Reality getting in way of optimism
It's easier figuring out what the Bulls need than it is finding a way to afford it
One is a successful club president, the other the coach of a perennial playoff team. At season's end, each had seen enough basketball to say that the Chicago Bulls had come closer than any other team in the NBA to maxing out, to wringing every last drop out of the human resources available. It's a tremendous compliment. But at the same time it suggests that it's not effort or ingenuity that will span the bridge between conference finalist and league champion, but the acquisition of at least one more player of consequence, perhaps two.
Wanted: At least one veteran who can create his own shot, preferably someone with 3-point range who is comfortable playing without the ball, who isn't allergic to defense, isn't an egomaniac and is at the stage of his career where winning a championship is an obsession.
Oh, and he'll have to work cheap.
Yes, that's the "but" as the Bulls' powers-that-be enter the 2011-12 season.
Sorry to be a party pooper and have to inject a little reality into the most eagerly anticipated preseason since Michael Jordan's last one, 1998, but the Bulls have precious little money to sign a free agent of any renown, say, Jason Richardson, who seems to be exactly what they need. When you take Joakim Noah from $3 million to $12 million, when Luol Deng has three years and $40 million remaining, when Carlos Boozer has four years and $60 million remaining and when Derrick Rose gets a well deserved but unexpected 30 percent raise from the recent labor negotiations, it means you're pretty much out of money. It means a player of consequence like, say, Jason Richardson would have to voluntarily take a 50 percent pay cut from approximately $10 million to no more than $5 million. Does Bulls management want Richardson? Yes. Can the Bulls afford him under the new collective bargaining agreement? Not impossible, but unlikely. This isn't what the excited masses want to hear to start the season.
What's likely is that management is going to have to be extremely creative and get a little lucky if the Bulls are going to come up with an offensive player who can help them overtake Miami in the Eastern Conference. They're going to have to take advantage of somebody else's mistakes in personnel evaluation, other teams' miscalculations or arrogance. They'll have to have another team's castoff become their late-bloomer or second-chance marvel.
Chances are Gar Forman and John Paxson are going to have to be damn good pitchmen during the abbreviated free-agency period that begins Dec. 9. Here's the pitch: "We've got the MVP of the league who is 23 years old in Derrick Rose. We've got the best frontcourt defenders in the league in Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. We've got the best bench in the league, willing role players in Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Asik and Gibson. We've got the coach of the year in Tom Thibodeau. We've got great chemistry, the experience of getting to the conference finals. We've got everything to seriously compete for a spot in the Finals except you. Will you come for less?"
Jamal Crawford wants to come; a little birdie told me so. But again, setting aside the issue of whether he'll play enough defense for Coach Thibs and whether he'd be the best fit with Rose, will he take a 50 percent pay cut to come back to Chicago?
I've got two players who while not as complete as Richardson would be significant upgrades: Arron Afflalo and Nick Young. Both are 26 and both are restricted free agents, though only Afflalo has been on a team good enough to have suffered the requisite heartache you want a starter to have had. Afflalo is the more complete player of the two. He shot 50 percent last season, 42 percent from 3-point range, 85 percent from the foul line and can play the kind of defense that would make him an ideal fit. Pressed, I might even take Afflalo over Richardson. The question is whether a player is a big enough upgrade to help the Bulls overtake Miami. And the answer in Afflalo's case is "perhaps."
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Young isn't nearly as complete a player and has been a defensive liability in Washington ... but he's a potentially prolific scorer (17.4 a game last season) and could be unstoppable in a lineup with Rose and Deng. Nothing about Young screams out "Bulls' kind of player" but beggars can't be particularly choosy, can they? And Young would be far more valuable to a good team like the Bulls than to a lottery dweller like Washington, where his points don't mean jack. Thing is, you'd have to assume the Wizards, who need a scorer to go with John Wall, will do everything within reason to keep Young, and that Denver, with half its 2011 roster playing in China, will do everything, even the unreasonable, to keep Afflalo. This is where another team's blunder comes in. With so little time (three days to match another team's offer) to make free agency decisions, somebody is going to miscalculate ... or simply decide they're not going to spend the money.
Indications are that the Bulls are prepared to look at every single player on the market. What I wonder is whether they're ready to pursue a trade. Club executives are fond of saying that players want to win "but" ... but they want more money, or more shots, or more playing time, or fewer demands. Fair enough. But club executives also want to win "but" ... but they don't want to touch their carefully built rosters or sacrifice players they've invested in, particularly through the draft. It also means executives almost always overrate their own talent.
Asik and Gibson are assets, to be sure. Big-time assets. Some scouts think having both is a luxury the Bulls cannot afford because they're in such desperate need of another scorer. The Heat were certain of this very thing last spring going into the conference finals, that they could smother Rose and count on winning because the Bulls didn't have another player who could reliably and consistently get his own shot. Miami was right. Every team in the NBA knows it now, even though most don't have the kind of defensive manpower and discipline to do anything about it. Then again, the Bulls aren't gunning for those teams; they're trying to topple Miami. I don't buy the conventional wisdom that they were overachievers last season, but I do think they were achievers, and that they indeed came closer than anybody to maxing out.
But to reach the same level they're going to have to get better, in part by having a player who can take some of the offensive pressure off Rose and Deng. If that means making a trade that cuts into the Bulls' depth, which is a clear advantage, then perhaps that's the way Foreman and Paxson will have to go. I wouldn't want to trade Asik or Gibson either, but the conference finals proved Rose has to have a better wingman. Is O.J. Mayo still available? Courtney Lee? And if so, is either the upgrade that helps the Bulls slip past Miami? (Probably not.) Would you give up a "big" who can score and defend to get a 15-points-per-game scorer?
And so, this is the game Bulls watchers are going to play for the next month and beyond, particularly if the team isn't as good as it was in the last regular season, or if Miami gets out of the gate quickly.
Would the Bulls be willing (able?) to get Brandon Roy after amnesty, and if so how much does Roy have left? Where is the trade sleeper, the kid from Golden State or Sacramento who will blossom playing with Rose and Deng, whose value to a contender is much greater than to a last-place or rebuilding team?
The only take-away nearly a month before the NBA season finally begins is that teams are going to have to be even more creative than usual in trying to improve their rosters, and they're going to have to nail the assessments with precious little time and margin for error.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.