Sam: Will LeBron take over the Jordan throne?

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Sam: Will LeBron take over the Jordan throne?

Saturday, May 22, 2010
10:45 AM
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Now that the dust has settled a bit from the immediate aftermath of Cleveland's defeat at the hands of Boston (less shocking now that the Celtics appear to be a rejuvenated juggernaut on the way to a repeat of the 2008 NBA Finals against the rival Lakers), it's become more appropriate to examine the free-agent status of the one and only LeBron James.

LeBron-to-Chicago mania hit a fever pitch last week, complete with rumors both scurrilous and frivolous. Could the MVP be suiting up in a Bulls uniform next season? Sure. Could a No. 6 James jersey next season read Knicks, Nets, Heat, Clippers or even Cavaliers on the front? Without a doubt.

Anybody who believes James will make an emotional decision -- a business decision -- based on a game, a series or a season is uninformed. Clearly, he will explore his options -- as was known since he first signed his last contract -- but to claim he already knows his next destination is more than a bit presumptuous.

With the talent on Chicago's roster and the appeal of a major market, it's easy to assume the Bulls could be the frontrunner for his services. However, James' season just ended. As he made clear in his season-ending press conference -- the last time he spoke on the record to media and likely the last time he will do so until at least July 1 -- James will approach his free agency with the "right mindset," something that shouldn't taken lightly.

That mindset could mean he values winning, a bigger market, another superstar teammate, the ability to choose his coach and anything in between, but without knowing his true intentions -- as nobody besides likely his inner circle, consisting of childhood friend Maverick Carter, agent Leon Rose and adviser William Wesley is privy to -- any guesses about his destination next season is simply pure speculation. More than likely, however, even James doesn't know his next move yet, as a lot could change between now and the beginning of July.

James was rendered vulnerable at season's end, with the dual blows of critics attacking him from all angles and constant wondering about where he will end up next having to affect him, regardless of his focus and experience with being in the spotlight at a young age. What was made clear is that he's indeed "human," as music mogul and friend Jay-Z stated in one of the myriad interviews focused on the superstar's failings. Forget any comparisons to the early struggles of Michael Jordan or references to "Tragic" Johnson when Magic was temporarily categorized as incapable of delivering under pressure -- in the 24-7 instant news cycle environment of 2010, James' gift (his unparalleled talent) and curse (overexposure) put him under siege in a way that neither Magic nor Jordan could have been subject to in their respective primes.

Speaking of Jordan, many expect James to take over the throne abdicated here in the Windy City back in 1998. While it may seem like a match made in heaven on paper, both the practical and illogical reasoning for that to happen are flawed. Yes, James did profess his admiration for the Bulls' roster, namely All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, who he referred to as "one of the two or three" top players at his position in the league after the Cavaliers ousted Chicago from the first round of the playoffs. By itself, that could prove to be problematic -- the good kind of problem, but still an issue nonetheless -- as Rose, a true playmaker forced into taking more of Chicago's scoring load due to a lack of offensive firepower, is at his best as the primary ballhandler. James is also accustomed to having the ball in his hands most of the time and if anything -- from solely a basketball perspective -- can be gleaned from his subpar performance against Boston's defense, it's that for all his prolific point-producing ability, he prefers the option of being a distributor as opposed to being just a scoring machine.
Regardless, the Bulls would rather deal with that situation as it occurs, as James' presence alone and the combined ability of Rose, center Joakim Noah and the other young talent on Chicago's roster would surely (or so it's assumed) offset any necessary anticipated strategic adjustments. However, it's unlikely that the Bulls as James know them -- at least in the form he faced in the playoffs -- would be intact if the Ohio native migrated to Chicago.

With Cleveland's ability to pay him the max (and if anyone thinks he would take anything less, time to stop reading), if James truly wants to depart his home state, it will be via a sign-and-trade scenario. Thus, even with all of its cap room, Chicago would have to send the Cavs a package of players as compensation. Even if James insisted on only leaving for the Bulls and Cleveland acquiesced, it would likely take small forward Luol Deng and some combination of either promising forward Taj Gibson (who James specifically praised), veteran guard Kirk Hinrich and a draft pick to get it done. Chicago would still have the money to add another somewhat high-profile free agent (such as a Carlos Boozer or perhaps even an Amar'e Stoudemire; it would take some maneuvering, but with the Suns' current struggles against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, it's possible the Phoenix forward is leaning toward changing locations), but the chemistry of the team's nucleus would be altered.

