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  • Bulls-Heat: Sudden Death

    I knew the song was coming to an end, but I thought there was at least one more verse.

    To state the obvious, the ending to Thursday night’s Game 5 was an awful way to end a truly wonderful season. The Bulls who kept surprising us all season, surprised us one more time. The last 3 minutes were like watching a train wreck in slow motion. TNT should have posted some sort of warning.

    Forget the uneven officiating and Lebron’s theatrics, in those last 3 minutes, the Heat proved to be unquestionably better than the Bulls. Their defense was stifling, allowing the Bulls only 4 shots (made only 1). Their offense was a crushing combination of James and Wade hitting well-defended shot after well-defended shot, three of them from beyond the arc. Their superstars shined. Meanwhile, Rose lived out a 3-minute nightmare committing 2 turnovers, the cardinal sin of fouling Wade on a 3-pointer and a critical missed free throw.

    It’s no wonder that most Bulls’ fans went to bed feeling more than a little traumatized by the whole thing.

    What next?

    This is the topic du jour and will continue to be for the next several months. The Bulls won 62 games during the regular season. They’re a very good team, but Miami is better. Conventional wisdom says that the Heat will be THE destination for quality role players, eliminating their current “Achilles heel” of quality depth. The job of Gar Forman and John Paxson will be to somehow leapfrog the Heat. This won’t be easy.

    Ideally, the Bulls like every other team, would like to have big-minute players at each position who are effective at both ends of the court. Of course, few teams do, but currently they only have two players who match this job description…Rose and Deng. Adding one more of these is priority #1. All of the Bulls’ significant players are signed for next season with the exception of veteran big man Kurt Thomas who will be 39 next season. They may need to replace him, but otherwise their dealings should be related to upgrades.

    As most know, leaving coaching aside, there are basically 4 ways to improve an NBA team – the draft, trades, free agency and the development of existing players. The Bulls have 2 first-round picks in the upcoming draft, but they’re #28 and #30 (last) so you’d need to be a big time optimist to believe that any real help will be found through the draft. It’s more likely that one or both of these picks will be traded, and if they’re used, it may be for a Euro-type player who would not join the team for a year or two (similar to what they did with rookie center Omer Asik who was a 2nd-round pick in 2008).

    Rose, Noah, Deng, Gibson, Brewer and Asik are young players with great work ethics. Rose and Deng both added three-point range to their games this season and figure to become more consistent. Noah, Gibson and Asik need to work on their strength and offensive games, but Brewer is the player to keep an eye on.

    Brewer is already an elite defender at the shooting guard position with great size (6-7), quickness and instincts. His glaring weakness is outside shooting. His form is ugly due to a broken arm he suffered when he was a kid that doesn’t allow him to keep his elbow and hand in a straight line to the rim. I don’t know how much he has worked on his shot, but as Jim Furyk has proven in golf, even if your stroke is a bit funky, if you work on it long enough, you might just be able to make chicken salad from chicken bleep. If somehow Brewer could shoot as well for a season as he did in these playoffs (43% on 3s), the Bulls would find their 3rd two-way player in their own backyard. Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

    Free Agency and Trades

    Because the NBA’s labor contract expires after this season, the salary cap and trade rules are up in the air, and as a result, so are free agency and trades. Assuming the new contract is shaped in a similar fashion to the current one, the Bulls will be over the salary cap so their free agent dealings will be limited to the “Mid-level Exception (MLE)” and minimum-salary players. The MLE allows a team that’s over the cap to sign one or more free agents up to a combined maximum first-year salary equal to the average salary in the league (currently about $5million).

    In terms of the MLE, most of the talk has centered around shooting guards Jason Richardson of the Orlando Magic, Aaron Afflalo of the Denver Nuggets and J.R. Smith, also of the Nuggets. There’s a problem with each of these players.

    Richardson is an unrestricted free agent who was paid $14.4million this season. Coming off a season where he averaged about 16 points per game on 45% shooting (40% on 3s), it’s unlikely he’ll be able to match his 2010-11 salary, but since he’s still in his prime (age 30) expecting him to settle for the MLE salary is a iffy at best.

    Afflalo is an uber-efficient scorer (2nd among all shooting guards with a positively stellar 62.0% true shooting %) with adequate size (6-5) and is a known as a good defender. While he’s not really a guard who’s particularly good at creating his own shot, he’s far better at this than Bogans. The problem with Afflalo is that he’s a restricted free agent, so Denver can keep Afflalo by simply matching any offer Afflalo receives. Particularly with Denver’s former franchise player Carmelo Anthony gone, most believe that the Nuggets will not let Afflalo get away.

