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

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Comments

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  • I think there is a lot of pressure on GarPax to surround Rose with another superstar or all-star type wing player especially if Miami wins the championship. If they get an "ok" player like Affalo and the Bulls struggle next year...the pressure will go through the roof.

  • Excellent Article!!

  • THANK YOU! I'm pretty sick of people turning on Noah. Now that we lost, everyone seems to be blaming anyone/everyone they can. Noah is easily a top 5 center in the league, who else can defend LEbron/Wade at times on iso plays like that? Plus, I think people forget how much his energy means to this team sometimes. If Luol is the glue guy, Noah is our duct tape.

  • Hypothetical question. ...if the new CBA allows for the one time opportunity to shed contract players to get under some kind of cap. Do you payoff Boozer?

  • In reply to Waldock:

    With Noah/Deng on big deals and Rose soon to be there's no way to get cap space even without Boozer, so I don't see the point. Boozer isn't worth the contract, but having Boozer on an inflated contract is better than having a scrub on the minimum salary.

  • In reply to Waldock:

    Do you think there's any way to "fix" Boozer? He had an awful year... made worse by 1) broken hand, 2) misses training camp, 3) playing in a system that accentuates his weaknesses (help defense) and minimizes his strengths (he didn't get the ball where and when he used to with Utah), 4) ankle and later toe injuries, and 5) probably shattered confidence. Of the above, I think that missing training camp was HUGE, Thibs wasn't able to find out how to use him and teach him how to fit into the defensive system.

    So IF he makes it through next training camp without further injury - ha ha - do you think we can expect him to be or become the low-post presence we wanted, OR at least a more adequate defender in Thib's system?

  • In reply to Waldock:

    I stopped reading after you dismissed the officiating. How can you hold to contradicting thoughts in your mind at once? The Bulls aren't better, yet the reffing sucked? If the Bulls aren't better and the officiating was actually balanced, do you think they would have lost this series? I don't think the Heat stand a chance. Calling it even would allow the Bulls to do what they do. They could play tough defense, Rose could draw fouls instead of jump shooting, and the Bulls wouldn't have to overthink how they can alter their game to make up for the ridiculously Heat-favored rule bending. Take the fact that between Bosh and Lebron, they blatently traveled about 20+ times in the series and didn't have it called. Then, as or after they've shuffled their pivot foot 2-3 times and taken a couple steps, the Bulls help defender gets called for some very light ticky-tack or purely non-existent contact. Then, on the other side of the ball, it's the complete opposite, where a Heat defender can hack Rose and he'd only get the call about 33% of the time. This completely changes the games! How can you deny that? And, considering all of this, the games were still very close. The Bulls were better at the game of basketball, but that's not what the refs were officiating.

  • In reply to Waldock:

    Graet article.
    Just a word on O.J.
    While he was starting (14 games), 22 assists in a game against the Lakers (Memphis record).
    While he was starting, 29 points in one game without a call play for #32. The 29 came from the "flow" of the game.
    I'd trade the top 95 floors of the Hancock Building for O.J.
    Will look great in a Bulls uniform.

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