Monday, December 12, 2011
Two guard won't solve Bulls' 'big' issue
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- The addition of a shooting guard to the Chicago Bulls' roster, in all likelihood veteran Richard Hamilton arriving via waivers/free agency this week, would be an unquestioned boon to a team crying out for one.
Derrick Rose found it hard to hide his enthusiasm when he was asked about Hamilton Sunday, saying, "Did we get him yet?" and "I know he'll help us if we get him." And Rose's teammates were equally forthcoming in singing Hamilton's praises.
"I've known Rip since I was 14 years old . . . " said Luol Deng, whose brother played college basketball with Hamilton at Connecticut. "If Rip was to come here, he'd be a great guy in the locker room, a great teammate . . . He's a guy who won the championship [with Detroit]. He's been there, he knows what it takes and I'm sure if he was to join us, he would make us better."
But while focusing on how much the Bulls, and specifically Rose, would benefit from help in the backcourt, the Bulls frontcourt could reveal itself to be the real vulnerability and is actually a bigger concern to the team.
On the surface, things appear promising. Carlos Boozer came back 20-plus pounds lighter, according to general manager Gar Forman, and fully recovered from the turf toe that looked to severely hinder him in the playoffs. Joakim Noah said he feels great after a "pretty serious" ankle injury that also plagued him during the playoffs. And Omer Asik said he is no longer in pain after fracturing his fibula in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. And Noah and Asik regained their conditioning in the European championships this summer.
Can injury-prone Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah stay healthy in a four-month, 66-game season?
But the departure of veteran big man Kurt Thomas, who signed this weekend with the Portland Trail Blazers, left the Bulls with just four big men, including Taj Gibson, and a need to replace him that's just as serious as getting a two-guard.
It's not that Thomas, the NBA's oldest active player, was an All-Star, obviously. But he was a fundamentally sound, formidable presence under the basket who rarely let the team down.
In 23 games filling in for Noah following a November spent primarily on the bench, Thomas averaged 5.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in 28.8 minutes, including a 22-point, nine-rebound game in Milwaukee and 18-rebound game in Indiana, demonstrating he could still play at a high level. Ditto in his first start against Philadelphia on Dec. 21 with both Noah and Gibson sidelined with injuries, when Thomas had 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting, eight rebounds and five blocks.
When Boozer was not displaying enough toughness in the playoffs, there was justified clamoring for Thomas.
"You can't say enough about him," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said candidly of Thomas. "The guy's been around forever, he's a great pro, a great leader. He stays ready whenever he's called upon. He can sit there for two months not playing and you call upon him and he's ready to go. I thought he was great in our locker room. It'll be a big plus for [Portland]."
The Bulls were always going to get a two-guard, whether it was Hamilton or Jamal Crawford or Jason Richardson, and it should provide the scoring upgrade they need. But after combating the backcourt strengths of their Eastern Conference opponents, they may have more trouble finding a seasoned big man, both for practice depth and games, while sweating out some legitimate questions, such as:
Will Boozer and Noah find the chemistry they did not have time to develop last season, during this season's grinding (and ridiculously compressed) 66-game season?
Will Gibson achieve the consistent excellence that still eludes him?
And will the Heat be improved with a year of playing together, assuming they have Udonis Haslem all season and with more depth after the additions of Shane Battier and Eddy Curry?
Privately, Bulls brass almost expects that Boozer and Noah will have trouble making it through a grueling four months and there is no denying their histories of injury. They missed a combined 57 games last season (remember that Noah also had thumb surgery last December), while Boozer came into the 2010-11 season, his first with the Bulls, having already missed 145 games over his eight-year career.
Forman said Sunday he expects Boozer will have a good season.
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"Historically, if you look at major free agents that have changed teams, they have shown improvement from Year One to Two, when there's more familiarity with the system, with the city, the organization and even with Carlos' case, when he changed conferences," he said.
Thibodeau said he is confident in what the Bulls have now.
"When you look at Carlos, Joe, Taj and Omer, that's pretty darn good," he said, "and then whoever else we get to come in, we're confident in our bigs."
And Forman promises they will bring someone in.
"Obviously we'll have to have some depth behind them," he said. "Even if it's just from a practice standpoint, it's hard to go through a season with just four bigs. That's still something we're taking a look at, whether we add another four or another five.
"But again, if we don't find the right guy, we'll be patient with it and try to keep some flexibility with that position and if we don't address that right away, we may address it down the road."
Down the road sounds like potential desperation time, a scenario that would not bode well for getting out of the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, even with a new shooting guard.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.