Thursday, April 15, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
Even with the Bulls exciting road to making the playoffs -- complete with the turmoil surrounding the team over last week; from the Joakim Noah minutes controversy to reports of alleged physical altercations between Chicago head coach Vinny Del Negro and both team executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman --the minds of Bulls observers havent strayed from the future. No, not just the LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Bulls first-round series -- which begins Saturday afternoon -- fans and media alike continue to wonder what will happen July 1, the much-anticipated start of free agency. Actually, the playoffs do relate to the summer, as some believe that Chicago making the postseason may somehow influence some of the top available players to come to the Windy City, as an appearance in the NBAs second season could convince them the Bulls cupboard is a lot more stocked than those of other suitors.
The other day, my Comcast SportsNet colleague Mark Schanowski wrote a piece for his Beyond the Arc blog that detailed some of the moves he thought would be in the Bulls best interest this summer. Now, Mark and I frequently play general manager before home games at the United Center, discussing which direction would be best for the team. Thus, I wasnt surprised when I read that he supports Chicago making a hard push to acquire Toronto superstar Chris Bosh.
I agree with the majority of what Mark wrote, but as I stated on Chicago Tribune Live last week, Im more in favor of the Bulls going after Atlanta swingman Joe Johnson. While Bosh is certainly a top-10 player in the league, Im not sure his game is best suited for what Chicago needs.
Bosh is a strong interior force who has proven to be a reliable 20-point, 10-rebound performer for the Raptors. Over the past few years, hes silenced critics who have accused him of being soft by continually developing his low-post game and becoming a better rebounder and defender in the paint.
At the same time, Bosh is most comfortable being an inside-outside threat, particularly facing the basket from 15 to 18 feet away, where he can knock down open mid-range jumpers or drive by slower big men. While the Bulls dont currently have a player who is as proficient offensively in that area, center Noah has been expanding his range and knocking down jumpers from the elbow as of late, rookie Taj Gibson has proven to be a consistent mid-range threat and small forward Luol Deng is probably at his best in that area, where he can shoot pull-up jumpers after a dribble or two. Dont forget that All-Star point guard Derrick Rose is at times deadly accurate on his stop-and-pop jumpers off quick penetration moves.
However, Im not blind -- its obvious the Bulls need some offensive help, specifically a true go-to scorer that allows Rose to be the playmaker he naturally is, as his scoring outbursts this season have often come out of necessity rather than his desire to put up big point totals -- I just think outside shooting is the teams most pressing need. Ill come back to my ideas of a top free agent the Bulls should go afte -- cough, Joe Johnson, cough -- but lets first continue to touch on Bosh.
As Mark pointed out in his post, Torontos top executive, Bryan Colangelo, has made it clear that he would prefer a sign-and-trade scenario to losing Bosh outright. The usual suspects -- Miami, New York, New Jersey -- will likely make an attempt to woo Bosh, not to mention Dallas, which could have the pieces to lure the Raptors into sending Bosh back to his hometown. Dont be surprised if the Lakers and Rockets also enter the fray.
If the Bulls were to present a sign-and-trade option, Mark suggests a package of Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Gibson and one or more draft picks could do the trick, as far as swaying Toronto to do a deal with Chicago for Bosh. On the surface, that does sound like the Raptors would end up with some more-than-serviceable pieces, however, I doubt Colangelo would bite -- unless he had no better options -- as the contracts of Deng and Hinrich arent exactly attractive and as well as Gibson has played this year, his effectiveness could be limited by the Raptors lack of an inside presence (minus Bosh, of course), something Bulls fans witnessed as the rookie wore down with the attention opponents showed him during Noahs extended absence.
In addition, in order to make salaries match, Toronto would have to throw in additional players. If you saw Sundays big Bulls win, there arent too many desirable players on the Raptors roster, and even if Chicago was interested in a few of them -- say, athletic swingman Sonny Weems or developing big man Amir Johnson -- its unlikely Colangelo would part with those high-potential youngsters, preferring to peddle a big-contract veteran with less value on the court. Regardless, it is something to consider.
Now, lets get back to Atlantas Johnson; we can even start with his flaws. At 28 (29 this summer), hes older than Bosh, so this will likely be his last big contract. While hes regarded as one of the most complete players in the league, the smooth swingman does have a reputation for being a ball-stopper on offense -- Hawks fans nicknamed Atlanta head coach Mike Woodsons fourth-quarter offensive strategy the Iso-Joe offense -- if not a volume shooter.
And while Johnson is accustomed to being the top offensive option for the Hawks, that doesnt necessarily have to change if he were to come to Chicago -- as Rose is more of a natural playmaker; he can certainly score, but is unselfish by nature, and surely wouldnt mind the addition of another player that could create shot opportunities -- although he might have to alter his style of play a bit. Unlike Bosh, however, Johnson hasnt indicated any preference to be the guy in his next destination, if he indeed leaves Atlanta.
