Thursday, May 26, 2011


It was an undeniably fun season, and a season that advanced the Bulls out of the dreaded "Indiana Pacers Cycle" of finishing in the back half of the playoff field, never having the cap space to sign free agents, and never having a high enough draft pick to improve. The Bulls are a contender now.

But they're not there yet. Some adjustments need to be made. Some things need to be improved.

They have a 22 year-old star who, in his first foray deep into the playoffs, learned some hard lessons. This was not a bump in the road that hasn't been encountered by virtually every star in the history of the game to win a title; you have to walk before you can run, and there is no way around it - something Kevin Durant learned, as well, this spring.

There are areas of his game to be improved - and if Derrick Rose has shown us anything, it's that he'll put the work in to do it. Expect to see a jump shot refined even further by the fall. Expect to see another step taken on defense. And expect to see the addition of at least a rudimentary post game.

On the bench, the Bulls have a head coach who met the first and most important goal: achieving buy-in from his star and his team. And Tom Thibodeau is a certified defensive guru.

But we have seen repeatedly throughout the playoffs, and acutely in the Miami series, his Achilles heel: he's not exactly an X's and O's whiz at the offensive end. Whether it's an endgame play against the Pacers that results in Carlos Boozer taking a three-pointer at the buzzer, frequent difficulties even drawing up an inbounds play against the Heat, or the constant inability to get Derrick Rose out of the clutter and with some room to work, there were too many sets that gave us unpleasant Vinny Del Negro flashbacks.

(Thinking back to when Rose squared off with LeBron in the playoffs a year ago, Del Negro did a better job of getting everyone out of Rose's way so he could do his thing than Thibodeau was able to in this series.)

Thibodeau revealed that he really needs an offensive coordinator. He needs a Tex Winter to his Phil Jackson. I don't know who that is. But somewhere that guy is out there, and the Bulls need to spare no expense to get him.

These adjustments that need to be made by Rose and Thibodeau are fairly do-able. However, what will not be so easy to clean up is the doozy of a mistake made in signing Carlos Boozer.

Look, no one thought we were getting Larry Nance at the defensive end of the floor. Given what we thought he could provide in terms of a diversified offensive threat and on the boards, we figured we could accept mediocrity on defense from Carlos.

We didn't even get that. We got rank indifference on defense - which is a cancer on a team built upon a foundation of defensive responsibility.

And even that may have been bearable if Boozer's low post game hadn't vanished.

What we ended up with for $14 million this year was a player who couldn't even be on the floor in the latter stages of contested playoff games.

This has the potential to be even more damaging because Taj Gibson, who at present is better at basketball than Boozer, will surely leave via free agency in search of starters' minutes and dollars when he has the chance.

Not long ago I came up with some trade possibilities. Two of them - Boozer, Noah, and the future Charlotte pick for Dwight Howard, and Boozer for Paul Pierce, are now pipe dreams. After Boozer's performance in these playoffs, he's nothing short of a toxic asset. Consequently, the Bulls need to concoct a TARP plan for their roster. This is going to entail parting with multiple draft picks to entice a team to take Boozer off their hands, and probably accepting no more than 50 cents on the dollar in terms of production in return.

I still believe Boozer for Brandon Roy - who is equally expensive and has questions about his knees - is somewhat realistic. The Blazers have a very solid young shooting guard in Wesley Matthews signed long-term at reasonable money, but they are desperate up front. Boozer's defensive indifference will not be nearly as problematic in the Western Conference. But after what we have seen for the last several weeks, Portland may also need that Charlotte pick thrown in to sweeten the deal, and possibly even one of the Bulls' two picks in this June's draft. It's expensive, but probably necessary.

Similarly, I think Boozer and the same collection of picks to Denver for Al Harrington - an aging veteran who is due $28 million over the next four years and could probably be a serviceable reserve for that span - along with restricted free agent Arron Afflalo in a sign-and-trade - might appeal to a Nuggets team lacking in frontcourt punch. Boozer paired with Nene up front could be effective in the West, while Afflalo would neatly upgrade the Bulls' shooting guard situation.

