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A few good signs as Bulls prepare for second half
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/17/2009 12:01 AM

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As the Bulls sail into the second leg of the season following the NBA's all-star break, the public perception of the franchise has bordered on total turmoil.

Two weeks ago, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called the season a "disaster" during a television interview, and a day later he indirectly confirmed unhappiness with the coaching staff as a whole.

In the past few days, a rumor spread that general manager John Paxson is about to resign. Multiple Bulls insiders have insisted it's not true, but news outlets across the Web continue to report it as fact.

At the same time, the Bulls have engaged in trade talks, not only regarding Phoenix power forward Amare Stoudemire, but several big men around the league. With no real news emerging on Monday, discussions likely will drag on until Thursday's trade deadline as teams try to negotiate the best possible deal.

The funny thing about the state of the Bulls during the past month, though, is the outlook for the on-court product is not nearly as gloomy as some of the franchise perceptions. In a nutshell, this is a young team working with a new coaching staff, a combination that is bound to produce some growing pains.

Positive signs

• No. 1 draft pick Derrick Rose, if anything, has been better than advertised, averaging 17.0 points, 6.3 assists and shooting 47.3 percent from the field.

Those statistics stack up very well against the rookie numbers of legendary point guards such as Isiah Thomas (17.0, 7.8, .424) and Magic Johnson (18.0, 7.3, .530), as well as last year's sensation, Chris Paul (16.1, 7.8, .430).

In winning the skills competition in Phoenix on Saturday, Rose sent further notice that he is one of the league's brightest young stars.

• The Bulls have played well lately while relying on Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah almost exclusively at the inside positions. This is a remarkable development because early in the season, it appeared there was little chance of being competitive with two young players manning the middle. Thomas is in his third pro season and Noah his second.

In the past nine games, Thomas has averaged 15.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and shot .484 from the field. Noah is at 9.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and .619 over the same span.

The Bulls are 5-4 in those nine games, with three of the losses by 2 points or less. Close games are killing the Bulls, but that's a symptom of a team using young players at key positions.

• The coaching staff, featuring first-time coach Vinny Del Negro and experienced assistants Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff, didn't mesh well right away but is coming together.

The Bulls knew Del Negro was a work in progress. He's bound to learn from the Miami loss, in which he inexplicably left Rose on the bench when the Bulls had possession with 4.7 seconds left in a tie game.

It does speak well for the coaches, though, that the Bulls stepped up their game after Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng returned from injuries on Jan. 12. The team spirit and effort have been stronger the last three weeks, and that doesn't happen unless the players trust the coaches.

Negative results

There are some serious problems, obviously, with this team:

• The Bulls (23-30) would already be in playoff position if they were better than 4-9 in games decided in overtime and by 4 points or less.

• They need to find a way to better involve Luol Deng, who scored 6 and 7 points the last two games. Rose and Gordon have handled the scoring responsibilities in close games, but they need a more consistent Deng from end to end.

The future

For the most part, the Bulls are on the upswing, whether they make a trade this week or not. The latest talk has the Bulls still mulling the wisdom of taking on Stoudemire, who would likely command a contract worth $100 million or more as a free agent in 2010. They may balk if the Suns continue to insist that two first-round draft picks be included with Thomas, Drew Gooden, Thabo Sefolosha and Cedric Simmons.

The Bulls might opt for a player that offers better value, such as Tyson Chandler or Chris Kaman, or wait to make a future run at Toronto's Chris Bosh.