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The Summer Bowl: Joe Johnson to Bulls?

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The Summer Bowl: Joe Johnson to Bulls?

Monday, Feb. 8, 2010
4:37 PM

by Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

On the day after the Saints' Super Bowl win over the Indianapolis Colts, this former New Orleans resident feels a bit of pride for the city where I used to live, albeit briefly. It must be something akin to the Bears' last championship, or the Sox more recent World Series title or rather -- as powerful of an affection as New Orleans feels for the Saints -- the Jordan era of the Bulls, and the six wins that came with it.

As the NBA season continues to move forward, I wonder if my current place of residence -- Chicago -- can make a dent in what equates to the NBAs Super Bowl for the majority of the teams in the league: this summers loaded free-agent pool, the Summer Bowl, if you will. Lets be honest, while the Bulls are certainly playoff hopefuls, there are only a few true contenders for the crown this year and Chicago isnt among them. However, the Bulls are a team with a shot to be a major player this summer.

The biggest fish in the pond, LeBron James, is a near-lock to remain in Cleveland, despite the KnicksNets propaganda that is being fed to the public. The Cavaliers can pay him the most money, they are a contender this year and could still add another piece before the upcoming trade deadline, further appeasing their star. If James does opt to leave Cleveland, it would be a long shot that he lands in Chicago.

The next-biggest superstar name on the list happens to hail from Chicago: Dwyane Wade -- though he looked very much like a mere mortal on Saturday night, as the Bulls snapped their three-game losing streak with a win over the Heat at the United Center in their last game. Unfortunately, while there might be some hometown sentiment and Wade stated after the game, as he has in the past, that winning is his top priority -- he may be dissatisfied with Miami at the moment, as the Heat are currently on a losing skid and arent in the same class as other Eastern Conference contenders -- but they arent in that much of a different situation than Chicago, with a few key differences.

First, like James in Cleveland, the Heat can pay him more than any other team. Next, its Florida -- the Sunshine State, for those unfamiliar -- and Miami more specifically. And Wade has stated his preference for the warmer climate after growing up in the Windy City and attending college in Milwaukee, not to mention the tax benefits he enjoys in Florida. Keep in mind that the Heat, with few players under contract for next season, potentially have the ability to bring another superstar to pair with Flash (and who wouldnt want to go to Miami and play with Wade?), and its obvious the Bulls are fighting an uphill battle in their quest to put together an all-Chicago backcourt with Wade and Derrick Rose.

After James and Wade, the top interior options are Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire. Like Wade, Bosh has kept his intentions close to the vest, but its no secret that hes growing weary of Torontos inability to get over the hump, especially since the offseason acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu hasnt reaped immediate dividends. In Stoudemires case, it appears as if he could depart Phoenix at any moment or not all. The athletic power forwards name has been dangled in trade talks for years now, with no movement. While the Suns have cooled off after a blazing-hot start to the season, the return to a run-and-gun style suits Stoudemires game and after being in Phoenix for his entire career since he was drafted out of high school, he has ties to the community there. Still, odds are hell either be dealt before the upcoming league-wide trade deadline or move on this summer. With his proclamations that he wouldnt object to playing for the bottom-feeder Nets, financial considerations may be a primary motivation in contemplating his next destination.

Although Wade is viewed as Chicagos top target, another recent opponent, the Hawks, currently have another player who is speculated to be high on the Bulls list.

Joe Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He's about to play in his fourth All-Star Game, but people still tend to sleep on him, maybe because he's not the most dynamic player, or person for that matter. But he's just a stone-cold scorer, said Lang Whitaker, executive editor of SLAM Magazine and columnist for Hawks.com, to CSNChicago.com. I think he's one of the best one-on-one scorers in the game right now -- I put him up there with LeBron and Kobe Bryant in terms of guys who can manufacture a 'makeable' shot without a pick or a screen. He's money from the perimeter, and he's developed a great runner in the paint.

"The things Joe could improve on are getting to the line -- he only averages 3.5 free throw attempts per game -- and also not relying so much on being able to create for himself, continued Whitaker, an Atlanta native. Sounds weird to say that, considering he's so great going one-on-one, but when Joe goes into that one-on-one mode -- Hawks fans call it 'Iso-Joe' -- everyone else has a tendency to just stand around and watch, and it brings the offense to a screeching halt.Joe Johnson is one of themost underrated players in the NBA. He's about to play in his fourthAll-Star Game, but people still tend to sleep on him, maybe becausehe's not the most dynamic player, or person for that matter. But he'sjust a stone-coldscorer.--Lang Whitaker, executive editor of SLAM Magazinecolumnistfor Hawks.com on JoeJohnson

