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.

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.”

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

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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