Monday, April 12, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
I guess we shouldn't be surprised the Bulls are taking their playoff bid all the way down to the final two games of the season. They've been wildly inconsistent throughout the season, playing great against some of the league's best teams while giving away games against teams they should be able to handle easily. The loss at New Jersey last Friday was excruciating to watch. They were all but done midway through the fourth quarter, trailing the NBA's worst team by 12, but then Brad Miller staged a one man rally, hitting back-to-back three pointers, and even converting a breakaway lay-up off a Nets' turnover. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose could only split a pair of free throws with four seconds left, and New Jersey wound up tying the game on a Brook Lopez tip dunk with one-tenth of a second left. The first overtime was even worse, with the Bulls taking a seven point lead into the final minute, only to see a careless turnover by Rose, and a bad call by the officials give the Nets a chance to tie the game once again. By the time they got to the second OT, the Bulls were done, physically and emotionally.
So, who would have predicted the Bulls would come out with one of their best all-around games of the season in a must-win situation Sunday in Toronto? Led by the determined effort of Joakim Noah, the Bulls jumped on the Raptors early, and never let up, coasting to a 104-88 win to grab a one game lead in the race for the final playoff spot in the East. Noah basically told his teammates to jump on his back and let him lead the way. He came close to his first career triple double, scoring 18 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists. It's easy to see now why the Bulls were unable to pull out of the long losing streak in March that eventually reached 10 games. Without Noah, this team just doesn't have an emotional leader. Rose is without question the team's best player, but he's quiet and unemotional by nature. Noah is the one guy who can rally the locker room and get his teammates to dig a little deeper when things get tough. He's also become a force on both ends of the court, showing some decent post moves and the ability to hit that ugly 15 foot jumper with remarkable consistency.
Noah probably won't win the Most Improved Player Award, but he certainly gets my vote. To come as far as he has since his rookie season is remarkable. Remember Ben Wallace and Adrian Griffin voting to extend Noah's one game suspension for yelling at an assistant coach to two games because they didn't like the rookie and wanted to teach him a lesson? A lot of Bulls' fans were wondering why the team invested the 9th pick in the draft on a cocky, raw big man with limited offensive skills and a questionable work ethic. Well, Noah has done a complete 180 degree turn in his approach to life as a professional. He's now the hardest worker on the team and spent last summer trying to improve his offensive skills working at the I.M.G. Academy in Florida. Opponents now have to respect his ability to score and that opens up the court for the rest of the players. Who knows what else Noah will add to his game in the years to come? When the top free agents consider signing with the Bulls this summer, and I believe they will, the two biggest selling points are Rose's all-around brilliance and Noah's tireless play and leadership ability. Believe it or not, Noah is now one of the top 10 centers in the league, and with so few quality big men around, he will be a guy other players around the league want to team up with.
FREE AGENCY DEVELOPMENTS
The long awaited free agent class of 2010 got a little bit smaller with recent decisions by Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili to re-sign with their current teams. Nobody really thought Kobe would leave L.A., but until he signed the extension, Bulls' fans could dream about the possibility of Bryant following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan and bringing another string of NBA titles to Chicago. Ginobili isn't a guy the Bulls would have been interested in given his age and style, but taking him off the market just reduces the number of quality shooting guards that will be available.
The latest buzz around the league has Miami now more interested in Amar'e Stoudemire than Chris Bosh. The Heat would love to pair Stoudemire with Dwyane Wade, and then use their leftover cap room to bring in another shooter. If Stoudemire signs with Miami, the Bulls might have a better chance at signing Bosh, but Toronto G.M. Bryan Colangelo has said repeatedly he will work with Bosh on a sign and trade deal if the All-Star forward is determined to leave Toronto. And really, after watching the Raptors roll over against the Bulls on Sunday, is there any chance Bosh would want to stay!
The possibility of Toronto working a sign and trade deal for Bosh opens up the entire league as potential suitors, not just the teams with enough cap room to offer a maximum contract. I'm sure we'll be hearing the Andrew Bynum for Bosh rumors again, and you can bet Mark Cuban will get involved, since Bosh grew up in Dallas, and would be a popular addition for the Mavericks. Dallas has a lot of big contracts they could offer in a sign and trade for Bosh, including Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. The Bulls also could look into a sign and trade for Bosh, with Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and first round draft picks being the likely bait. It's no secret the Bulls are thinking big this summer, hoping to sign one star outright with their cap room, and bringing in another through a sign and trade. It's almost a foregone conclusion that Bosh will be playing for a new team next season, now it's up to the Bulls to come up with the right package to work a sign and trade with Toronto, then use their cap room to go after Wade or Joe Johnson to team up with Rose in the backcourt.
Of course, other teams have similar grand plans, most notably the Knicks, who can sign two max free agents without even worrying about sign and trade scenarios. But we're hearing more talk out of Cleveland that LeBron James is leaning towards staying with the Cavs, and without LeBron being the pied piper that brings a second top free agent to New York, the Knicks might have an awfully tough time bringing in two All-Stars this summer. Any way you look at it, the free agent chase will be one heck of an encore when the NBA Playoffs end in mid to late June.
Don't forget, we've got the regular season finale between the Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats Wednesday night on Comcast SportsNet. CSNChicago.com will also be streaming the game live. The Bobcats are locked into the number 7 playoff spot in the East, so there's a chance they could be resting some of their key players for the finale. But if the Bulls need a win to make the playoffs, I find it hard to believe new owner Michael Jordan will allow his team to use anything less than its best line-up. Kendall Gill will join me to preview the game during the 6:30 edition of SportsNite, then Neil Funk and Stacey King have the call at 7. We'll bring you Vinny Del Negro's media session and hopefully, take a look ahead to a first round playoff series against Cleveland during the final regular season edition of Bulls Post-Game live.
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.