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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.