Sam: Will LeBron take over the Jordan throne?

154975.jpg

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.

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

You've heard it said by countless NBA players, coaches and executives over the years: "Playoff basketball is all about adjustments."

And after dropping two games to the Celtics on their home court, the Bulls clearly need to make some changes to their strategy on both offense and defense. Fourteen-year veteran and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade admitted as much on Monday.

"They made adjustments (after losing the first 2 games in Boston). We didn't need to because we were up 2-0. Then coming off of Game 3, we felt watching the film we played low motor, not enough energy, so we didn't feel the game plan was necessarily the key. But it was coming out of Game 4. So now I'm sure it will be a few adjustments we'll look to make, and hopefully it makes a difference."

Fred Hoiberg indicated before practice on Tuesday that the Bulls had studied mistakes made against Boston's staggered screen-and-roll game, and would work on some new coverages for Game 5. Isaiah Thomas shredded the Bulls at the United Center with his ability to keep his dribble going while maneuvering around and between multiple screens either to score himself or find wide open shooters.

The Celtics' strategy oftentimes forced one of the Bulls' big men to switch on to the 5-foot-9 Thomas, and that's an impossible task. Thomas was able to blow by those slower defenders in Game 4, scoring eight of his 10 baskets at the rim. Boston's plan also forced Hoiberg to take Robin Lopez out of the game in the fourth quarter on Sunday, after Lopez had helped the Bulls grab a brief two-point lead briefly in the third quarter. Thomas was more of a facilitator in Game 3, dishing out nine assists, many of them to Al Horford rolling down the lane with little resistance. 

Look for the Bulls to try to trap Thomas early on screen-and-roll plays and force him to move the ball to another player on the perimeter. And, if Thomas does get a driving lane to the basket, the Bulls need to go with my former studio partner Norm Van Lier's advice and take a couple of hard fouls to make him think twice about whether he wants to venture back into the paint.

Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup before Game 3, starting journeyman Gerald Green at forward and moving 6-foot-9 Amir Johnson to the bench. Green paid big dividends in Game 4, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the first half, helping Boston race out to a 20-point lead. The Bulls need to be more aware of closing out on Green at the 3-point line, and not let him take uncontested shots. It's going to be a tall task for the Bulls’ defense with all the confidence the Celtics gained during the last two games, but if new starter Isaiah Canaan can have some success pressuring Thomas out front, maybe the Bulls can force Boston out of their comfort zone and make them rely on contested perimeter jumpers. 

The challenges are just as great on the other side of the floor. Without Rajon Rondo pushing the pace and moving the ball around to multiple shooters, the Bulls have been forced to play a grind-it-out style, too dependent on isolation plays for Jimmy Butler and Wade. 

Again, the hope is Canaan's 3-point shooting (3-for-7 in Game 4) will help create better spacing in the offense, and Butler and Wade can be more effective coming off weakside screens to get the ball on the move to the attack the basket. 

The Bulls also need to run more post-up plays against Boston's small lineup. Get the ball inside to Robin Lopez for some early chances against Horford, let Wade back down the smaller Avery Bradley like he did a couple of times in Game 4, and when the Bulls are successful in getting Thomas to switch on to Butler on screen and roll plays, punish the tiny defender inside and try to get him into foul trouble.

Hoiberg also has to find a way to get more open 3-point looks for Niko Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser. All three young forwards have had their moments in the series, and getting them into a comfortable rhythm early is crucial to the Bulls' offensive success.

Finally, we've all seen enough of young point guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams in this series. Both players have lost their confidence, and neither has had any success trying to slow down Thomas. If Hoiberg needs to use another perimeter player, give rookie Denzel Valentine a look to see if he might be able to provide some outside shooting, with either Butler or Wade running the point. 

Rondo did some light shooting before practice on Tuesday, and I'm guessing he'll play in Game 6 on Friday, even though he'll be severely limited because of the right thumb fracture. Let's hope the Bulls’ coaching staff comes up with the right adjustments to win Game 5, and set up for a possible clinching situation for the home team.  

