Post-Deadline Bulls Still a Playoff Team

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Post-Deadline Bulls Still a Playoff Team

Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
7:05 PM

By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Now that the dust has settled from the two trades engineered by John Paxson and Gar Forman, we know the Bulls will have enough salary cap room to make a bid for one of the top free agents in this summer's star-studded class. But the question remains, is the roster that's left good enough for a return trip to the playoffs?

Assuming that Joakim Noah can return at close to full strength in the near future, my answer is a definite yes. The Bulls didn't have to trade any of their starters to get the payroll room they needed, and they acquired a pair of proven scorers in Hakim Warrick and Flip Murray who should come close to equaling the production off the bench they got from Tyrus Thomas and John Salmons. Basically, Warrick is almost a carbon-copy of Thomas. Both are wiry, high-jumping 6-9 players who can drive coaches crazy with their inconsistency. Warrick is a better offensive player than Thomas, averaging just over 10 points a game in his NBA career, while shooting almost 50 percent from the field, but Thomas has the edge in the rebounding and shot-blocking departments. Given the Bulls already have a solid, defensive oriented starter at the power forward spot in Taj Gibson, Warrick's ability to score off the bench and run the fastbreak with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich should be a nice addition.

As for Murray, he looked like an All-Star in putting up 25 points in a win over the Bulls back on January 5th in Charlotte. But over his career, he's been a very erratic shooter, hitting only 40 percent from the field and just 30 percent from beyond the arc. At 6-3, Murray doesn't have the ability to get to the basket and shoot over defenders like Salmons, but he is capable of scoring points in bunches, and gives the Bulls the kind of player they thought they were getting when they signed Jannero Pargo in the off-season. Once Noah returns from his foot injury, look for Vinny Del Negro to pretty much go with an 8-man rotation with Warrick, Murray and Brad Miller getting almost all the playing time off the bench. We'll probably see Pargo and disappointing rookie James Johnson on occasion, but that will be about it. Devin Brown left his shooting touch in New Orleans, and Acie Law has been a disappointment ever since Atlanta drafted him with a high first round pick in '07. The other guy the Bulls acquired, Joe Alexander, was the 8th overall pick by Milwaukee in the '08 draft, but Scott Skiles thought so little of his ability that he sent him to the Developmental League to play for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Figure Alexander, Lindsey Hunter and Jerome James to be the 3 inactive players on most nights.

With 29 games left in the regular season, the Bulls have the benefit of a very favorable schedule down the stretch. 16 of their remaining games are at home, and they've already got their 2 long Western trips out of the way. They'll get multiple chances to square off against the teams they're battling for playoff position like Charlotte, Milwaukee, Toronto and Miami, plus a couple of games each against teams that have cashed in their chips for the season like Philadelphia, Indiana, Washington and New Jersey. There's no reason why the Bulls shouldn't finish with a better record than the 41-41 mark that earned them the 7th seed in the East last season.

FREE AGENT MARKET MORE COMPETITIVE THAN EVER

The other big development from the trade deadline was the addition of at least 3 more teams, the Clippers, Kings and Wizards into this summer's free agent bidding war. And, with only 5 or 6 elite players available, several teams are going to be bitterly disappointed when the music stops and all the top guys pick a chair. Don't discount the Clippers becoming a player in the battle to land one of the top stars. Yes, I know the history of the franchise is laughable, and they've been haunted by bad luck and bad decisions more than any other NBA team. But it is L.A., and we know how much NBA players love warm weather, night life and marketing opportunities. And, believe it or not, the Clippers have a pretty good nucleus of talent with All-Star center Chris Kaman, Baron Davis, Eric Gordon and the top pick from last year's draft, Blake Griffin, who's been forced to sit out his rookie season because of a knee injury. The Knicks are the only team that has enough cap room to bring in two max contract free agents, but keep an eye on L.A.'s "other" team when the bidding starts on July 1st.

As for the Bulls, not much has changed on the free agent front. They'll be in there swinging for all the top guys, and figure to zero in on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The popular belief around the NBA is that Wade will stay in Miami, but you know he has to be disappointed that the Heat failed in its attempts to trade for either Amar'e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer before the deadline. With Wade currently slowed by a calf injury, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Miami could miss the playoffs altogether. Of course, Pat Riley will promise Wade he'll bring in one of the top free agents this summer, but after wasting two seasons in the prime of his career playing for .500 teams, does Wade really have faith in Riley's ability to build another championship team? You would have to think playing for his hometown Bulls with an unselfish All-Star guard in Rose and solid frontcourt players like Noah and Luol Deng is a solid 2nd option if Wade decides to look for a better situation.

As for Bosh, he's really taken his game to the next level this season. In the past, he was viewed as a "soft" perimeter shooting big man, but now Bosh has improved his back to the basket game, he's a better rebounder at both ends of the court, and as a result, he's probably the best power forward in the game. A frontline of Bosh, Noah and Deng to go along with Rose and Hinrich would move the Bulls into contending status in the East. But no one really knows what cities Bosh is most interested in. He's from Dallas, and we've been hearing he really doesn't want to go to another cold weather city. Hopefully a visit to Chicago in early July we'll show him everything our city has to offer! Maybe the Bulls can take him to Taste of Chicago, but they should probably leave Benny the Bull at home.

