Beauty in eye of beholder for Bulls' free-agent moves

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Beauty in eye of beholder for Bulls' free-agent moves

As other teams around the league are beginning to slow down their pursuit of free agents after a flurry of signings to begin the month, it appears that the Bulls are finally getting into the swing of things. Such is the nature of the organization's approach this offseason. An unwillingness to spend as freely as many of their peers can be interpreted as either the expected "step back" team general manager Gar Forman referred to earlier this summer, or exhibiting wise fiscal sense in the face of the league's punitive rules in the new CBA, as well as having an eye toward the future.
Veteran center Nazr Mohammed will be on board next season, as first reported by Peter Vecsey early Sunday morning and confirmed by a person privy to the negotiations. The addition of the Chicago native, who attended Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, was confirmed by an individual with knowledge of the situation, and indeed signals that the Bulls are unlikely to match Houston's 25.1-million offer sheet to restricted free agent Omer Asik, which was attempted to be delivered by the Rockets in Las Vegas on Saturday, giving the Bulls until Tuesday evening to make a decision.
Mohammed is regarded as a solid defender and while not an offensive juggernaut, is a more reliable option than Asik as a scorer. And while he doesn't possess the same upside in the latter stages of his career, he should help the Bulls' case to remain one of the league's elite defensive units. However, Mohammed's signing, confirmed to be at the league's veteran minimum, doesn't mean the Bulls are done adding post depth.
Summer-league revelation Malcolm Thomas is being wooed with a one-year-contract, according to a source, though the active 6-foot-8 power forward is also garnering interest multiple other NBA teams. Thomas notched double-doubles and led all competition in rebounding through his first four games in Las Vegas, prior to playing fewer minutes in the Bulls' blowout loss to Milwaukee in their finale Sunday. Thomas and swingman Jimmy Butler were named to the summer league's all-star team Sunday, despite the team only winning one game.
Bringing a backup shooting guard to Chicago also remains a priority and Marco Bellinelli, a sharpshooter who suited up for the Hornets last season, looks like he'll fill that role, combining with forward acquisition Vladimir Radmanovic to replace the outside shooting of the departed Kyle Korver. According to a source, Bellinelli's deal, likely at the league's bi-annual exception, is done, but that apparently isn't precluding the Bulls from continuing to pursue another free-agent: shooting guard Randy Foye. Compared to Belinelli, Foye is more of a slasher, better on-ball defender and has the ability to slide over to point guard, something that must be considered in the wake of first-round draft pick Marquis Teague's uneven summer-league play. Former Celtic E'Twaun Moore, a native of nearby East Chicago, Ind., and Patrick Beverley, who starred at Marshall High School and participated in the Bulls' mini-camp prior to Las Vegas, are also more remote possibilities.
Evaluated individually, none of these moves can be considered earth-shattering. Following Korver's trade to Atlanta, Asik's signing with Houston and fellow reserves C.J. Watson, John Lucas and Ronnie Brewer being waived, the tremendous depth the Bulls have enjoyed over the last two seasons has taken a hit, if not in talent, then certainly in chemistry and on the defensive end (Watson and Lucas will play for the Nets and Raptors, respectively; Brewer is the only member of the "Bench Mob" yet to find a new home). The front office's approach to free agency of waiting out the market for low-priced veterans -- with the relative exception of veteran guard Kirk Hinrich, whose two-year contract became official Monday - -might not sit well with fans, or even jibe with the Bulls' coaching staff win-now philosophy, but it is part of a long-term plan.