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Fascinating piece in the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine, profiling Miami Heat president and nine-time NBA champion Pat Riley. Written by Wright Thompson, the story details Riley's inner struggles trying to chase one more title after the break-up of the Big 3 of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Thompson details Riley's 2014 free agent meeting with James in Las Vegas, where James and two friends watched a World Cup game on television while only half listening to Riley's pitch to stay with the Heat. Riley was furious after James told him a short time later he was going back to Cleveland, and told Thompson he's glad he didn't go to the media with a Dan Gilbert, scorched-earth-style statement.

Riley admitted to Thompson he now understands why James made the choice he did. "He went home because he had to go home. It was time. It was really time for him to go home, in his prime. If he's ever gonna do anything in Akron again, this was the time to do it. Otherwise, he'd have had a scarlet letter on his back the rest of his whole life."

Thompson also writes that Riley regrets re-opening contract negotiations with Chris Bosh after James bolted for Cleveland. He wishes he would have said no to Bosh's request and given the money to Wade to keep him in Miami. The piece details how Riley is still hurt by Wade's decision to sign with the Bulls and wishes he would have handled things differently to be able to keep the face of the franchise as a lifetime member of the Heat. 

In his end of the season news conference with Miami reporters, Riley says no decision has been made yet on Bosh's future with the team. It's expected the Heat will petition the league to get the final two years of Bosh's contract removed from the team's salary cap because of career-ending blood clot issues. Bosh would then be free to sign with any other team as a free agent if he tries to resume his career.

The Heat will have to decide whether to use the new cap room to re-sign productive players on the current roster like Dion Waiters and James Johnson or chase one of the big name stars in free agency. Given Riley's quest for one last championship, you can expect him to make a run at free agents Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward. 

The Clippers' situation will be interesting to watch this summer. Head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has already indicated he'd like to keep the team together, but with Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick all headed to free agency, the cost of keeping all three might be cost prohibitive.

Paul and LeBron James, in their leadership roles with the Players Association, helped change the rule that prevented teams from offering long-term contracts that extended beyond the season a player turns 35. Now, Paul is in position to sign a new five-year contract well in excess of $200 million, so the odds are he remains with the Clippers.

Whether or not the 28-year-old Griffin or the 32-year-old Redick remain is a story that won't unfold until the start of free agency in July.

For those of us thinking the Cavs might be vulnerable in the Eastern Conference playoffs after a mediocre regular season, forget about it. James and company made an emphatic statement about their readiness to defend their NBA championship with a four-game sweep of Paul George and the Pacers. 

James continues to play at an All-World level, leading the Cavs back from a 26-point deficit in Game 3, and told reporters he likes what he's seeing from his team so far in the playoffs. Cleveland's defense is still shaky, but does anyone really think they'll have trouble advancing to a third straight NBA Finals? Me neither.

Meanwhile, Golden State also appears ready for Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals, Part 3. They dispatched Damian Lillard and the Blazers in four straight, with Steph Curry looking like the two-time MVP Steph, capped off by a 37-point long ball shooting exhibition in the series clincher. Kevin Durant played well in limited minutes in Game 4, and if the Warriors stay healthy they will be a solid favorite to bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to the Bay Area in June. 

Speaking of health, all of us who follow the NBA closely, are rooting for the Warriors’ head coach and former Bulls’ three-time champion Steve Kerr to get back on the bench very soon. Kerr was forced to miss the last two games of the series against Portland because of the continuing after-effects of a botched back surgery.

Kerr said the neck pain and headaches he was experiencing became so debilitating he couldn't function at the level he needed to during the playoffs. Assistant coach Mike Brown will run the Warriors in Kerr's absence, but it's just not the same around the team without Kerr's presence.