When they signed Boozer, the Bulls thought they were getting the "2" in a 1-2 punch with Derrick Rose. It didn't work out that way. Now they need to wriggle out of that mistake - no matter what the cost - and regroup.

The Bulls can overtake Miami. While we don't know how rapid the descent will be, Dwyane Wade has left his cruising altitude and in due time will come in for a landing. Haslem and Miller are both 31 and declining, as well. There is no one on Miami who will ever be better than he is today. On the other hand, we have not seen the best basketball yet from Rose, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, and there may even be one level of upward mobility remaining for Deng and Noah.

The Heat, like the Bulls, have a midlevel exception this summer, but they lack the draft assets the Bulls own this year and in the future. And they have no tradeable assets short of breaking up their nucleus. Who is going to be the guy in the Miami front office who goes to LeBron and informs him that they're trading Wade?

While most looked at last summer as "the" offseason because of the bounty of big names available, this next summer will actually turn out to be more critical because the consolation prize from last summer turned out to be a flat-out bust.

There won't be a "decision" this time around. But with the imperative to move Boozer, two first round picks to use or trade, and a midlevel exception to spend, a reorganization into a team that can continue its ascent and pose a greater threat to Miami does hang in the balance.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On The Ropes - Instant Analysis

All the trends crumbled tonight. The Bulls were 31-2 when getting at least 6 points from Keith Bogans. They had not lost three straight all season. And in the end it still wasn't enough. The two guys who got the Bulls this far, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau, were not as good as their counterparts, LeBron James and Pat Riley (the wizard behind the Erik Spoelstra curtain).

With regards to Rose, he's learning something that Kevin Durant is also learning this week: 22 year-olds don't generally lead teams to Championships. All the greats needed a few trips around the block before they knew the way. The Bulls jumping out ahead of the planned schedule this year made it look like it was possible to beat this historical NBA truism... and really the Bulls were one more shot away from re-taking control of the series in Game 4. But those are the slim margins of error you have to work with at this level.

Derrick is 22 years old. He's going to continue to hone his jump shot. He's going to hone his low post game so he can use his strength to impose his will on more traditionally built point guards who don't know how to defend on the blocks. He's going to learn to think 2 or 3 passes ahead to orchestrate an offense. He's not as good as he's going to get.

On numerous fronts, more troubling was the degree to which NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau has been exposed this series as basketball's answer to Dave Wannstedt: an elite defensive coordinator but at the highest levels, out of his depth when put in charge of the whole operation.

And let's not forget here: he's not just playing chess against Erik Spoelstra. This has been Pat Riley at Heat practice drawing up the schemes that have forced Derrick Rose to play basketball in the mud for much of the game. Riles has been Scotty Bowman to Spoelstra's Stan Bowman: the real brains behind the operation. And he's kicking Thibodeau's ass.

For three games, the Bulls continued to screen high for Rose, which played right into the Heat's desire to get a second defender to Rose high on the floor and make him give up the ball or at least re-route him. Everyone watching the game has been baffled by Thibodeau's unwillingness to flatten out and let Rose go to work in a 1-4 against Bibby or Chalmers - neither of whom could hope to keep Rose in front of them. When you do that, at least if/when the help comes it has to come from a much longer distance, giving Rose plenty of time to see the outlet if needed, and it lengthens the distance Miami needs to rotate to keep up with ball movement.

And when did Thibs finally just iso for Rose? The last two possessions of regulation, with LeBron James on him - perhaps the one player in the NBA who can stay in front of him. At 6'8" with top tier athleticism, James can give two full steps and still have the length to close out and bother a jump shot.

Not only could Thibs not devise an offensive set to give his superstar a little room to work, by the 4th quarter he could barely even draw up a play to get the ball in bounds.

While all year, Thibodeau seemed like a coach who would adjust to conditions on the ground, in this series he has been like an NFL coach who will insistently live - and if need be, die - by his game plan.

But on a more basic level, Thibodeau has failed as the leader of an organization this series, because he has betrayed the very foundation upon which this team has been built.

