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.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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