But it's not as if the Bulls won't have competition in vying for James' services. In addition to the aforementioned Knicks, Heat, Clippers and Nets (whose chances lessened after Tuesday night's NBA Draft lottery, when they received the draft's third pick, instead of the top selection most expected them to garner by virtue of having the league's worst regular-season mark), it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that teams such as the Lakers and Mavericks will attempt to enter the fray, even without possessing the requisite cap space. As previously noted, it's likely James, if he does indeed leave Cleveland, will have to depart through a sign-and-trade situation, putting teams with attractive pieces on nearly equal footing with free-spending franchises. The Cavaliers obviously will look to retool in the offseason if they still harbor championship or even contending aspirations -- whether or not James leaves or stays -- so to think they won't attempt to get as close to equal value as possible (impossible in most trade situations, but especially in the case of the league's top player) for their homegrown star, let alone allow him to walk with nothing in return.

In the end, a compromise of sorts will be struck. Maybe a new coach (by all accounts, Mike Brown will probably not begin next season on Cleveland's sideline) -- such as James' friend and University and Kentucky head coach John Calipari; sources insist to CSNChicago.com that he intends to remain in Lexington, but the former Nets head coach could listen to pro offers, although the Pittsburgh native is likely out of the Bulls' price range and probably doesn't fit the organization's culture or what the team is looking for in a replacement for the deposed Vinny Del Negro -- and whatever can be done to tweak an inflexible, flawed and aging roster could persuade him to stay at home, where his comfort level and folk-hero legend eclipses even his "global icon" status.

If not, competitors other than Chicago (the allure of South Beach, playing with Olympic teammate Dwyane Wade and the possibility of being coached by Hall of Famer Pat Riley with the Heat; the bright lights of the Big Apple, Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offensive approach and the opportunity of being on the NBA's biggest stage night in and night out for the Knicks; the potential of new Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov's deep pockets and joining aforementioned buddy Jay-Z in a future move to Brooklyn with the Nets; playing with a talent-laden roster -- arguably more so than the Bulls, regardless of success -- competing in the same city as Kobe Bryant and the Hollywood lifestyle for the Clippers), the respective merits touted by each city's local media, will also attempt to tempt James into switching jerseys.

One thing, however is clear: James, despite his end-of-season struggles on the court and regardless of personal rumors, has the world at his feet--more than ever. Let's not pretend we know how he'll manage that power. Until July 1st, that is.

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.

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NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

Thursday's trade with Oklahoma City points out the problem with trying to stay in playoff contention while also rebuilding the roster with more young and athletic players.

The Bulls obviously hurt their postseason chances by dealing locker-room leader and rock-solid pro Taj Gibson and their best 3-point shooter in Doug McDermott. And, at first glance, the players they got back don't look very impressive.

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made it clear that one of the objectives in Thursday's deal was to free up playing time for his last two first-round draft picks, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis. He also made it clear that newly acquired point guard Cameron Payne would play a lot over the final 25 games of the season.

So, how does Fred Hoiberg now deal with an unwieldy number of players expecting to get minutes? If Payne is going to play, that probably means Rajon Rondo is out of the rotation. But will Rondo sit by quietly so the Bulls can preserve his $14 million salary slot for possible trades this summer? Or will the front office be forced to offer him a contract buyout?

And what about the other two players acquired in the Oklahoma City deal? Long-range specialist Anthony Morrow is suffering through one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting just 29 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. Will he get the minutes previously given to McDermott, or is he a candidate for a buyout? Paxson cryptically said Morrow's role is "still to be defined."

Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-foot-11 center, has some ability, but he's a restricted free agent at season's end and it's hard to project him getting any meaningful playing time behind Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio.

So let's add it all up. Hoiberg now has four point guards — five if you count Isaiah Canaan — and three centers to juggle, plus he'll have to find minutes for Valentine, Morrow and Paul Zipser at the wing spots behind Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

How will Portis fare as the new starting power forward? And what to do with Nikola Mirotic? His fading confidence is probably at a new low after the team's failed efforts to find him a new home before the deadline.

It will be fascinating to see if this team can manage to hold onto a playoff spot after losing Gibson and McDermott, to say nothing of the maddening inconsistency we've witnessed over the first 57 games of the season.

Good health will be critical, with the team's two best players, Butler and Wade, each enduring some bumps and bruises in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break. We've seen what the Bulls look like without Butler, and it's not pretty. They're 1-5 in the games Butler missed because of illness and a right heel contusion.

