With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview mirror, the Chicago Bulls believe they are prepared to focus all of their attention on the unofficial second half of the season amid the countless trade rumors that will surely ensue around the league in the coming weeks.
There's no question that the biggest star who's reportedly on the market is Dwight Howard. Although the Orlando Magic center has been linked to the Bulls a lot over the past year, he is not looking to take his talents to Chicago, by all accounts, and appears primed to either stay put or navigate his way to the New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks -- the three teams that his agent, Dan Fegan, is allowed to communicate with regarding potential trade scenarios. The league's best big man also has shown no legitimate interest in signing a long-term contract extension with the Bulls and joining fellow adidas partner Derrick Rose on a team in which he would play second fiddle. Plus, Howard expressed plenty of love for his current city, Orlando, during All-Star Weekend and has left the door open to staying with the Magic for the rest of the season -- if not longer.
Still, the Bulls will certainly listen if Magic general manager Otis Smith is looking to make a deal with them before the March 15 trade deadline. They know that they're one of the few teams that can offer a strong package for Howard, a perennial MVP candidate. However, it's been well-documented that Bulls fans shouldn't count on a trade that will land Howard in Chicago.
Nevertheless, the Bulls have made no secret of the fact that they are in the market for a reserve big man. Dating back to before the season started, Chicago general manager Gar Forman has repeatedly said the organization will acquire a body to shore up the front line at some point. Joel Pryzbilla officially signed with the Portland Trail Blazers, his longtime former club, earlier in the week, and the Bulls were one of the teams that the 7-foot-1 center was mulling over. Players such as Leon Powe and possibly former Bull Chris Richards remain viable options, too. In addition to most likely picking up a big man for the stretch run, all signs point to Chicago re-signing veteran point guard Mike James after the deadline, when his salary would not count toward the cap or luxury tax.
For the Bulls, Rip Hamilton's return to the lineup will serve as their version of a midseason acquisition. The veteran shooting guard had missed 13 consecutive games because of a sore groin and a thigh bruise before playing limited minutes on Tuesday and Wednesday night against the New Orleans Hornets and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, as the Bulls are committed to bring him back slowly after his extended absence.
Overall, he has missed almost two times more games (24) than he's played (13) and is averaging 12.5 points and 3.5 assists.
And yet, the Bulls are tied for the most wins in the NBA with 29 through Thursday's games. Rose is still the reigning league MVP. Luol Deng is fresh off the first All-Star appearance of his career. Carlos Boozer is the lone Bulls starter who has played all 37 games, dropping about 16 points and eight rebounds per contest this season. Joakim Noah is averaging a double-double of 11.9 points and 11.8 rebounds over his last 19 games. And both Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver have filled the void at two-guard admirably during Hamilton's absence. Hamilton's teammates have done their part and are hoping he comes back to coach Tom Thibodeau's lineup ready to do his.
The Bulls are fully aware that they need Hamilton to produce at a high level over the final 29 games of the season and in the postseason if they're going to reach the next level. Most importantly, the 34-year-old must stay healthy. Hamilton was signed early in training camp to give the Bulls a difference-maker who can elevate them over the Heat -- and the pressure's on him to come through when the battles matter most.
"He's huge to our team," Rose told reporters last week. "He's experienced. Him playing, when he's out there, it opens the game up for everyone."
When Hamilton is in action, Thibodeau's bunch puts up a whopping 25 assists per game. The former Detroit Piston, whom teammates believe makes the game a lot easier, has the ability to impact the game in a plethora of ways, whether it's scoring, passing or running in transition to open the floor for his fellow Bulls. Hamilton has been solid defensively, as well, and held Dwyane Wade to 15 points on 4-for-16 shooting the last time he was on the court in that much-anticipated game against the Heat.
While the Bulls, aside from one minor move or two, appear to be content with being on the outside looking in during the upcoming trade frenzy, they are confident that the piece most NBA fans believe is missing on the roster is already there. The Bulls obviously are not looking for another shooting guard and have put all of their eggs in Hamilton's basket, and the pressure, the list of things fans are looking for him to prove, continues to mount.