Running with the Bulls: Bosh vs. Johnson

Running with the Bulls: Bosh vs. Johnson

Thursday, April 15, 2010
4:29 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

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.

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.