Monday, Feb. 8, 2010
by Aggrey Sam
On the day after the Saints' Super Bowl win over the Indianapolis Colts, this former New Orleans resident feels a bit of pride for the city where I used to live, albeit briefly. It must be something akin to the Bears' last championship, or the Sox more recent World Series title or rather -- as powerful of an affection as New Orleans feels for the Saints -- the Jordan era of the Bulls, and the six wins that came with it.
As the NBA season continues to move forward, I wonder if my current place of residence -- Chicago -- can make a dent in what equates to the NBAs Super Bowl for the majority of the teams in the league: this summers loaded free-agent pool, the Summer Bowl, if you will. Lets be honest, while the Bulls are certainly playoff hopefuls, there are only a few true contenders for the crown this year and Chicago isnt among them. However, the Bulls are a team with a shot to be a major player this summer.
The biggest fish in the pond, LeBron James, is a near-lock to remain in Cleveland, despite the KnicksNets propaganda that is being fed to the public. The Cavaliers can pay him the most money, they are a contender this year and could still add another piece before the upcoming trade deadline, further appeasing their star. If James does opt to leave Cleveland, it would be a long shot that he lands in Chicago.
The next-biggest superstar name on the list happens to hail from Chicago: Dwyane Wade -- though he looked very much like a mere mortal on Saturday night, as the Bulls snapped their three-game losing streak with a win over the Heat at the United Center in their last game. Unfortunately, while there might be some hometown sentiment and Wade stated after the game, as he has in the past, that winning is his top priority -- he may be dissatisfied with Miami at the moment, as the Heat are currently on a losing skid and arent in the same class as other Eastern Conference contenders -- but they arent in that much of a different situation than Chicago, with a few key differences.
First, like James in Cleveland, the Heat can pay him more than any other team. Next, its Florida -- the Sunshine State, for those unfamiliar -- and Miami more specifically. And Wade has stated his preference for the warmer climate after growing up in the Windy City and attending college in Milwaukee, not to mention the tax benefits he enjoys in Florida. Keep in mind that the Heat, with few players under contract for next season, potentially have the ability to bring another superstar to pair with Flash (and who wouldnt want to go to Miami and play with Wade?), and its obvious the Bulls are fighting an uphill battle in their quest to put together an all-Chicago backcourt with Wade and Derrick Rose.
After James and Wade, the top interior options are Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire. Like Wade, Bosh has kept his intentions close to the vest, but its no secret that hes growing weary of Torontos inability to get over the hump, especially since the offseason acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu hasnt reaped immediate dividends. In Stoudemires case, it appears as if he could depart Phoenix at any moment or not all. The athletic power forwards name has been dangled in trade talks for years now, with no movement. While the Suns have cooled off after a blazing-hot start to the season, the return to a run-and-gun style suits Stoudemires game and after being in Phoenix for his entire career since he was drafted out of high school, he has ties to the community there. Still, odds are hell either be dealt before the upcoming league-wide trade deadline or move on this summer. With his proclamations that he wouldnt object to playing for the bottom-feeder Nets, financial considerations may be a primary motivation in contemplating his next destination.
Although Wade is viewed as Chicagos top target, another recent opponent, the Hawks, currently have another player who is speculated to be high on the Bulls list.
Joe Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He's about to play in his fourth All-Star Game, but people still tend to sleep on him, maybe because he's not the most dynamic player, or person for that matter. But he's just a stone-cold scorer, said Lang Whitaker, executive editor of SLAM Magazine and columnist for Hawks.com, to CSNChicago.com. I think he's one of the best one-on-one scorers in the game right now -- I put him up there with LeBron and Kobe Bryant in terms of guys who can manufacture a 'makeable' shot without a pick or a screen. He's money from the perimeter, and he's developed a great runner in the paint.
"The things Joe could improve on are getting to the line -- he only averages 3.5 free throw attempts per game -- and also not relying so much on being able to create for himself, continued Whitaker, an Atlanta native. Sounds weird to say that, considering he's so great going one-on-one, but when Joe goes into that one-on-one mode -- Hawks fans call it 'Iso-Joe' -- everyone else has a tendency to just stand around and watch, and it brings the offense to a screeching halt.Joe Johnson is one of themost underrated players in the NBA. He's about to play in his fourthAll-Star Game, but people still tend to sleep on him, maybe becausehe's not the most dynamic player, or person for that matter. But he'sjust a stone-coldscorer.--Lang Whitaker, executive editor of SLAM Magazinecolumnistfor Hawks.com on JoeJohnson
In the Bulls loss to the Hawks in Atlanta on Friday, Johnson didnt have a vintage performance, scoring 18 points on 8 of 20 shooting from the field. However, for the season, hes averaging a well-rounded 21.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per contest on 46.2 percent shooting from the field, 36.9 percent from three-point range and 84.4 percent from the free-throw line. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, hes physically imposing for the shooting-guard position, yet handles the ball capably enough to initiate the offense and break down his defender at will. Hes a dangerous shooter from behind the arc, when pulling up off the dribble from the mid-range area or posting up smaller guards. Hes not known as a lockdown defender, but he has both the ability and the willingness to guard top swingmen. In addition, hes a proven clutch performer -- as evidenced by Atlantas exciting playoff series against Boston, a year prior to Chicagos epic against the Celtics last spring -- and is seen as the face of the franchise after leaving Phoenix as a free agent to come to the then-lowly Hawks, who were young and clearly in rebuilding mode.