    Smith has mad skills. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable…inside, outside, doesn’t matter. He has good size at 6-6 and is capable of playing sound defense. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and while he made $6.8million last season, most observers believe that he’ll be available for the MLE…maybe even less. In his 7-year NBA career, Smith has averaged 19 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists per 36 minutes. Right about now you’re probably asking, “OK, what’s the catch?” Just one...Smith is both a certifiable head case and a basketball idiot. Despite his obvious talent, other than his rookie season, none of his head coaches have ever seen fit to start Smith more than 25 games or play him for more than 28 minutes per game. He was actually a Bull for 6 days in 2006 as part of the sign-and-trade deal for power forward P.J. Brown. Paxson kept Brown and got rid of Smith just as quickly as he could. There are many who believe that the Bulls should take the risk on Smith. Personally, I don’t see it.

    As always, the trade possibilities are limited only by the imagination and fans tend to have very vivid imaginations. You’ll hear titillating names like Dwight Howard and Ray Allen. My advice is to ignore this talk. Howard is next season’s Carmelo, but the Bulls are poorly positioned for either an offseason of in-season trade since Joakim Noah’s on something called “base year compensation” which will make him hard to trade during next season. Allen is a modern athletic marvel, who at 35 remains the prototypical shooting guard. The thing is, he has a $10million player option for next season that includes a 15% “trade kicker” (so he’d get 11.5% if traded). The Bulls don’t have any cap space to sign him as a free agent and don’t figure to have the assets the Celtics would want to trade for him.

    One name you’ll hear a lot is Memphis Grizzlies’ shooting guard O.J. Mayo. Mayo was the 3rd overall pick of the 2008 draft so he’s got some talent. At 6-4 he lacks the size of an ideal shooting guard, but he does provide the “secondary creator” ability that many feel the Bulls need…he can score by putting the ball on the floor. He’s an adequate, but by no means great 3-point shooter (36% this season). Defensively, he’s not as good as either Bogans or Brewer, but worlds better than Korver. Rumor had it that the Bulls tried to trade for Mayo during the season, but were unwilling to part with either Gibson or Asik.

    The other shooting guard who seems to be on the Bulls’ radar is the Houston Rockets’ Courtney Lee. Like Mayo, the Bulls were rumored to have interest in acquiring Lee at the trade deadline, but the Bulls weren’t willing to part with one of their young bigs. Like Afflalo, Lee is not really a “create his own shot” guy, but is a good all-around player who has adequate (6-5) size and can hit the 3-point shot (41% this season).

    While I don’t think Richardson’s will settle for MLE money, if he does, there’s a good chance he’ll be a Bull. It remains to be seen whether the unsuccessful end to the season has changed the Bulls’ front office’s mind on trading Gibson or Asik and whether those other teams are still interested.

    Boozer

    It seems that everyone wants to trade Boozer. Although I totally get why you might want to trade him, it’s pretty crazy to believe that there’s any sort of market for him. The plain fact is that Boozer at age 29 is coming off one of his worst statistical seasons, easily had his worst postseason performance and is going on the 2nd year of a very lucrative 5-year contract. Seriously, you couldn’t possibly be in more of a buy high-sell low situation. Boozer performed like a MLE player but is priced at 3 times that amount. What exactly do you figure you’ll get?

    As for me, I believe we’re stuck with him. As an unabashed aficionado of defensive excellence, Boozer unquestionably offends my sensibilities. Still, unlike the last Bulls’ albatross contract (Ben Wallace), at least Boozer seems to be a good teammate. My guess is that Boozer is here to stay, at least for next season. This said, if Boozer can be used in any ort of upgrade trade, count me in.

    Noah

    I have to admit that I’m surprised that many fans are turning on Noah. I also should say that Noah’s my favorite Bulls’ player. For those who want to see him traded, I’d be shocked if it happened in the next 12 months. In fact, I’ll be shocked if it happens at all for someone other than Howard. Like him or don’t, he’s a defensive genius (no other big I’ve seen is as versatile a defender) and an important electrical power source for the team. Above all, Noah’s a gamer. Do I second-guess Thibodeau sitting him in the 4th quarter of game 5? No, I first-guessed him. Whenever the game is on the line, I want Noah in there. As I see it, Thibodeau made a bad decision by keeping Kurt Thomas in the game.