In the Bulls loss to the Hawks in Atlanta on Friday, Johnson didnt have a vintage performance, scoring 18 points on 8 of 20 shooting from the field. However, for the season, hes averaging a well-rounded 21.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per contest on 46.2 percent shooting from the field, 36.9 percent from three-point range and 84.4 percent from the free-throw line. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, hes physically imposing for the shooting-guard position, yet handles the ball capably enough to initiate the offense and break down his defender at will. Hes a dangerous shooter from behind the arc, when pulling up off the dribble from the mid-range area or posting up smaller guards. Hes not known as a lockdown defender, but he has both the ability and the willingness to guard top swingmen. In addition, hes a proven clutch performer -- as evidenced by Atlantas exciting playoff series against Boston, a year prior to Chicagos epic against the Celtics last spring -- and is seen as the face of the franchise after leaving Phoenix as a free agent to come to the then-lowly Hawks, who were young and clearly in rebuilding mode.

Hes a quiet superstar, honestly. He doesnt do anything for the fanfare," former Bull and current Hawk Jamal Crawford told CSNChicago.com in Atlanta. "If you watch the games, you may not say he blows you away with athleticism or anything like that, but he just gets it done every single night and hes just as good as anybody in the league. Its very easy for him. You forget that hes 6-7, 6-8 and 240, 250 when he can handle the ball like that. He can play three positions (shooting guard, small forward and point guard) -- he seriously can.

Crawford went on to explain that he enjoys having Johnson as a teammate, not only for his talent but for what that talent does for his teammates.

He tries to guard the best player on the other team all the time, hes an all-around player. I love having him for a teammate, said Crawford, who was traded to Atlanta from Golden State. I think that any time you have two scorers and one comes off the bench Crawford, I think its a great dynamic. He doesnt have to always take the last shot and I dont either. Weve both been in that position a lot of our careers, so we take a lot of pressure off each other. Its tough for the opponents to deal with when we both have it going.

Joe does everything -- he still does everything -- but now I think it comes easier to him because he has another guy on the floor who can do some similar things, so its not always on him to make the play. Instead of working so hard, he can make the easy two or get to the free-throw line and now hes scoring 30 easy -- very easy -- on 20 shots and shooting a high percentage.

Ironically, while the Hawks seem to have a good camaraderie, it may be Crawford who may have muddied the waters in terms of how the Hawks deal with the upcoming summer. Athletic forward and Atlanta native Josh Smith seems to have turned the corner, while All-Star center Al Horford continues to display promise and will have a contract of his own coming up soon. The addition of Crawford, who looks like the leading candidate for the NBAs sixth man of the year award, may make them less inclined to give Johnson a max deal, according to Hawks sources.

Whereas Johnson was once the end-all and be-all for the Hawks, the current team is much more offensively balanced and now can boast another shot-creator and explosive scorer, who comes with a far cheaper price tag. Furthermore, while the Hawks locker-room environment is relatively harmonious, there are whispers that the teams talented frontcourt players are weary of Johnsons shot selection, off-and-on defensive tendencies and perceived preferential treatment from head coach Mike Woodson. Still, Atlanta is now one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse to make a deep run in the playoffs.

It would be really difficult to leave this situation if Im Joe," said Sekou Smith, longtime NBA beat reporter and now a writer for NBA.com. "If you're a player in this league and youve been in this league as long as Joe has, your motivations are pretty simple now. Youve got the huge contract, so its not like youre out there searching for that huge payday again. Whatever he gets this contract is gravy on top of a pretty fantastic stretch and now its like you get labeled for chasing the money if you were to leave.

"Theres so much to work with here, but then there are other places like Chicago. Its not like were talking about a secret: Everybody knows Chicago is an interested party. Joes a hell of a consolation prize if the Bulls dont acquire Wade and you get a chance to pair him with Derrick Rose -- you talk about vicious backcourts -- that would be instantly considered one of the top backcourts in the league, if not the best.

Smith went on to explain that Johnson has the chips stacked in his favor heading into the 2010 free agent season.

The market is tilted so hard in his favor, because you figure LeBron and D-Wade are at the top of that free-agent food chain, and then Bosh and then Joe," said Smith, who covered the Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until this season and still resides in Atlanta. "If Im another team targeting somebodys star player, then he would be the target because hes after those guys, but so close that you can make a case for him being the guy you want to target because you think you have a better chance of getting him away from the Hawks than you have getting LeBron away from Cleveland or D-Wade away from Miami.