Getting to know Kerr a bit during his time as a player with the Bulls, you couldn't ask for a more likeable, down to earth athlete, and he's kept that same self-deprecating sense of humor through the daily pressure of life as an NBA head coach. 

Kerr has experienced all the success anyone could ask for during his time in basketball, including six NBA championships, three as a player with the Bulls, two with the Spurs and one as head coach with the Warriors. 

But as we all realize, good health is more important than anything in life, and right now Kerr's life has been all about managing pain for the better part of two years. Here's hoping Kerr can find the answers to his health issues, and be able to get back to experiencing the joys of coaching what looks like the NBA's next dynasty.

Will the Bulls be able to turn to Rajon Rondo soon?

Will the Bulls be able to turn to Rajon Rondo soon?

It doesn't seem likely but a Rajon Rondo return to the Bulls-Celtics series certainly seems possible, as the injured point guard was launching corner 3-pointers before the start of Tuesday's practice.

Except he was shooting with his left hand, as his right thumb was fractured in the second half of Game 2 in Boston. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston, as the Bulls have lost the two games without him and have looked rudderless at point guard.

As of the moment, the Bulls have ruled him out for Game 5 but are noncommittal beyond that, with Game 6 being back in Chicago Friday night.

If he returned it would be a remarkable turnaround considering one of Rondo's teammates called his thumb injury "I've worst I've ever seen in my career", leading to cautious words from Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

"This is honestly the first time he has touched a basketball with that right hand. We'll see how it goes. He's going to continue to condition and do everything he can," Hoiberg said. "Just watching him wince a little bit when the ball was coming to him makes me think it's a longshot.

But if there's anybody who can do it and will try to fight through it, it's Rondo because of the competitor he is."

Rondo said he couldn't grip a fork with his right hand, let alone a basketball when he spoke to the media this weekend, and the official diagnosis stated he would be evaluated between 7-10 days, pushing things right between Games 6 and 7, if it gets to a decisive seventh game in Boston.

It's not just Rondo's wizardry that has people fantasizing about Rondo producing a Willis Reed moment, but the lack of confidence in backups Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams is palpable.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls playoff tickets right here]

Hoiberg is going with Isaiah Canaan at point guard for Game 5, after he hit a few shots and defended Isaiah Thomas reasonably well, despite Thomas scoring 33 points Sunday night.

Rondo did a good enough job funneling Thomas near the help defense, but it seems to be a foreign process from anyone else this series. The Bulls' dependency on Rondo's brain is obvious, given everything he's been through; Their seeming reliance on Rondo in the physical form is more than shocking, seeing as how he couldn't do right in their eyes  in December and January.

"He obviously wants to get back out there and is doing everything he can to put himself in that position, knowing that it's still a longshot that that happens," Hoiberg said.

The visual, though, in plain view of camera phones and TV cameras, certainly appeared striking as Rondo still had a brace around his thumb before practice.

"We want that guy back, man, but I don't know if it will happen, if it won't happen, I can't tell you that," said Jimmy Butler, who's had to take on more ballhandling responsibilities in Rondo's absence. "But he's still out here, shooting shots with his left hand from the corner."

Butler then added some levity and perhaps a dose of reality to the moment of optimism.

"He just shot that one right-handed by the way and air-balled it. But we love him, man," Butler said.

The Bulls would need more than just a ceremonial Rondo appearance if he were to return, as he supplied the Bulls with a confidence and swagger that hadn't been seen in awhile and hasn't been heard from since his injury—unless you could the Celtics' brimming confidence with two wins in Chicago to take control back of homecourt advantage.

The Celtics have loaded up on Butler and to a lesser degree, Wade, turning them into facilitators rather than attackers or at least guys who can get an easy basket or two during a game.

Rondo was good for setting those guys up along with taking care of Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, but that responsibility has fallen down the line to players who are just as willing but not as creatively capable as Rondo.

"He's our floor general out there," Butler said. "He knows everything, knows every matchup, every position, and he's still helping over there from the bench, but we really want him healthy and out there for us."