    Noah is an extraordinary defender who can score 10+ points per game without taking any shots from your true scorers. How many players can you say that about?

    Korver-Brewer

    If the Bulls can find a shooting guard that can both start and finish games, they’re going to need to unload either Korver or Brewer. Ideally, which one exits depends on whether the newly-acquired player is stronger at offense or defense. In any case, if the Bulls are fortunate enough to acquire a 30+ minute shooting guard, one of Korver or Brewer is gone.

    In retrospect

    The Bulls had one helluva season…way better than any of us had any right to expect. Personally, they provided me with more entertainment than I could ever have imagined back in October. For this I sincerely thank them…it was a great gift.

    They’ve now raised the bar. Next season we will reasonably expect the Eastern Conference Finals. The best guess is that the Heat will be waiting. Will we be good enough this time?

    I want the answer to be yes. Get to work, GarPax.

    Tom Nossem
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Bulls-Heat: Sudden Death started by transplant View original post
    Comments 6 Comments
    1. JayJohnstone's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by transplant View Post
      If the Bulls are fortunate enough to acquire a 30+ minute shooting guard, one of Korver or Brewer is gone.
      Unless we acquire two swing players that can guard Wade/Lebron and retain Deng, I don't see Brewer going anywhere.
    1. Good Hope's Avatar
      No discussion of Rose?

      Our best hope is still our best hope. Is it not fair to ask him to grow more? He needs help, but, he just can't freak out like that.
    1. transplant's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Good Hope View Post
      No discussion of Rose?

      Our best hope is still our best hope. Is it not fair to ask him to grow more? He needs help, but, he just can't freak out like that.
      Rose lived out a 3-minute nightmare committing 2 turnovers, the cardinal sin of fouling Wade on a 3-pointer and a critical missed free throw.
      Not to be defensive, but I think I acknowledged (in a relatively nice way) that Rose wet the bed. However, I thought he wet it aggressively.

      I fully expect Rose to improve his game. However, given the nature of his Game 5 failure, he really can't convince us that he's "fixed the problem" in any venue other than the playoffs versus the Heat, can he? Not sure what there is to discuss or exactly how Rose can practice beating the 6-8, 250lb best player on the planet in isolation when his success or failure means the difference between going home or playing for the championship.
    1. Good Hope's Avatar
      "Wet the bed aggressively." I like that turn of phrase :-) I'll store it up for future use.

      Sorry, I didn't mean to criticize your (always excellent) article. It's just that you listed our main players, except for him. Maybe you're right, and there's nothing to say about him. On the other hand, we're not in the position we're in unless Rose makes the transition he made this season. Sam Smith said it's not about him, and I get his point. He needs more talent around him. I just think that the biggest and most important adjustments to be made will be made in his game. It could be interesting to speculate if that's all mental, or if he changes his role and approach, or his skill set.

      Great, great season. So much to look forward to next year. Heaven help us, however, if either Deng or Rose gets hurt!

      Still can't stomach looking at Riley :-(
    1. transplant's Avatar
      Good Hope, I love ya, man. You're a fan I can relate to.

      I have every confidence that Rose is more unhappy with his performance in the Heat series than any of us and will work on his game in every way possible this offseason. However, no matter how many hours he practices, he can't replicate the situation where the Bulls' wonderful season went wrong. In the end, the kid's human...and 6-3.

      As I wrote, the Bulls need another player who can get it done on both ends...someone who's defense is good enough that Thibs will play him down the stretch of tight games, but who can be a legitimate offensive option as well. These players are very hard to acquire because everyone wants them. I wish I was more confident that GarPax can pull this off (no knock on them). My best guess is that next year's team will look very much like this year's team. Then again, this year's team was pretty damn good.
    1. Good Hope's Avatar
      Well, your last point is my point. Odds are that we don't get much that makes much difference. Courtney Lee doesn't make much difference, when you say, "well, now we have Courtney Lee to put up against Dwyane Wade." But if Derrick Rose develops his understanding of the game and learns how better to take advantage of his teammates and the weaknesses of the team he's facing, then maybe Courtney Lee makes a big difference, if you get my drift.

      And right back at ya! ;-) (with my best Denny Crane snark)