Monday, Feb. 1, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
Is it safe to assume the Bulls have finally turned the corner, and will put the .500 mark in their rear view mirror the rest of the season? Or, will they slide back to their inconsistent ways and fail to take advantage of a favorable schedule? As always, we welcome your opinions in the comments section below. The upcoming week should be telling. It's a stretch of 4 games in 5 nights, starting with VERY winnable games against the Clippers and 76'ers, followed by a day off, then a much tougher back-to-back against Atlanta and Miami. You'd love to say the Bulls should get 3 out of 4, but if we've learned anything this season, it's that this team is about as unpredictable as they come.
All kinds of positives coming out of the "Ice Show" trip, starting with Derrick Rose earning a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and playing at a level that is certainly All-Star worthy. Rose averaged over 23 points a game in January, shooting right around 50 percent from the field. He's also shown a willingness to try to take over late in close games, a trait that's shared by the biggest stars in the game. Rose making the All-Star team will only help the Bulls' prospects in this summer's free agent derby. The Bulls can now sell the opportunity to play with one of the NBA's best point guards to the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And, with the team also playing better, the argument can be made that the additon of a true superstar like the 3 guys we just named would vault the Bulls into immediate contention for the Eastern Conference crown.
But chasing superstar free agents is still a few months away. Let's get back to the Bulls and their sudden improvement. They're now 13-4 with Kirk HInrich in the starting line-up, and Captain Kirk has helped the team in so many ways. On the recent trip, he defended star point guards Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, allowing Rose to save his energy for the offensive end and avoid foul trouble. He's also improved his perimeter shooting, giving Rose an outlet against all the collapsing defenses he's been facing. Hinrich has been re-energized by his promotion to the starting line-up, and is playing with the kind of all-out intensity we saw a few seasons ago when the Bulls were considered one of the rising teams in the East.
Let's not forget about the frontcourt, either. Joakim Noah continues to make a strong case for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, while Luol Deng has been the model of consistency, playing in all 45 games, despite a fractured left thumb injury. Meanwhile, rookie Taj Gibson is looking like one of the steals of last June's draft, playing solid defense and contributing big baskets and rebounds almost every night. Who would have guessed the guy picked 26th overall would be heading to All-Star weekend in Dallas as one of 9 players on the !st year squard for the annual Rookie-Sophomore game? The Bulls are also getting contributions off the bench from big men Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas. Miller has found the fountain of youth, hitting big 3 points shots with consistency, and celebrating like a rookie. Thomas has been his usual inconsistent self, but on the nights he's focused, he can change the game with his shot blocking and ability to finish with resounding dunks on the fast break.
We're still waiting for Devin Brown's Bulls' debut, but Brown is a solid NBA defender, who is also a threat from 3 point range. Brown is expected to get some minutes against the Clippers, and his arrival probably means the end of John Salmons' short stay in Chicago. Salmons was one of the stars of the Bulls' near upset of Boston in last spring's playoffs, but his slow start this season, coupled with a 6.7 million dollar player option for next season that the Bulls want to unload probably means he'll be traded before the February 18th deadline.
The larger question remains, will the Bulls do something big before the deadline, or just try to move players who don't fit in the long term plan like Salmons and Thomas for expiring contracts andor draft picks? Phoenix All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire is very available in trade, but he's hardly looked like a player deserving a maximum contract. Hard to tell whether it's the effect of knee and eye surgeries, but Stoudemire has a tendency to drift in games, and he's never been a consistent rebounder. It seems very unlikely the Bulls would hitch their future hopes to an inconsistent player with a frightening history of injuries.
The latest name to surface in trade rumors is Boston shooting star Ray Allen. Allen is having a sub-par season, shooting only 35 percent from 3 point range, and some people are wondering if he's close to the end at the age of 33. Allen has an expiring 20 million dollar contract, and the Bulls might be able to get him for a package that would include Miller, Salmons and Jerome James. Is that something you'd be interested in? Allen probably could help the Bulls make a run for the 5th playoff spot in the East, but it's hard to picture him being a fit beyond this season. Still, as expiring contracts go, Allen is more capable of helping a team right now than Tracy McGrady, who continues to rehab here in Chicago, waiting for a trade.
We'll be hearing all kinds of rumors over the next 2 and a half weeks leading up to the deadline. Chances are the Bulls will do a smaller deal involving Salmons, and wait until this summer to make their recruiting pitch to Wade and Bosh. I'm guessing they won't even bother talking to James unless Cleveland makes an early exit from the playoffs, and the King gets restless.
I'll see you courtside Tuesday night to preview the Bulls-Clippers match-up with Kendall Gill during SportsNite at 6:30. You can watch the game on Comcast SportsNet starting at 7. Enjoy the hoops and let's hope the Bulls' rollercoaster ride will be replaced by a steady upwards climb towards the playoffs.
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.