Hes a quiet superstar, honestly. He doesnt do anything for the fanfare," former Bull and current Hawk Jamal Crawford told CSNChicago.com in Atlanta. "If you watch the games, you may not say he blows you away with athleticism or anything like that, but he just gets it done every single night and hes just as good as anybody in the league. Its very easy for him. You forget that hes 6-7, 6-8 and 240, 250 when he can handle the ball like that. He can play three positions (shooting guard, small forward and point guard) -- he seriously can.
Crawford went on to explain that he enjoys having Johnson as a teammate, not only for his talent but for what that talent does for his teammates.
He tries to guard the best player on the other team all the time, hes an all-around player. I love having him for a teammate, said Crawford, who was traded to Atlanta from Golden State. I think that any time you have two scorers and one comes off the bench Crawford, I think its a great dynamic. He doesnt have to always take the last shot and I dont either. Weve both been in that position a lot of our careers, so we take a lot of pressure off each other. Its tough for the opponents to deal with when we both have it going.
Joe does everything -- he still does everything -- but now I think it comes easier to him because he has another guy on the floor who can do some similar things, so its not always on him to make the play. Instead of working so hard, he can make the easy two or get to the free-throw line and now hes scoring 30 easy -- very easy -- on 20 shots and shooting a high percentage.
Ironically, while the Hawks seem to have a good camaraderie, it may be Crawford who may have muddied the waters in terms of how the Hawks deal with the upcoming summer. Athletic forward and Atlanta native Josh Smith seems to have turned the corner, while All-Star center Al Horford continues to display promise and will have a contract of his own coming up soon. The addition of Crawford, who looks like the leading candidate for the NBAs sixth man of the year award, may make them less inclined to give Johnson a max deal, according to Hawks sources.
Whereas Johnson was once the end-all and be-all for the Hawks, the current team is much more offensively balanced and now can boast another shot-creator and explosive scorer, who comes with a far cheaper price tag. Furthermore, while the Hawks locker-room environment is relatively harmonious, there are whispers that the teams talented frontcourt players are weary of Johnsons shot selection, off-and-on defensive tendencies and perceived preferential treatment from head coach Mike Woodson. Still, Atlanta is now one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse to make a deep run in the playoffs.
It would be really difficult to leave this situation if Im Joe," said Sekou Smith, longtime NBA beat reporter and now a writer for NBA.com. "If you're a player in this league and youve been in this league as long as Joe has, your motivations are pretty simple now. Youve got the huge contract, so its not like youre out there searching for that huge payday again. Whatever he gets this contract is gravy on top of a pretty fantastic stretch and now its like you get labeled for chasing the money if you were to leave.
"Theres so much to work with here, but then there are other places like Chicago. Its not like were talking about a secret: Everybody knows Chicago is an interested party. Joes a hell of a consolation prize if the Bulls dont acquire Wade and you get a chance to pair him with Derrick Rose -- you talk about vicious backcourts -- that would be instantly considered one of the top backcourts in the league, if not the best.
Smith went on to explain that Johnson has the chips stacked in his favor heading into the 2010 free agent season.
The market is tilted so hard in his favor, because you figure LeBron and D-Wade are at the top of that free-agent food chain, and then Bosh and then Joe," said Smith, who covered the Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until this season and still resides in Atlanta. "If Im another team targeting somebodys star player, then he would be the target because hes after those guys, but so close that you can make a case for him being the guy you want to target because you think you have a better chance of getting him away from the Hawks than you have getting LeBron away from Cleveland or D-Wade away from Miami.
I thought for sure theyd Johnson and the Hawks get something done before now, but they havent. Unless they make a hellacious run in the playoffs or get to the conference finals or something, I dont know how you keep him here with all the opportunities hes going to have.
Smith is basing his assumptions on observing the team on a daily basis and a team source close to Johnson concurs.
I believe something major will have to happen for him to come back, especially with how Woodson uses Jamal Crawford, the Hawks source told CSNChicago.com. Hes still an All-Star, still putting up big numbers, still our leading scorer, still our go-to guy down the stretch. ... I believe that All-Star players in this league are interchangeable -- thats what makes an All-Star. He can go to any team and impact a situation. I think it would obviously impact the Bulls roster, especially playing with a player like a Rose.