I thought for sure theyd Johnson and the Hawks get something done before now, but they havent. Unless they make a hellacious run in the playoffs or get to the conference finals or something, I dont know how you keep him here with all the opportunities hes going to have.

Smith is basing his assumptions on observing the team on a daily basis and a team source close to Johnson concurs.

I believe something major will have to happen for him to come back, especially with how Woodson uses Jamal Crawford, the Hawks source told CSNChicago.com. Hes still an All-Star, still putting up big numbers, still our leading scorer, still our go-to guy down the stretch. ... I believe that All-Star players in this league are interchangeable -- thats what makes an All-Star. He can go to any team and impact a situation. I think it would obviously impact the Bulls roster, especially playing with a player like a Rose.

The source was quick to say that theres no friction between Johnson and Crawford, although another source close to the team indicated that Crawford clicked with the entire roster upon arrival in Atlanta, prefers his style of play -- make no mistake, Crawford is also labeled as a gunner throughout the league -- to Johnsons, as evidenced by veteran point guard Mike Bibbys premeditated dismissal of a late-game play drawn up by Woodson. Bibby and Crawford apparently colluded on the play before during a timeout -- where Woodson drew up a game-winning shot for Johnson -- and Bibby passed the ball to Crawford, who hit the game-winner instead of Johnson, regarded as the go-to guy in last-second situations before Crawfords arrival.

If Johnson were to end up in Chicago, he would give the Bulls a true No. 1 option on offense. While Rose is the teams leading scorer and obviously capable of explosive offensive outings, he is loathe to be an alpha-dog scorer and prefers to blend his point production with his pure point guard, distributing and playmaking sensibilities. Acquiring Johnson would upgrade Chicagos size on the perimeter (Johnson is 6-foot-7; the Bulls current starting shooting guard, Kirk Hinrich, is 6-foot-3) and outside shooting, as well as give them a player other than Rose who can create his own shot with regularity. It would be the type of acquisition that could potentially vault the Bulls, after adding other pieces, of course, to contender status.

Honestly, I have no idea what Joe is going to do this summer, and I'm not so sure that he has an idea, either," Whitaker told CSNChicago.com. "I think the Hawks will be willing to pay him whatever it takes to keep him, although nobody's sure what that number will be, particularly with the preliminary labor negotiations happening now between the League and the player's union. With LeBron and Wade and Bosh headlining the free-agent class this summer, and I guess there's a chance one of the other teams with money to spend could throw a lot of cash at Joe, so he'd be almost like a consolation free agent. But he's spent a lot of time on really bad Hawks teams, and now that the Hawks are finally a contender, with probably as good a young core of players as anyone else has, I think if the money is all relatively equal, it would make the most sense for Joe to stay in Atlanta. Whether or not that actually happens, I have no idea.

If Im the Hawks, Im weighing a couple different things. Im weighing the fact that Al Horfords now an All-Star and hes got an extension coming up at some point here, and Jamal Crawford. I dont know if looking at the structure of the team and looking at, Can I give him the max because we dont have a one player so much more dominant than the rest of our pieces any longer, Smith continued. Its like I need them all to fit together -- thats the one thing Ive said about this team the past couple years -- theyve gotten so much better throughout the roster, especially the starting five, that its no longer Joe carrying a team full of young guys trying to get better.

Now theyre equals, basically, on this roster. It becomes tough to have one guy making a max deal than it is to have two or three other guys thats making enough to keep them all. Its just not that easy to do, continued Smith. I think hes just doing the shrewd thing. Dont get me wrong: I think him not taking the extension they offered here was the right business move for him. Ultimately, hes got to look out for himself and everybody does, so Im not knocking any player for doing thatthey Atlanta realize what his value is and its a matter of can they afford to pay.

As for Johnson, whos already notoriously quiet by nature, hes been even more closed-mouthed on the sensitive subject.

Its nothing that I really sit back and think about. Every so often, but not much because weve been having so much fun and so much success here that Im just trying to do whats right, right now at this point, said Johnson in Atlanta. Weve been playing great basketball. Were just trying to position ourselves for down the stretch, to where we have a great spot in the playoffs.

I think the Bulls are a young, athletic team with a phenom, Derrick Rose at the one. Hes just so difficult to guard and so athletic that youve got to pay a lot of attention to him, but theyve got a lot of bigs that are workhorses -- guys like Joakim Noah," Johnson told CSNChicago.com about his take on the Bulls in Atlanta. "I like Taj Gibson, and then they have Luol Deng and Kirk. Theyre a really solid team. I dont think nobody really wants to play them, especially right now.

And does Johnson have visions of playing alongside Rose dance through his head?

