant is still in Los Angeles, and Kevin Garnett is posting his nightly double-doubles in Boston for the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics. You start to get the feeling this is by design.
THE NON-STAR SYSTEM. Assuming Skiles and Paxson knew what they were doing from the start, they intentionally built the Bulls as a star-free team, one where the shot would always go to the open man, not a pre-determined superstar. In theory, at least, this seems to be an excellent idea, and in practice it appears to work. Most of the time. When the Bulls are at their best, the offense is one of constant movement, both ball and players, often leading to an open jumper. Hinrich, Deng, Gordon and Nocioni are all capable of scoring 20-plus, and guys like Duhon and Sefolosha are also able to step in and hit open shots. The fact that Ben Wallace is perfectly capable of shooting airballs from as little as a foot away from the rim isn’t really an issue. Well, at least last year it wasn’t.
Here’s the thing, though. No matter how democratic a team may appear—the San Antonio Spurs, the Detroit Pistons—the ones who succeed always have a killer who can take over when the game’s on the line, someone who can create his own shot and get the job done. For the Spurs, that can either be Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker (Tim Duncan, while the star, needs to be set up inside). For the Pistons it was often Chauncey Billups or Rasheed Wallace. The Bulls, they don’t really have one, although Ben Gordon seems to think if there is one, it’s him. Nearly EVERYONE on the Bulls needs to come off of screens to be effective. They can’t just give the ball to someone up top and let them work.
EXTENSIONS. This isn’t about Joakim’s hair. The secondary problem with the non-star system, as revealed this off-season, is that when you have no single star, EVERYONE assumes that they’re the star. Which means they all want to get paid like stars. Gordon and Deng allegedly turned down extensions totaling $107 million over five years. Wallace’s deal is for something over $60 million, Hinrich is getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 million. Oh yeah, and Nocioni just re-signed, too. That’s a lot of scratch for a bunch of guys who’ve never been All-Stars and never been to the conference finals (at least not in Chicago). Only Gordon has averaged 20+ ppg.
You have to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to have ONE superstar making over $100 million (I’m not saying names or anything) rather than a bunch of role players (even very good ones) making $40-60 million apiece?
KOBE. Oh, the hell with it. The name most connected with the Bulls this offseason (and preseason, and regular season) was Kobe Bryant. Dissatisfied with his situation in Los Angeles, Kobe has been alternately asking and not asking for a trade since the start of the summer, and the most plausible destination for him has always been Chicago. Various packages have been discussed, but nothing has happened. (Although, if anything, all the talk about POSSIBLY trading for Kobe may have irrevocably damaged the confidence of the Bulls players who WEREN’T traded.)
You know what?
DO IT. PLEASE.
Maybe this is just the panic talking, I don’t know. After all, the Bulls started 3-9 last season and still wound up winning nearly 50 games. But here’s the thing: let’s say the same thing winds up happening again. It’s still not good enough. Not in Chicago, where success is measured in banners and rings. Second-round exits are for second-rate teams. And the Bulls as currently constructed don’t have the horses to win it all.
Kobe Bryant takes them to that next level. Part with what you have to, add a natural-born killer to the roster, and see where it leads. Maybe it shifts the attention away from the team, maybe it sends the wrong message, but at least it gives them a chance to win.
Of course what they SHOULD have done was use P.J. Brown’s expiring contract and any other combination of salaries—I mean players—necessary to pry Kevin Garnett away from the Timberwolves. KG’s intensity is contagious and his style of play makes everyone better. He draws doubles, dishes diplomatically, and is a dominant defender (word to Clyde Frazier). Obviously the Bulls would have had to give up a lot, but KG would have made them an immediate favorite in the East. Which, if you haven’t noticed, they’re not.
The could-haves and should-haves are many. They should have kept Chandler and not gone after Wallace. They should have kept LaMarcus Aldridge instead of trading him for Tyrus Thomas. They should have traded the 2007 Knicks pick as soon as they found out they weren’t getting Oden or Durant. But that’s all in the past. The question is what do the Bulls do now. And the answer is I have no idea. There aren’t many choices, really. Four basic ones, the way I see it:
1) STAY THE COURSE. Don’t trade anyone, don’t fire anyone, hope that things right themselves. They will, of course—Hinrich and Gordon won’t shoot 35 percent forever, Deng and Nocioni will come around, Noah and Thomas (and hopefully Sefolosha) will contribute, and maybe even Ben Wallace will show flashes of old. They’ll probably go on a good run to offset this bad one at some point during the season. The Bulls will win somewhere between 40 and 50 games, make the playoffs, possibly return to the Eastern Conference semis. Then next summer deal with the same problems all over again—with an even older Wallace and Gordon and Deng still unsigned. Can’t wait.
2) MAKE A TRADE. Preferably a big one. Do what the Celtics did and turn a couple of young pieces into one big one. Get Kobe or Gasol or some other disgruntled max-money type who can help right away—and score when it counts. (This, incidentally does NOT mean going after damaged goods like Stephon Marbury or Mike Bibby or Kenyon Martin.) Hell, a healthy and motivated Nene would help, assuming he exists. Offer up Noah, Gordon and whatever other pieces you need to in order to make something work. Re-sign P.J. Brown if necessary. But get someone who can help now. Not only someone that can score, but someone that can lead as well.
3) FIRE THE COACH. Are the players tuning out Scott Skiles? It seems doubtful, but you never know. He’s worn out his welcome before. Hate to do something like that at this point in the season, but obviously something has to change. I rarely agree with firing the coach for the team’s sins, but when things go bad, someone has to take the fall.
4) BLOW THE WHOLE THING UP AND START OVER. AGAIN. This seems rather drastic for a team that won 49 games last year, but hey, I’m just laying out all the options here. This would entail trading anything not nailed down, acquiring draft picks AND firing Skiles. There are a few problems with this scenario, of course. Number one, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would trade for Ben Wallace. He’s the kind of contract that usually goes the other way in a blow-up-the-team kind of trade. Number two, if you get rid of a bunch of the young guys, you’d have to get rid of Paxson, since he’s the one who put this thing together. Number three, clearing cap space never does much good. The only free agent of any note that the Bulls have signed since Michael Jordan left was Wallace, and we all know how that’s worked. LeBron isn’t coming in ’09. Neither is Dwyane Wade. Neither is Kobe or Baron or Carmelo. This option makes the least sense.
Make your choice, gentlemen. Only do it soon—even if it’s just announcing that no help is forthcoming. But know this: Good enough just isn’t good enough anymore.