Dont get me wrong -- both Bosh and Johnson are low-key individuals and havent proven to have any character issues on or off the court, something the Bulls value as an organization -- but Bosh is reported to take exception to the assumption that hed willingly sign on with the Heat, for example, to be a supporting actor in Dwyane Wades South Beach superstardom. How would he embrace playing second fiddle to Derrick Rose -- regardless of accolades and achievements, its unlikely that Bosh is enough a transcendent star to not be in the shadow of Rose, one of the leagues shining lights and a Chicago native, to boot -- in the All-Star point guards hometown?
Johnson, on the other hand, is known as one of the most mild-mannered and shy great players in the league. The Little Rock, Ark., native would fit in perfectly with the Bulls mostly unassuming (save for the exception of Noah) bunch.
Hed be a perfect fit on the court, too. One of the most polished and versatile scorers in the league, its not out of the realm of possibility that he could become an even more efficient scorer, thanks to playing with a true point guard like Rose, similar to his initial rise to stardom while playing next to Steve Nash in Phoenix.
Johnson is a prolific long-range shooter, but hes also a master of the mid-range game, arguably among the leagues best when pulling up off the dribble. As a ballhandler, hes a wiz, with the ability to break down opponents and get to the rim, where he smoothly finishes with his powerful, 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame. In fact, Johnson handles the ball well enough that he can be a de facto point guard on occasion, perhaps potentially enabling Rose to play off the ball at times (causing him less wear and tear, as well as allowing him to attack the defense from the wing as a scorer) and giving Chicago another playmaking threat to draw the defense and create easy opportunities for the likes of Noah down low.
Although hes definitely a perimeter player, Johnsons aforementioned strength also allows him to be able to post up smaller shooting guards, something that could compensate for not bringing in a top-flight big man. After all, having a back-to-the-basket game isnt only limited to seven-foot centers, as Magic Johnson (let alone smaller guards like Sam Cassell, Tim Hardaway and currently, Chauncey Billups) once proved. On top of those factors, Joe Johnson is a solid rebounder for a guard and is a willing defender who doesnt shy away from taking on his most talented contemporaries on both ends on the floor, something that also jibes with Chicagos style of play. Bosh, while not a terrible defender and a player who at least tries on that end of the floor, isnt exactly known as a defensive presence.
The package Johnson brings to the table on the court is simply too attractive to pass up, but is it even guaranteed that he wont return to the Hawks? Bosh is seen as a goner from Canada this summer, no matter what, but sources have mixed opinions on whether Johnson will leave Atlanta. With the Hawks on the brink of being a contender and Johnson having suffered through some rough times after leaving the Suns to be a major part of that process, its open for debate whether hell bolt, both due to the emotional attachment factor and the simple fact that Atlanta can give him that sixth year (which is what fuels the wide misconception that teams can pay their own stars much more money than their competitors; they simply have the option to add another year to the contract) may make it tough for him to find a new residence.
Still, some Atlanta sources believe Johnson will go wherever the money takes him, meaning that inferior teams like New York (its speculated that the long-standing relationship between Johnsons agent, Arn Tellem, and top Knicks executive Donnie Walsh could influence his decision) and New Jersey could have a shot at the scorer, hoping his desire to cash in on likely his final big payday and ego will override his sense of competitiveness.
Regardless, if the Bulls were to add Johnson, theres a slight possibility -- salary-cap experts should start crunching the numbers now -- that theyd have enough money left over to add a second-tier big man, such as Utahs Carlos Boozer or New Yorks David Lee, filling the teams need for a low-post threat. While Im high on Gibson, the rookie hasnt yet developed into a consistent scoring threat that can draw double teams on the box and in fact, Im even higher on Boozer -- as far as for what Chicago needs; Im not arguing hes a better player than Bosh, however, his more traditional back-to-the-basket style may be a better fit for the team -- as the correct piece to the puzzle, especially since he probably wont command a max deal.
Lee is less of a guarantee, as far as how much he can help the Bulls -- hes even more of a face-up offensive player and deficient defender than Bosh and some even theorize his improved play is a product of Knicks head coach Mike DAntonis up-tempo system -- but he would be a less costly acquisition, is younger than Boozer and has less mileage than Bosh. Other options the Bulls could consider are rugged, less high-profile veterans like Houstons Luis Scola and Miamis Udonis Haslem -- although both of their teams have expressed interest in re-signing them -- who would allow Gibson to continue to develop without eating as heavily into his minutes.
Anyway, the long and short of it is (mostly long, as evidenced by the length of this piece) is that Johnson should be the Bulls most realistic top target come July 1. While Bosh wouldnt be a bad acquisition -- in fact, if any big name leans toward Chicago, the Bulls shouldnt hesitate in sealing the deal; so tenuous is the market, especially with all the build-up -- but as far as what the team ideally needs, Johnson would be round peg for Chicagos round hole.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.