All season, no matter what else the Bulls did, the entire structure was built upon a foundation of defensive accountability - a coordinated, team effort of everyone knowing and doing their jobs. Yet in the final moments of this season, he has allowed Kyle Korver's lack of ability and Carlos Boozer's lack of interest in defense to compromise the structural integrity of the team. It's one thing if Korver is raining threes; you can tolerate his shortcomings because of the element he brings to the offense that one one else can. Ditto for Boozer. When he was a force in the low post earlier in the season and was averaging 20 & 10, he took immense pressure off of Rose and you could tolerate him being the newest statue added to the United Center proper, placed strategically on the defensive end of the court. Even with 20 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4, far too often he stood idly by and watched the Heat score easy baskets, not doing the most basic job of guarding the rim. And when he finally decided to make the extra effort, he picked up a flagrant foul. These are huge momentum killers in the flow of an emotional game. Two easy points allowed is more emotionally abhorrent to a team built on defense than a power forward knocking down a jump shot is energizing to the same team.

Yet when was Boozer playing his best - or at least his least unacceptable - defense? At a point in the season where Thibodeau showed he was willing to sit down his highest paid player for the entire fourth quarter if need be to send a message on how we do things here.

It looks a lot like Boozer has won the battle of wills with his first-year head coach. Which is why he needs to go immediately this offseason. You cannot have a player taking up 25% of your salary cap who needs to be subbed out offense-for-defense in the closing minutes of playoff games. This is an untenable state of affairs for a team that aspires to win a Championship one day soon. So he needs to be dumped off for anything you can get. You can see the earlier Memo for some possibilities on this. But honestly... I'd take an expiring contract at this point. Boozer was a mistake that you need to minimize and put in your rearview mirror, even if it means taking 40 to 50 cents on the dollar for him.

The Bulls are an unfinished product, and when you're in the building phase, the only thing worse than making a mistake is marrying your mistake. Cut bait and put another line in the water. You win some, you lose some. This was a mistake. Eat it. Own it. Fix it. It happens.

Once this series is officially over, we'll talk some more about how we approach this summer. Progress was made this year. The Bulls are undeniably closer to a Championship than they were. There is still some growth and reorganization that needs to happen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Noah

Sports is the original reality television. Pro wrestling and the NBA Draft Lottery aside, it's unscripted. We don't know the outcome beforehand. And we swarm like piraƱas on the human drama of the game.

It's why Fox gives us incessant, interminable uber-closeups on their world series broadcasts: so we can read the emotions of the pitcher in every facial twitch. How long did the director in the truck leave a camera on Russell Westbrook until we could finally cut to the money shot of a young, rising star player looking less than happy about sitting out the entire fourth quarter of a conference finals game while his backup led his team to victory?

This is why the camera is even on Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah as they return, fuming, to the bench. We want to experience the drama of the gladiatorial competition in all its raw, often undignified, intensity.

Are you really surprised to see testosterone-drunk competitors hurl an inappropriate word meant to diminish the masculinity of the objects of their anger? Isn't catching that moment exactly why the camera is on Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah in the first place?

It's not dignified, and it's not appropriate. That word is not one that people like Bryant and Noah would use in civil conversation. But the heat of competition is not where one would normally expect civility. In fact, in physical sporting endeavors civility is often considered a weakness, whether it's the fabled "neanderthal gene" of a football player or an NBA player being lauded for being a "killer".

This isn't a friendly pickup game. You're not going to turn loose athletes who have been selected out from a young age for their ability to unleash the angry animal within them to out-fight their opponents … and then expect complete decorum and civility at all times within the arena. It's like training a pit bull to be aggressive, then putting him down for mauling someone.

It certainly makes sense that the NBA doesn't want this as part of their public face, their brand.

If you want to fine Kobe Bryant for disrespecting an official's authority, OK. If you want to fine Joakim Noah for losing his temper and insulting a paying customer, OK.

But fining either of them the equivalent of the yearly salary of several average Americans in a fit of political correctness is a hypocritical exercise in self-righteousness. If the NBA doesn't want us to see the dirty underbelly of competition, then they should tell the cameras to stop seeking it out like a Predator drone after a terrorist.