The source was quick to say that theres no friction between Johnson and Crawford, although another source close to the team indicated that Crawford clicked with the entire roster upon arrival in Atlanta, prefers his style of play -- make no mistake, Crawford is also labeled as a gunner throughout the league -- to Johnsons, as evidenced by veteran point guard Mike Bibbys premeditated dismissal of a late-game play drawn up by Woodson. Bibby and Crawford apparently colluded on the play before during a timeout -- where Woodson drew up a game-winning shot for Johnson -- and Bibby passed the ball to Crawford, who hit the game-winner instead of Johnson, regarded as the go-to guy in last-second situations before Crawfords arrival.
If Johnson were to end up in Chicago, he would give the Bulls a true No. 1 option on offense. While Rose is the teams leading scorer and obviously capable of explosive offensive outings, he is loathe to be an alpha-dog scorer and prefers to blend his point production with his pure point guard, distributing and playmaking sensibilities. Acquiring Johnson would upgrade Chicagos size on the perimeter (Johnson is 6-foot-7; the Bulls current starting shooting guard, Kirk Hinrich, is 6-foot-3) and outside shooting, as well as give them a player other than Rose who can create his own shot with regularity. It would be the type of acquisition that could potentially vault the Bulls, after adding other pieces, of course, to contender status.
Honestly, I have no idea what Joe is going to do this summer, and I'm not so sure that he has an idea, either," Whitaker told CSNChicago.com. "I think the Hawks will be willing to pay him whatever it takes to keep him, although nobody's sure what that number will be, particularly with the preliminary labor negotiations happening now between the League and the player's union. With LeBron and Wade and Bosh headlining the free-agent class this summer, and I guess there's a chance one of the other teams with money to spend could throw a lot of cash at Joe, so he'd be almost like a consolation free agent. But he's spent a lot of time on really bad Hawks teams, and now that the Hawks are finally a contender, with probably as good a young core of players as anyone else has, I think if the money is all relatively equal, it would make the most sense for Joe to stay in Atlanta. Whether or not that actually happens, I have no idea.
If Im the Hawks, Im weighing a couple different things. Im weighing the fact that Al Horfords now an All-Star and hes got an extension coming up at some point here, and Jamal Crawford. I dont know if looking at the structure of the team and looking at, Can I give him the max because we dont have a one player so much more dominant than the rest of our pieces any longer, Smith continued. Its like I need them all to fit together -- thats the one thing Ive said about this team the past couple years -- theyve gotten so much better throughout the roster, especially the starting five, that its no longer Joe carrying a team full of young guys trying to get better.
Now theyre equals, basically, on this roster. It becomes tough to have one guy making a max deal than it is to have two or three other guys thats making enough to keep them all. Its just not that easy to do, continued Smith. I think hes just doing the shrewd thing. Dont get me wrong: I think him not taking the extension they offered here was the right business move for him. Ultimately, hes got to look out for himself and everybody does, so Im not knocking any player for doing thatthey Atlanta realize what his value is and its a matter of can they afford to pay.
As for Johnson, whos already notoriously quiet by nature, hes been even more closed-mouthed on the sensitive subject.
Its nothing that I really sit back and think about. Every so often, but not much because weve been having so much fun and so much success here that Im just trying to do whats right, right now at this point, said Johnson in Atlanta. Weve been playing great basketball. Were just trying to position ourselves for down the stretch, to where we have a great spot in the playoffs.
I think the Bulls are a young, athletic team with a phenom, Derrick Rose at the one. Hes just so difficult to guard and so athletic that youve got to pay a lot of attention to him, but theyve got a lot of bigs that are workhorses -- guys like Joakim Noah," Johnson told CSNChicago.com about his take on the Bulls in Atlanta. "I like Taj Gibson, and then they have Luol Deng and Kirk. Theyre a really solid team. I dont think nobody really wants to play them, especially right now.
And does Johnson have visions of playing alongside Rose dance through his head?
I dont know. Ive never thought about that playing in a backcourt with Rose," he said. "I think I can pretty much play off anybody. Ive played with some of the best point guards such as Steve Nash in Phoenix, so thats not really a factor to me. Theyve got a solid team. ... I dont really worry about free agency, especially not now, at a time like this when were so successful and having so much fun. Were just trying to position ourselves for the right spot come postseason.
Ironically, Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro and Johnson are familiar with each other from Del Negros time working in Phoenix, which coincided with Johnsons stint with the Suns.
Joes one of the top players in the league, one of the tough covers because of his versatility and his size, said Del Negro before Chicagos defeat in Atlanta. He continually improves, hes got one of the best floaters in the game in the lane. Just his versatility, being able to take you inside-outside with his size, just makes him a tough cover.
At this point, theres no concrete evidence the soft-spoken Johnson will leave Atlanta, come to Chicago or has even dropped any hints about his next destination. However, what is clear is that the Bulls are going to make moves this summer and Johnson could be as good of a fit as any player Chicago could bring in with the cap room they are expected to have. In fact, hes a player that could be part of the solution -- along with Rose, Noah, Deng and Gibson -- of what the Bulls need to begin making strides in the direction of title contention one day. Heres to winning the Summer Bowl.
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.