Bottom line, July 1st is still over 4 months away. Let's focus in on the final 29 games of the regular season and a likely return trip to the postseason. It starts tonight in Minnesota, and you can watch that game on Comcast SportsNet, starting at 7 p.m. I'll see you at halftime and after the game with Kendall Gill. Enjoy the hoops!

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

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USA TODAY

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

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Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol has played under Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. He’s won championships playing alongside Kobe Bryant, made six All-Star appearances and will likely became the 42nd player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points. Now in San Antonio, the future Hall-of-Famer is getting to be a part of the incomparable Spurs culture that has seen the franchise win at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons.

That model of consistency doesn’t come easy, and it’s the reason Gasol, Popovich and the rest of the Spurs speak openly about still working and improving each day, despite their 18-5 record. And though they had won 13 consecutive road games to begin the year – the second-longest streak in NBA history – and entered the United Center on Thursday having won 13 of their last 14, the tone in the locker room was one of disappointment following their 95-91 loss to the Bulls.

Gasol posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in his return to Chicago after two All-Star campaigns with the Bulls, and he added three assists and a block in 31 minutes. But the Spurs put themselves in an early hole, scoring just 32 points before halftime, and a late rally that cut the Bulls’ lead to just four with 3 minutes to play was still too much to overcome. The loss will merely be a blip on the Spurs’ record by the end of the season – they’ve now lost three straight games in Chicago – as San Antonio is on pace to win 64 games.

Despite the loss, Gasol has noticed a stark difference within the Spurs organization that he couldn’t find in his two seasons with the Bulls.

“It’s all about winning here. It’s all about whatever it takes to win. It’s all about excellence. It’s all about the long run but being consistent and bringing it every single night, and not settling. So, all the right ingredients for a winning formula.”

Gasol alluded to the inconsistencies in Chicago that, without him this season, have crept up again. The Bulls entered Thursday night having lost three straight, and five of six. With their win over the Spurs, their last two victories have come against San Antonio and the defending-champion Cavaliers. Their fives losses in that span? All against teams with records at or below .500 (DEN, LAL, DAL, POR, DET).

Even last year, the Bulls touted a 3-3 record against the Finals participants in Cleveland and Golden State – one of two teams to do that – and were 9-3 against the four teams in the conference finals, which included the Clippers and Raptors. And yet, they were also 9-3 against the teams with the five worst records.

It’s why Gasol wasn’t surprised that the Bulls came to play against the Spurs despite being home underdogs and reeling with three straight losses.

“The Bulls usually get up against good teams. The challenge is getting up against the not-so-good teams and winning those games, and that has also been an issue,” he said. “But we knew that tonight they were going to bring it and they were going to be sharp, and unfortunately we weren’t for the first 24 minutes and that finally cost us a (road) game.”

Fred Hoiberg said as much in his postgame press conference, that "it's about having that collective effort each and every time you take the floor. It can't just be against the top teams in this league. You've got to bring it every night."

Those inconsistencies in Gasol’s final year with the Bulls – not beating teams they should have – resulted in the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. And in the offseason the Bulls moved on from both Gasol and Joakim Noah, and traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks.

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Gasol spoke about why the culture in Chicago was a difficult one to adapt to in Hoiberg’s first season with the team.

“There was a coaching change. That was a big change for the team and we did have quite a bit of injuries once again,” he said. We didn’t have much continuity, and it was kind of an adjustment season for the team, trying to understand what the coaching staff wanted the team to do and the coaching staff trying to understand the personnel and the players. So it was a difficult year in that regard. It was hard to get the continuity and the consistency that the team needed to be successful.

Gasol said it was “special” to be back in Chicago, a city he cherished for two years. Upon entering the United Center 90 minutes before tipoff he said hello to Bulls reporters waiting to speak with Popovich before accidentally heading toward the Bulls locker room he had walked into each of the last two seasons.

The Bulls showed a brief highlight reel early in the first quarter welcoming him back, and he was able to compete against a few former teammates he still keeps in touch with, notably Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and fellow Spaniard Nikola Mirotic.

Hoiberg spoke highly of his time with Gasol and the year he’s had in San Antonio, adding that “he’s always a guy for me that I’ll cheer for. Just based on what he did for us last year.”

Gasol’s time in Chicago will be remembered more for what the Bulls didn’t accomplish – Gasol missed two games in their second round series against the Cavaliers in 2014 with a hamstring injury – despite Gasol putting up elite numbers for a well-traveled player in his late 30s. Now in San Antonio he’s averaging career-low numbers – 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds – but has immersed himself in the Spurs’ culture that has led to their annual winning ways.

“He’s a good teammate and he’s caught on pretty quickly to the notion of what we’re doing,” Popvich said of Gasol. “It’s just basketball, so it’s not very difficult for him.”