I dont know. Ive never thought about that playing in a backcourt with Rose," he said. "I think I can pretty much play off anybody. Ive played with some of the best point guards such as Steve Nash in Phoenix, so thats not really a factor to me. Theyve got a solid team. ... I dont really worry about free agency, especially not now, at a time like this when were so successful and having so much fun. Were just trying to position ourselves for the right spot come postseason.

Ironically, Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro and Johnson are familiar with each other from Del Negros time working in Phoenix, which coincided with Johnsons stint with the Suns.

Joes one of the top players in the league, one of the tough covers because of his versatility and his size, said Del Negro before Chicagos defeat in Atlanta. He continually improves, hes got one of the best floaters in the game in the lane. Just his versatility, being able to take you inside-outside with his size, just makes him a tough cover.

At this point, theres no concrete evidence the soft-spoken Johnson will leave Atlanta, come to Chicago or has even dropped any hints about his next destination. However, what is clear is that the Bulls are going to make moves this summer and Johnson could be as good of a fit as any player Chicago could bring in with the cap room they are expected to have. In fact, hes a player that could be part of the solution -- along with Rose, Noah, Deng and Gibson -- of what the Bulls need to begin making strides in the direction of title contention one day. Heres to winning the Summer Bowl.
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.

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

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USA Today

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

The NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline is fast approaching, and the Bulls have decisions to make.

Their quandary isn’t an enviable one. With just over half of their games played, the Bulls have underwhelmed relative to preseason expectations in almost every phase. Yet, somehow, at 16-28, the playoffs are not yet an impossibility — even if the team’s current 1-17 record against teams with above-.500 records makes it seem so.

Thus, the Bulls aren’t likely headed for a big splash at the deadline. They simply aren’t yet competitive enough to risk parting with potentially valuable draft capital in pursuit of ‘one last piece’ to make a playoff push, but they’re also not quite out of it enough to sell off portions of their core, especially given how much the organization has recently invested in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any movement at all. 

Based on how each of their seasons have played out so far, it’s fair to wonder about Thad Young and Denzel Valentine’s long-term fits with the Bulls. Young was brought in on a three year, $41 million deal in the offseason for his veteran leadership and two-way versatility, but through 43 games, he’s averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his career (22.3) and shooting more than eight points below his career field goal percentage (41.7%). Valentine started the year out of the rotation after missing all of 2018-19 with an ankle injury, then re-entered for about a month with Chandler Hutchison sidelined, but has logged three DNP-CDs in a row. He hasn’t played more than three minutes in a game since Jan. 2. 

To be clear: This is no Dewayne Dedmon scenario. Young and Valentine have remained professional through the ups and downs and no trade requests have been publicly filed (though Young has spoken about his desire for more playing time). But both also might benefit from a change of scenery and certainly have the potential to help a contender if the Bulls' season goes south.

The Clippers, as an example, have been repeatedly linked to Young, and a framework built around Moe Harkless makes as much sense as any hypothetical deal out there. Even with Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell in tow, recent reporting from Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report indicates the Clips might be on the hunt for a defensive-minded big to add to their rotation that wouldn’t sacrifice their offensive versatility. Understandable with the Lakers (with LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) and Jazz (Rudy Gobert) surrounding them atop the West.

(via TradeNBA)

If one or two second rounders, or a project like Jerome Robinson, in place of that first is more amicable, so be it. Harkless is a tough, switchable, solid-rebounding wing that would help the Bulls on both ends of the floor — especially if the team continues its recent endeavor into small-ball. Plus, he’s on an expiring deal. 

The two guaranteed years remaining on Young’s current contract might be a hurdle for the Bulls to clear, but if the playoff dreams melt away, it could ratchet up the motivation to move him for both sides. Young has been inconsistent this season, but perhaps a jolt of energy in a winning situation with more talent around him would be just what the doctor ordered. He certainly profiles as exactly what the Clippers could be reportedly seeking in a deal.

The Nuggets, Celtics and Miami Heat could make sense as candidates for Young’s services, too, all being contenders with need on the interior. But marrying salaries and value becomes tricky with them.

Valentine’s value league-wide is tougher to gauge, given his sporadic playing time with the Bulls. But with him set to enter restricted free agency this summer, it would behoove the Bulls to avoid potentially losing him — a former lottery pick — for nothing if his days of consistent playing time are done. 

Teams short bench scoring such as the Rockets or 76ers make a modicum of sense, and Valentines $3.3 million salary is simple enough to match:

(The Rockets could absorb Valentine’s salary using a trade exception created when they traded Brandon Knight to the Cavaliers last February)

Bring back Tyson Chandler! The second round pick would be the real haul, but if this move was made in contingency with a Young deal, Chandler slides nicely into a mentoring role for Carter and Daniel Gafford.

