With the Bulls sliding into the All-Star break having lost 13 of their last 18 games, it's only natural to wonder if the contending window has closed on the current roster.
The coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg was supposed to bring a new offensive system that would maximize the talents of the young players on the roster. Instead, Niko Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell have failed to take advantage of expanded playing time, leaving the front office to wonder what changes are necessary to put the right personnel around All-Star guard Jimmy Butler.
Butler is expected to be out until early March after suffering a left knee strain, but the time off might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if the NBA's leader in average minutes played per game comes back refreshed for the stretch run.
The front office is also counting on Derrick Rose continuing his post-Christmas resurgence, and Mirotic should return in a few weeks to give the Bulls another scoring threat off the bench. Plus, the hope is Mike Dunleavy will be able to stabilize the small forward position as he gradually increases his minutes load following off-season back surgery.
That's why it's unlikely the Bulls will make a major trade before Thursday's 2 p.m. deadline.
John Paxson and Gar Forman still are hoping a healthy Bulls' team can compete with any of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, outside of Cleveland. Their thinking is if the "Big 3" of Butler, Rose and Pau Gasol can get a stretch of games together in March and April to build some chemistry, maybe this team can win a round or two in the playoffs. If it doesn't work out, the Bulls will have cap space and at least one first round pick to re-shape the roster this summer, maybe two if the Kings finish outside the bottom 10.
So, what's out there if the Bulls attempt to make changes now? Phoenix is desperately trying to unload talented but moody forward Markieff Morris (who had a heated bench confrontation with teammate Archie Goodwin last Wednesday), Minnesota has no use for 33-year-old swing-man Kevin Martin, the Pelicans are willing to trade just about anyone outside of superstar Anthony Davis, and Sacramento would certainly listen to offers about the consistently under-achieving Rudy Gay.
Now that Marc Gasol is out indefinitely because of a broken foot, would Memphis consider bringing Pau Gasol back to his original NBA home in a trade for a first round pick and an expiring contract?
And, with the Lakers still in tank mode to protect their first round pick that will go to Phoenix if it falls outside of the top 3, would the Bulls be interested in a proven perimeter scorer like Lou Williams (who's signed for reasonable money over the next two seasons), which would allow Butler to move back to small forward?
Right now, it's difficult to read what the Bulls' front office thinks about the roster long term. But if there is a deal available to land a young talent who can be part of the team's future along with Butler, Portis, Mirotic, McDermott and maybe Rose, why wait until the summer?
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
If the Bulls decide to delay their roster makeover, which players might they be able to pursue in free agency? With Gasol and Joakim Noah most likely moving on after the season, along with Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, the Bulls could have between $20-21 million in cap room available to bid on the top free agents.
Here's the breakdown on the Bulls' salary commitments for next season, courtesy of CSN's resident capologist, Kevin "Bulldog" Anderson. Remember Gasol holds a player option for 2016-17, but has already indicated he will opt out and become a free agent.
|Cristiano Felicio (non-guaranteed)||$874,636|
|Cameron Bairstow (non-guaranteed)||$980,431|
|Charge first round pick (Currently No. 18)||$1,420,100|
|2016 Salary Cap Prediction||$89,000,000|
That leaves approximately $21 million available for the Bulls to spend in free agency after they renounce their rights to Noah, E'Twaun Moore, Hinrich and Brooks.
Ok, we know Kevin Durant isn't coming to Chicago, but what about some other All-Star caliber players like Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan, and Mike Conley or productive two-way wing players Nic Batum, Arron Afflalo and Kent Bazemore? All would be great additions for the Bulls, with DeRozan and Batum in particular looking like good fits for the Hoiberg offense.
Another name to keep an eye on is Miami center Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside has continued to improve in his first full season with the Heat, and could be one of the most sought-after players on the free agent market, since he leads the league in blocked shots and is one of the NBA's most athletic centers. Whiteside will be available to the highest bidder since Miami doesn't hold his Bird rights, which means they can't offer an extra year, and can't go over the salary cap to re-sign him. The Heat doesn't figure to have much cap room available with big contracts on the books for Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic, and Dwyane Wade likely to tie up at least another $20 million after he signs his next deal. So, you can look forward to a wild west bidding war for a player who bounced around the D-League for a few years, and was basically out of basketball when the Heat signed him.
It was another crazy week on the NBA coaching front. Phil Jackson pulled the plug on his former player, Derek Fisher, after just a season and a half on the Knicks' bench, appointing Kurt Rambis as the interim head coach. While in Sacramento, George Karl earned another reprieve from the front office after another round of sniping from star center DeMarcus Cousins.
Jackson ran out of patience after watching the Knicks move into playoff contention at 22-22, then promptly lose nine out of 10 games. Jackson's insistence of running some semblance of the triangle offense might eliminate Thibodeau from consideration with early speculation centering on long-time Jackson disciples like Rambis, Luke Walton and Brian Shaw.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Thibodeau served as an assistant coach with the Knicks under Jeff Van Gundy, and reportedly told confidants running the Knicks would be his "dream job", but the egos involved with Thibs and Jackson could make for a combustible working relationship. It would be fascinating to watch, but not an option Jackson is likely to consider at this point in his life.
As for Karl, ESPN's Marc Stein reported early last week that the Kings were prepared to make a change in the next few days. But after meeting with GM Vlade Divac last Tuesday, the two men decided they would work through the team's many issues together. Karl is expected to keep his job through the remainder of the season, so we'll see if his meeting with Divac will result in any roster changes before the trade deadline.
A number of contending teams are keeping their eye on veteran wing scorer Joe Johnson to see if he's able to negotiate a buyout with the Nets before the March 1 deadline. Johnson has been playing much better of late, including his game-winning three-pointer against Denver last Monday. According to ESPN stats and info., Johnson has hit seven game-winning buzzer beaters over the last 10 years, more than any other player in the league. Monta Ellis and Andre Iguodala are next with four apiece. If Johnson hits the buyout market, look for the usual teams to pursue him, including Cleveland, San Antonio, Miami, Houston and the Clippers.
Speaking of the Cavs, LeBron James has been busy giving GM David Griffin some trade ideas to strengthen the team for a possible re-match with Golden State in the NBA Finals. Players linked to the Cavs on the trade rumor circuit include a pair of former Bulls' players, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik.
WARRIORS PURSUIT OF 72 WINS
Another perfect week for Steve Kerr's Warriors. They head into the break with a 48-4 record and they're unbeaten at home. Barring an injury to one of their key players, it seems almost a foregone conclusion they can go 25-5 over their remaining 30 games and break the 1995-96 Bulls single season record. I'm jumping their odds all the way up to 70 percent.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
We told you about Johnson's big night against Denver which also included that embarrassing crossover move on Nuggets' young big man, Jusuf Nurkic.
At least Nurkic was able to maintain his sense of humor, sending out the following tweet, "Don't worry guys, my ankles are okay. Just need a little ice. Good play by Johnson."
And finally back to where we began with the plight of the Bulls. Here's a sampling of some of the quotes following last Wednesday's embarrassing loss to Atlanta.
Taj Gibson: "You have to really deep down love each other and play hard, knowing that guy is going to battle for you.""It hurts my heart."
Hoiberg: "I challenged them, whatever they got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror, find a way to get committed to this team where we can come out and go on a run. And that's all we can do right now is look forward. It's been a bad, bad stretch of basketball. Hopefully we'll get healthy and move forward."
And finally this from Rose: "Come back, got 30 games left and we got to decide whether we want to play or not."
It will be fascinating to watch how the Bulls' players come out of the All-Star break with the very real possibility of missing the playoffs staring them in the face.