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What now for the Bulls?
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff

The development of Thabo Sefolosha has been a positive sign for the Bulls.


Associated Press

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Published: 2/16/200 12:24 AM

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The troubling signs came at Bulls fans quickly when the season began, like a highway full of winter potholes.

The Bulls' overtime loss on opening night in New Jersey didn't seem so bad, until the Nets lost at home two days later to Toronto by 37 points.

The Bulls then executed their annual no-show in the home opener, losing to a bad Philadelphia team. During the next few days, the Bulls scored just 72 points against Milwaukee's miserable defense and let Cuttino Mobley (13.3 ppg) eat them alive in an ugly home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

At that point, the Bulls were 0-4, and anyone hoping the team was still a contender to win the Eastern Conference was kidding themselves.

The lack of contract extensions for top scorers Ben Gordon and Luol Deng probably ignited the poor chemistry, but the Bulls possess a long list of problems: Reliance on too many young players, a ridiculous spate of injuries, the players tuning out ex-coach Scott Skiles or vice-versa.

So now what? General manager John Paxson could opt for a complete overhaul, minor tweak or simply stay the course.

The trading deadline is six days away and the Bulls do not appear to be on the verge of any significant deal. Their top targets of the past two years, Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol, were both shipped elsewhere.

There has been talk that Gordon's representatives have threatened to sign the qualifying offer this summer, allowing the 6-foot-2 shooting guard to become an unrestricted free agent in 2009.

That could prompt the Bulls to explore trade possibilities now, since it might be the last time the team has complete control over a Gordon trade. If he plays for the qualifying offer next season, Gordon would have to approve any deal. As of today, though, nothing serious is on the table.

As dreadful as the season has been for the Bulls, there have been a few positive signs lately, enough to wonder if they can improve next season by sticking with the same nucleus of players.

One is the development of second-year guard Thabo Sefolosha. In 17 games as a starter, the 6-7 Switzerland native has averaged 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting a respectable 45 percent from the field.

Sefolosha's outside shot has room to improve and he's far from a lock-down defender. But he can create havoc on defense with his long arms and is dangerous around the basket, both on the offensive boards and in the post.

The Bulls could decide that Sefolosha's progress makes Gordon expendable. Or they could try a three-guard rotation of Gordon, Sefolosha and Kirk Hinrich with the idea that a high-scoring backcourt would follow the recent NBA trend of smaller lineups and more points. The feeling here is the Bulls need an explosive scorer like Gordon to be a true Finals contender.

On the inside, the Bulls could also be well-equipped to compete in the higher-scoring NBA.

With the 6-9 Tyrus Thomas and 6-11 Joakim Noah manning the inside positions, the Bulls still have good height. Those two players appear to have the athleticism to keep up with smaller defenders. Thomas is one of the league's best leapers, while Noah has excellent lateral quickness for someone his size.

Then there's rookie center Aaron Gray, who is a bit short on speed but has the skills to be an effective post scorer. If the Bulls get caught in a late-game defensive quagmire like they were against Detroit in last year's playoffs, Gray would be an interesting weapon to throw in the mix.

An interior rotation of Thomas, Noah and Gray could pay some dividends. The question is how far down the road would the payoff arrive. Next season? Three years from now? Never?

The Bulls obviously feel they have an abundance of young, big men and wing players, which is why they offered Andres Nocioni and Thomas to Memphis for Gasol, which didn't work.

At the same time, an NBA scout recently suggested there is strong interest in Nocioni around the league, because he's a tricky matchup as a 6-7 power forward who can force opponents to play small. How many NBA teams could match Gordon and Nocioni as sixth and seventh men in the rotation?

As the Bulls stand today, their flaws run deep, the solutions are limited, and the playoffs aren't far from reach. So it makes sense for Paxson to stand pat for now, see what the Bulls can do when Gordon and Deng get healthy and re-evaluate in the summer.

Breaking down the blame

So many problems are affecting the underachieving Bulls at the all-star break, so Mike McGraw has broken down exactly how much blame should be assigned to each issue:

No contract extensions -- 26 percent

Ben Gordon and Luol Deng have every right to negotiate their salaries. But winning basketball will always be about sacrifice, which doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with trying to prove you deserve more than $50 million.

Back to grade school -- 22 percent

The Bulls were counting on contributions from four players in their first or second NBA seasons -- Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha, Joakim Noah and Aaron Gray. None were ready to push the Bulls forward when the season began.

Injured and out -- 20 percent

There weren't five games in the previous five seasons when the Bulls were missing three of their top five scorers. Then it happened five times in seven games recently. Top scorers Gordon and Deng were both out for 10 of the last 12 contests.

Art of War to Art of Noise -- 16 percent

We all knew the day was coming when the Bulls would tune out head coach and Sun Tzu fan Scott Skiles. That timetable accelerated quickly when the early season slump hit.

Big money, bad slumps -- 10 percent

The Bulls' two highest-paid players, Ben Wallace and Kirk Hinrich, were terrible at the start of the season. That didn't help pad the win column and must have frustrated teammates looking for the Bulls to open the wallet even wider.

Change up front -- 6 percent

Veteran forward Joe Smith is an upgrade on offense from P.J. Brown, but a step down defensively. As a result, Wallace has not been as effective on defense and his limited offense is more of a liability in higher-scoring games.