Just because the masses may crave the voyeuristic pleasure of indignity revealed in authentic, unscripted drama doesn't mean you have to give them every bit of it, any more than the NHL should feed the bloodlust of their fans who still want to see fighting.

We went looking for this. Let's stop pretending to be shocked and appalled when we found it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Please, Commissioner Stern... show us your balls!

The Charlotte Hornets - an expansion team the league would understandably want to jump start - land Larry Johnson in 1991, then they defy the odds and land Alonzo Mourning in 1992.

The Orlando Magic - an expansion team the league would understandably want to jump start - land Shaquille O'Neal in 1992... then the next year defy the odds to land him a running mate in Penny Hardaway.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, residents of the longest-suffering sports city in America, land hometown uber-prospect LeBron James in 2003.

The Chicago Bulls - a major market that had been in basketball hell since the breakup of the Jordan Bulls - defy the odds and land hometown hero Derrick Rose in 2008.

And less than a year after LeBron took his talents to South Beach, the Cavs - with a pick acquired in trade no less - defy the odds and land the #1 pick again.

I don't own a tinfoil hat and I'm lukewarm on conspiracy theories. But when you consider that the NBA won't let us see those ping-pong balls come out of the machine... can anyone seriously believe the draft lottery is on the level at this point?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Observations After A Game 1 Beat-Down

-Game 1 was only the second time all season in which LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both played but neither scored 20 points. The only other instance was a 97-72 blowout victory over the Pistons on December 1 where Wade and James only played 18 and 31 minutes, respectively

On one hand, that means Game 1 was a major aberration. You can't expect that to happen again. On the other hand, it's a major testament to the Bulls' ability to keep Wade and James from getting where they want to go on the floor. After the first minute of the game, Miami's fast break was virtually non-existent. It's hard to run off of made baskets or when the Bulls get offensive rebounds. And in the half court, the ability of the Bulls' big men to pick up LeBron on switches, keep him in front of them, and force him to shoot jumpers was remarkable. Noah, Gibson and even Omer Asik did a stellar job of moving their feet and forcing LeBron to settle for long jump shots even out of a mismatch.

-Miami is a team that has been prone to slumps, to getting in their own heads. In November they had separate stretches of losing 3 of 4 and 4 of 5. In January they lost 4 of 5. In late February/early March they lost 5 straight and 6 of 7.

This is significant to the extent that if the Bulls win Game 2 at the United Center on Wednesday, they will have won all five meetings with Miami this season, and the Heat will likely have serious doubts as to whether they have it in them to even take more than a game from the Bulls, let alone the 4 of 5 necessary to take the series.

-This horse is already dead, we have cried at his funeral, he's been sent to the glue factory, and we have gone through our five stages of grief, but… right now, Taj Gibson is better at basketball that Carlos Boozer. When Boozer was healthier and was able to be a force in the low post, he caused defenses to make some impossible choices, because doubling down on him is suicidal when you have Derrick Rose on the perimeter and Luol Deng roaming the weak side.

But Boozer has been reduced to scoring on jump shots and putbacks which, even when he scores 14, 15, even 20 points, doesn't stress a defense in the same way. It doesn't cause them to scheme to stop him. And he remains a liability defensively, while Taj Gibson has turned into one of the game's best defensive power forwards. Not only does Taj excel in on-ball man defense, but his range and hustle allow him show or double on the perimeter and still retreat to pick up his own man. Within Tom Thibodeau's team defensive principles, the gap between him and Boozer at that end of the floor is magnified even further.

And you can deal with that gap when Boozer gives you 20 points and 10 rebounds - which is approximately what he was averaging before injuries started to get him. But short of that, you're simply a better team with Gibson on the floor.

Now that said, you can certainly make the argument that significantly altering your rotations at this stage of the game could risk upsetting the team's rhythm and losing Boozer. But when talking about the Bulls' window of opportunity to win championships, you have to entertain this question:

Moving forward, who is your guy, Boozer or Gibson?