The story is different when Wade has been out. The Bulls are 5-4 in the games he's missed because of illness, injury or just plain rest. Still, the 12-time All Star has shown the ability to raise the level of his play when the games matter most, and you can expect he'll be a big factor for the Bulls down the stretch. Don't forget, Wade almost single-handedly took an undermanned Miami team to within a win of the Eastern Conference Finals last season with a turn-back-the-clock playoff performance.

Hard to gain much from looking at the remaining schedule. Only 11 of the remaining 25 opponents have winning records, but we've all seen how that's gone in the past. If the Bulls can head into April around .500, they should be in position to make a strong closing run with a pair of matchups against the NBA's worst team, Brooklyn, along with games against the Pelicans, Knicks, 76ers and Magic to close out the regular season.

Of course, since Hoiberg has been told to give significant minutes to Portis, Valentine and Payne the rest of the way, it's possible making the playoffs isn't quite as important as it was at the start of the season. Questions about Butler's future will start up again as we approach the NBA Draft in June since Paxson wouldn't commit to trying to build around the three-time All Star, and if Butler goes, it's a pretty safe bet that Wade follows him out the door.

Life's never easy in the NBA when you're stuck in the middle. Maybe the trade with Oklahoma City is the signal we've been waiting for that a full rebuild is on the horizon.

[MORE BULLS: What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Off to see the Wizards

The Wizards have been on fire since Dec. 12, putting together a 25-12 record. In case you haven't noticed, fourth-year forward Otto Porter is among the league leaders in 3-point percentage, shooting 46.5 percent to go along with 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. It's going to cost the Wizards a small fortune to sign the restricted free agent this summer.

Washington's backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is finally starting to reach the potential everyone saw when the Wizards upset the Bulls in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The two are combining for an average of 45 points and 14 assists per game, with Wall now a perennial All Star capable of taking over games with his scoring and playmaking. Beal probably should have made the Eastern Conference All-Star team as well with his 22.2 points per game scoring average, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from behind the 3-point line.

The Wizards also made an under-the-radar pick-up, getting Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn for a first-round pick in this summer's draft. You probably haven't watched a lot of Brooklyn Nets basketball over the last couple years, but Bogdanovic is a good 3-point shooter who can also score off the dribble, averaging 14 points a game this season, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range. Bogdanovic will be a major upgrade for a Wizards bench that's struggled this season.

Moving to Canada

Toronto made two good moves before the deadline, acquiring a starting power forward in Serge Ibaka and a backup small forward in P.J. Tucker. Ibaka's ability to block shots and stretch the floor from the 3-point line should help the Raptors on both ends, while Tucker gives them another strong perimeter defender to go along with DeMarre Carroll in a possible playoff series against LeBron James and the Cavs.

LeBron loading up

Speaking of the Cavs, they're expected to add former Illini star Deron Williams to their bench once he clears waivers and completes a buyout with Dallas. Williams gives Cleveland the additional playmaker James has been demanding for the last couple months and sets up a potentially epic Finals matchup against Golden State. Williams gets a chance to compete for a championship late in his career, and he's still capable of being a difference maker in big games, averaging 13 points and seven assists per game. Cleveland is now loaded in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving, Williams, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and swingman Kyle Korver.

No luck for the Celtics

The one contending team that didn't make a move at the deadline is Boston. Danny Ainge talked trade with the Bulls about Butler and with Indiana about Paul George, but in the end he wasn't willing to give up those precious Brooklyn first-round draft picks he's been hoarding for years. Keep in mind the Celtics reportedly love University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz, who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and they'll have enough cap room to make a run at free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler.

Even with the addition of Butler or George, the Celtics might not have been able to take down King James and the Cavs in this year's playoffs, but they are still lurking as the rising power in the East. Now, we'll all have to wait to see what Ainge does in the days leading up to the draft.

Quote of the week

Gibson gave the Chicago media one last lengthy session before boarding a private jet with McDermott to their new home in Oklahoma City.

On his time in Chicago: "Every day I came to the locker room just seeing my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true."

So what will it be like to join a new team after eight and a half seasons in Chicago? "I'm like a kid going to a new school. I don't know where to sit on the bus."

Something tells me Russell Westbrook and the Thunder will let Gibson have any seat he wants.

Good luck in Oklahoma City, Taj (and Doug). You will be missed by Bulls fans and media.