Not the most exciting swap (Bolden and Milton are also projects), but perhaps the Sixers (35.3% from three as a team, 17th in NBA) could use Valentine’s shotmaking (39.2% from three this season) and playmaking off the bench. Philadelphia ranks 27th in the league in bench scoring, getting only 29 points per game from their reserves. The Rockets bench is dead last with 26 points per contest.

The Bulls have eight games remaining before the deadline, beginning with the Bucks tomorrow. Three of those are against winning teams (Bucks, Pacers, Raptors), with two others (Spurs, Nets) against technically sub-.500 squads with the ability to play above that level on a given night.

That stretch is sure to, once and for all, instruct us on what to expect from this season. If it’s an unfavorable one, transactions on the fringes of the roster may begin.

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Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Forget statement games, Zach LaVine is having a statement month. 

In 10 January games, the Bulls’ 6-foot-6 messiah is the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 30.6 points on 50% shooting (22.8 attempts). 

To borrow a word from Jim Boylen, his latest installment — 42 points on 19-for-31 shooting in a game the Bulls clawed back from down 19 in the second half to topple the Cavaliers 118-116 — was “herculean.”

“If that's not an all-star performance I don't know what is,” Boylen said. “He’s been a monster, man. He’s been a monster.”

To LaVine, there isn’t much supernatural about these types of nights; he’s been preaching his confidence and readiness to carry this team since day one. LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and on a night he conceded his legs were a tad worn, he attempted only six 3-pointers, instead finding most of his offense in the midrange and at the rim.

“Make or break time, we're not gonna get back in the game by just playing nicely. So I'm gonna attack their body, try to make them make a call. Had some tough finishes, made some tough shots, but I take that upon myself,” LaVine said. 

“Just playing the right way,” he added of his recent torrid streak. “I expect to. I put the work in for it.”

But All-Star berths and widespread acclaim aren’t dolled out based on individual point totals, alone, regardless of how effortless LaVine’s prolificity looks at times. And LaVine knows that. Casting the 42 points aside, he also finished the night with a team-high six rebounds, five steals and three assists. He was all-encompassing. Michael Jordan is the only player in Bulls history to post a line with those minimums in a game.

His contributions to a tightly clamped Bulls defense in the fourth were note-worthy for a player that's often advertised his motivation to grow as a two-way, all-around player. And most importantly, the game ended in victory.

“He [LaVine] wants to win. And he knows in order to win you gotta do multiple things in this league and I feel like he did that tonight,” Kris Dunn said. “He was guarding today, scoring the ball, getting rebounds, getting guys involved. We need that from him.”

LaVine lauded the Bulls’ new-look closing lineup of he, Dunn, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls ventured to switch pick-and-rolls with that lineup late, as opposed to their usual blitzing, and outscored the Cavaliers 31-14 in the final period while forcing 10 turnovers.

“We made a lot of defensive stops, we got in transition. Chandler [Hutchison] came in and made some really big plays. Kris Dunn on the defensive end was incredible,” LaVine said. “And that helped me even recently get in some passing lanes. We put it together in the fourth.”

Tonight marked LaVine’s third 40-point game of the season and tenth straight with more than 20. His 31 field goal attempts were a season-high, three more than he hoisted in his record smashing 49-point night in Charlotte. Night in, night out, the on-court production and responsibility acceptance is there. But behind the scenes, he’s ever-improving, as well.

“He's been talking in the huddles, he's been chattering, he's been locked in,” Boylen said. “He's bouncing back from maybe a poor moment or a bad stretch. He's bouncing back now, he's not playing backward at all. And that's what the great ones do.”

“I stepped into this year from the get-go using my voice more, and you know, I've never been a real vocal person but you know, when I say something I think my voice carries weight,” LaVine added.

LaVine isn’t getting ahead of himself. He called this win — however exhilarating — an “ugly” one and lamented the familiar lackluster play that dug the Bulls their 18-point halftime deficit to begin with. Miracle comebacks shouldn't be necessary to beat a now 12-30 Cavaliers team on their last game of a six-game road trip.

Still, the statements are piling up. If his overall outing wasn’t enough, LaVine offered another one to the United Center crowd after his final bucket of the evening, an and-one finish through Collin Sexton with 16 seconds remaining to put him over 40 points and the Bulls ahead by four.

What did he say?

“You want the explicit version or the PG-13?” LaVine said with a chuckle. “This my stuff.” 

Continuing to stuff stat sheets, as he has been, is going to make All-Star jurors’ lives that much more difficult.

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