Rose is 22 and Noah and Deng are 26. All three will be here long term. Further, Omer Asik is 24, and Ronnie Brewer is 26, and both of them look to be important bench pieces that will be here for a while.

Boozer is 4 1/2 years older than Gibson. Gibson is going to get starter's money from someone, and it's unlikely the Bulls will be able to justify paying Gibson starter's money for backup minutes even in the unlikely event Gibson would rather be a backup here than a starter elsewhere.

So from a pure value standpoint, are the Bulls better off keeping Gibson and getting whatever you can get for Boozer, or keeping Boozer and losing Gibson for nothing?

Let's put some names to some possible options here…

Boozer to Portland for Brandon Roy. The Blazers are a rising team on the cusp of contention in the West. But they are very thin up front and were one of the NBA's worst rebounding teams, even resorting to playing 6'6" Gerald Wallace at the 4 for long stretches. In the meantime, they spent solid money on Wesley Matthews at the 2 - who played well when given extended minutes. They also have Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum. Roy's questionable knees along with his big contract make him a risky investment, as he is due almost $40 million over the next three seasons. But in fairness, Boozer is older and comes with some injury history of his own, plus his defensive shortcomings. But Boozer fits with Portland's needs, while Roy fits better with what the Bulls need.

Are the Bulls better off with Gibson and a roll of the dice on Roy, or with just Boozer? I think that's an easy call.

Boozer to Boston for Paul Pierce. Pierce is a little risky because he will be 34 to start next season and has three years and $47 million left on his deal. But hopefully he can give two more solid, if not stellar, years, and then becomes very movable as an expiring contract in the summer of 2013. In the meantime, the Celtics get cost certainty on a big man who is four years younger than Pierce and might take some frontcourt pressure off of Kevin Garnett for the one year Garnett has left on his deal.

For the next couple of years, are the Bulls better off with just Boozer, or with Pierce and Gibson? That's another easy one.

Now let's shoot for the moon…

Boozer, Joakim Noah, and the rights to the Charlotte pick that has decreasing levels of protection over the next several years… for Dwight Howard.

That thing is over in Orlando and they're going to lose Howard for nothing if they don't trade him. A plug-and-play frontcourt of Boozer and Noah - with four years of cost certainty - is the best deal they'll ever see, especially with the Charlotte pick thrown in for good measure.

And for the Bulls, a nucleus of Rose (22), Deng (26), Gibson (26) and Howard (26) is a dynasty in the making. I feel safe in projecting that Deng/Gibson/Howard would be, if not the greatest defensive frontcourt in NBA history, certainly in the team picture… and no slouch at the offensive end, either. The Bulls use their midlevel exception and their two late first round picks to try and upgrade the shooting guard position so they can chase after 70 wins.

But, as interesting as these things are to ponder, they are long term questions. For now, the Bulls have an opportunity on Wednesday to very quickly put the Heat on the ropes and advance tantalizingly close to the NBA Finals.

Tomorrow's Memo: deconstructing the Lakers.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why The Bulls Will Win Tonight

Let me explain to you why the Bulls will finish off Atlanta and tee it up with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday.

I'm not going to talk about Taj Gibson and the Bench Mob, or the greatness of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng's defense on Joe Johnson, or the Bulls' record when Keith Bogans scores 6 points in the game.

My friend, Scott, sent me this article today, listing Scottie Pippen among 25 notable athletes who went broke. Scott observed that this probably explains why Pippen is currently employed by the team in an Ambassador role. It reminded me of several instances in which Jerry Reinsdorf took care of his people even when he had no real reason to do so.

After all, Pippen had a long-running squabble with the Bulls organization over his second NBA contract, which both his agent and Reinsdorf advised him not to sign because it would leave him underpaid later. When that indeed happened, Pippen was incensed that the team would not re-negotiate the deal, and was further angered when Bulls' GM Jerry Krause chased after Toni Kukoc while simultaneously not - in Pippen's view - taking care of him.

How did the Bulls punish Pippen for being so difficult? They engineered a sign-and-trade with Houston as a part of the breakup of the team in the summer on 1998 so Pippen could get his max deal while the Bulls got virtually nothing in return.

