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.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

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Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

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.”