Although the chemistry of the erstwhile second unit won't be immediately duplicated, Bellinelli's relative youth and shooting prowess has the potential to provide a reasonable match for what Korver brought to the table. Hinrich can be considered an upgrade from Watson when he moves to the bench after Derrick Rose's eventual return, Mohammed should be effective in the same limited minutes Asik played last season, and Radmanovic, as a deep reserve, is a more feasible on-court option than fan favorite Brian Scalabrine. Butler's Vegas production also justifies giving him a shot to replace Brewer.
For all of the talk about the Bulls pinching pennies, from an on-court and financial perspective, consider the following: They did bring in serviceable talent to fill in for what they lost, it's now unavoidable that the franchise will pay the luxury tax for the first time in its history, even if it's less of a penalty than other, more free-spending teams, and looking ahead, they did gain some flexibility for the future.
While priorities remain signing both head coach Tom Thibodeau and Taj Gibson, the last remaining member of the "Bench Mob," to long-term contract extensions in the near future, as well as finishing off free agency with likely one backcourt and frontcourt acquisition, the upcoming season isn't one in which the Bulls can be considered a true contender, at least not based on present personnel. They should, however, at least be able to tread water. In an Eastern Conference that's improved, but still not strong from top to bottom, the Bulls' projected roster still appears to be a playoff team, even without Rose to begin the season in a pack that includes the Knicks, Nets, Pacers and 76ers, but below the defending-champion Heat and conference-finalist Celtics.
What the Bulls need is, based on Thibodeau's defensive schemes, the hope that a rejuvenated Hamilton remains healthy, Boozer can carry more of the scoring load early on, Hinrich proves that he's still capable of being a starting-caliber point guard for a long stretch, the increasing possibility of Deng not having wrist surgery after the Olympics, Gibson using his stint with the USA Select Team as a springboard to a stellar campaign and the new additions to the rotation, from Butler to the free-agent acquisitions, forming a cohesive second unit.
But moving forward, after Hamilton comes off the books next summer -- the team holds an option for him in the 2013-14 season; the incumbent starting shooting guard is presently working with the team's strength and conditioning coach in an effort to not repeat his injury-plagued debut campaign in Chicago, and get back to his previous form -- the Bulls will have an opportunity to make a push in free agency, when the likes of Oklahoma City's James Harden and others are free agents, especially if the amnesty provision is used on Carlos Boozer, something they could postpone until the following offseason, but are extremely likely to use at some point before his contract expires. Of course, they could wait until 2014 to amnesty Boozer -- something that's extremely likely to occur before his contract expires.
2014 is also when the contract of All-Star Luol Deng, who scored 25 points, albeit in a blowout defeat, in Great Britain's exhibition game against Team USA last week, expires -- dovetailing nicely to the expected arrival of 2011 first-round pick Nikola Mirotic from Spain and also making another major asset, the future draft pick from Charlotte acquired in the Tyrus Thomas trade, even more appealing.
So yes, in 2014, when the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony can exercise early-termination options in their contracts to become free agents -- aging stars such as Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and long-rumored Bulls target Pau Gasol will also hit the market that summer -- the Bulls will have an opportunity to make a major splash.
Several factors, including Rose's health, Gibson's impending free agency, whether or not Deng will be part of the team's future, Mirotic's potential, maximizing the value of the Bobcats' pick and the belief that the spending of rival teams this summer will prohibit them from competing as effectively from a financial standpoint down the road, will impact how successful the Bulls' vision will be, but it's time to come to grips with the blue-collar team that the Windy City identified with morphing into a new group, still with the talent to win, yet one that can only be judged on the success of the franchise in the future, based on a strategic gamble in the present.