At the end of his career, Pippen then returned to thank the Bulls for their generosity by virtually stealing $11 million when he signed a midlevel exception deal when he knew full well he could not play anymore.

Yet here we are and Reinsdorf is still taking care of Scottie.

Also recall #2 overall pick Jay Williams, the Duke point guard who broke himself into 100 pieces when he crashed his motorcycle after his rookie season and never played again. The Bulls were under no obligation to pay Williams one cent, yet paid out his whole contract and helped him rehab on the team's dime.

And then there's Bill Cartwright, who needed to see specialists all over the world for his worsening throat condition that was taking his voice. Even after he no longer worked for the Bulls, Reinsdorf paid for his treatment.

On the other end of this spectrum is Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Clippers assistant coach Kim Hughes was suffering from prostate cancer that was getting more aggressive, and he needed $70,000 worth of out-of-network surgery and treatment to save his life. (Story here.)

Sterling, a real estate tycoon who is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars, would not cover the life-saving surgery on the stunning rationale that if they covered it for him, they'd have to cover it for everyone.

If every Clippers front office employee needed $70,000 worth of out-of-network medical care, it would still not equal one year's salary of a player making the NBA's midlevel exception.

Stirringly, four Clippers players - Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Chris Kaman and Marko Jaric - stepped up and saved Hughes' life.

Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981, and in those 30 years his team has only made the playoffs four times and has won only a single playoff series. This is a staggering run of ineptitude, with a run of bad luck in the form of freak injuries to high draft picks and expensive free agents sprinkled in. In a league with a salary cap and revenue sharing, and in a format that rewards bad teams with high picks, it is almost impossible to comprehend this level of failure.

In the meantime, the Bulls lucked into Michael Jordan in 1984 when the Trailblazers famously chose Sam Bowie, and with MJ the Bulls won six Championships. Then in 2008, the Bulls cashed in on a less than 2% chance of getting the top pick in the lottery when they landed Derrick Rose, who this year became the league's youngest-ever MVP.

Do you want to know why the Bulls keep cashing in while the Clippers crap out almost every single year?


Bulls finish this on the road tonight so Jerry Reinsdorf can take his collection of talent to South Beach next week.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Whining About The Refs

The analogy I have always used to describe the tinfoil-hat-right's incessant references to a supposed liberal bias in the media is: "whining about the refs". It's the province of losers, of people who need an externality on which to blame their own frustrations.

And in sports, just as I am loathe to default to the ever-satisfying knee-jerk "fire the coach!" refrain every time my team falls short of my expectations, I am also loathe whine about officiating. Sports fans, like those engaged in the political debate, are partisans who will see everything through their own lens - which is invariably skewed.

So do you know how I am going to deal with last night's Bulls loss to Atlanta?

I'm going to whine about officiating.

This was a typical road playoff grinder. The Bulls were slow to adjust to some Hawks' adjustments. Rose misfired with impunity. Korver looked like he was shooting a basketball at a baseball-sized rim. The Highlight Factory actually started churning out some highlights.

And you know what? The Bulls were still right there, in position to take one of the 50/50 games they have ridden to the league's best record.

Then Bennett Salvatore happened. An admittedly blown call that was a game-changing, floodgate-opening moment. The "play over it" mantra is nice, but plenty of champions in all sports have been unable to do so. It's a lot easier said than done, even for elite competitors.

And remember, that wasn't the only call that went against the Bulls in the closing minutes. Rose attacked the basket a minute earlier and got absolutely clobbered without a call. The result was an easy basket going the other way. And not long after that, Korver drew a clear charge that was not called, giving the Hawks yet another basket.

As many as 11 points were gifted to the Hawks between the calls not made and the easy baskets that ensued. The exact margin of defeat.

One of the biggest rhetorical issues in any argument is the compulsive need most people have to attribute any result to a single factor. Did the Bulls lose this game because of defensive breakdowns, because of poor shooting, or because of the officiating?


The Bulls lost the game for numerous reasons. But the officials were actually one of them.