Fred Hoiberg, Jimmy Butler rave about Rajon Rondo's voice, basketball IQ

Fred Hoiberg, Jimmy Butler rave about Rajon Rondo's voice, basketball IQ

With one Bulls practice in the books and one more to go in the night session, it was evident from the primary parties that Rajon Rondo has earned instant trust and credibility with his play.

Or more pointedly, his brain and his mouth.

“He’s got the best voice on the team,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When you have point guard out there who can get you into something and talk the way he does, that sets the tone for everybody.”

Apparently the ultra-intelligent point guard has been a galvanizing force since the team starting convening last month for informal workouts, as Hoiberg believes Rondo has grasped his system instantly and brought some of the younger teammates along.

“The biggest thing that I’ve been most impressed with with Rajon is the minute he stepped on this floor when he got back here in August is he pulled everybody together,” Hoiberg said. “If you have a guy not only offensively getting you into something but defensively making sure guys are pointing and talking and making sure guys are pointing and talking and getting back and matched up in transition, that’s where it starts. He’s been here. He’s been great. He’s a guy who you can watch film with in September before we got rolling here in camp. He got us off to a great start.”

Needing Rondo to be vocal will be a plus for Hoiberg considering the coach’s soft-spoken approach, and those two being on one accord will be a key considering Rondo’s history with coaches over time.

Rondo’s intelligence, which most consider to be genius-like, has already come in handy and will help with the perimeter adjustment of fitting himself, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade together.

“Like I always say, when you put good basketball players out there on the floor you just go,” Butler said. “Everything just falls into place, falls into line. You don’t have to worry about too much of anything. And with him he’s an incredible leader. He just wants everybody to be successful. He’s going to put you in position to be just that.”

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Rondo has led the league in assists three times and his career 8.7 assists-per-game average is third among active players behind Chris Paul (L.A. Clippers) and John Wall (Washington Wizards).

“He has been around the league a long time,” Hoiberg said. “He studies the league. If he sees a small guy guarding Jimmy, he’s going to find a way to get him the ball on the block. The more you can have those guys recognizing things on the floor---if Robin Lopez is coming down and I have to yell, ‘Get the ball to Robin’ then we have issues -- and Rondo obviously will be a big help with that.”

So yeah, he’ll have the ball in his hands plenty.

“He’s super-smart. He really sees things before they even develop out there on the basketball floor, so it makes everybody’s job a lot easier," Butler said. "And not only is he leading the team on offense, but he’s constantly talking on defense, so he’s letting everybody know where they have to be. Wade’s the same way, so he makes everybody’s job easier as well, and you learn from that, so you just follow suit for the most part.’’

Butler joked that there will often be times where a Rondo pass zigs while he’ll be zagging early in camp while chemistry is developing, saying “I’m sorry, Rajon, because you’re going to definitely get a turnover from me one game,” and that he won’t be opposed to Rondo getting on him or anybody else in the meantime.

“I’m good with that,” Butler said. “I’ll challenge him right back if I see something that he’s not doing correctly. I want him to hold me accountable, me hold him accountable, everybody holding everybody accountable, because then everybody is going to learn from their mistakes and not to it again.”

Stan Bowman mum on Artemi Panarin contract talks

Stan Bowman mum on Artemi Panarin contract talks

In July, when asked how contract talks were going with star forward Artemi Panarin, general manager Stan Bowman said he wouldn’t negotiate through the media.

He reiterated that on Tuesday.

“Obviously Artemi's a big part of our team. We're excited for the season he had. We're looking forward to him building on that as well. Then the negotiations will be what they are between his agent and myself,” I respect Tom [Lynn, Panarin’s agent]. He's a very knowledgeable guy, and Artemi put a lot of faith in him. And Tom and I will work to get something done.”

Panarin is entering the final year of his current contract and is coming off a monster rookie season in which he recorded 77 points and took home the Calder Trophy. Panarin took home plenty of bonus money thanks to that season, too.

The 24-year-old could certainly command a hefty price, which would once again be a major concern to the cash-strapped Blackhawks. The salary cap is at $73 million for this season, a small increase from 2015-16 ($71.4 million). Factor in another likely small increase next season and the large contracts the Blackhawks are already doling out – Brent Seabrook’s eight-year deal with a cap hit of $6.875 kicks in this season – and could Panarin be another one that gets away?

But Bowman remains optimistic.

“We're always confident,” he said. “You go into a negotiation expecting to get a deal done. That's the way I've been in the past and that's the way I am now.”