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Columnist
City itself figures to be Bulls' biggest free-agent draw
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist

"But by no stretch of the imagination have we got one of the best home crowds," Atlanta Hawks star Joe Johnson said. "We don't. I can't really even say it's getting there."

 

Associated Press file

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade is already a national star with high-profile endorsements. Moving to Chicago won't do much for his star power and he'd give up several million by leaving Florida, with its lack of state income tax.

 

Associated Press file

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Published: 1/4/2010 12:08 AM

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Bulls game day

Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder at the United Center, 7 p.m. Monday

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: WMVP 1000-AM

Update: Third-year forward Kevin Durant is the real deal. He ranks fourth on the league's scoring list at 28.5 points per game. Second-year point guard Russell Westbrook is averaging 16.0 points and 7.3 assists for OKC, while ex-Bull Thabo Sefolosha (6.2 ppg) starts at two guard. Saturday's overtime loss in Milwaukee snapped a five-game win streak, but the Thunder (18-15) is tied with Utah for the No. 8 seed in the West. Oklahoma City won at the United Center last season.

Next: Tuesday vs. Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena, 7 p.m.

The free-agent chase is looming for the Bulls next summer, but there is no reason for fans to get too worked up about whether a chaotic coaching situation will scare away their top targets. Or if the Bulls need to win more games than Miami or New York.

When it comes down to it, the city itself figures to be the decisive factor if any of the premier free agents consider joining the Bulls.

A few years ago, whenever the Atlanta Hawks tipped off at Philips Arena, visitors could count the small clusters of fans in the seats and wonder how the team managed to stay in business.

I asked Hawks star Joe Johnson, one of the 2010 free agents, if Atlanta's homecourt advantage has gotten any better as the team improved. He didn't try very hard to sugarcoat the answer.

"Don't get me wrong, it's the home team and I enjoy playing there and I enjoy when the fans do come out," Johnson said. "But by no stretch of the imagination have we got one of the best home crowds. We don't. I can't really even say it's getting there.

"In the playoffs, yeah, they're there. Throughout the regular season, it's not much of a big difference from what it was. It's different, but it's not that big of a difference than what is was when I first got there."

That comment alone doesn't mean anything, but it shows that players do appreciate fan support. The Bulls have a remarkably loyal following, having led the NBA in attendance the last decade despite making the playoffs just four out of 10 years.

These players will make millions no matter what city they call home, but the sports climate in Chicago is duplicated in few places.

American Airlines Arena in Miami was rocking when the Heat contended for championships a few years back. Now it's back to a lower bowl that's barely a quarter full at tipoff and dark curtains blocking off portions of the upper deck.

Johnson and Dwyane Wade, who figure to be the Bulls' leading targets, will head into free-agency with different perspectives. Wade is already a national star with high-profile endorsements. Moving to Chicago won't do much for his star power and he'd give up several million by leaving Florida, with its lack of state income tax.

His decision will most likely depend on whether he has a burning inner desire to play for his hometown team or if he wants to live closer to his children. The only players Miami has under contract next season are Michael Beasley and Daequan Cook, so the Heat will have enough cap room to completely rebuild its roster.

Johnson is still relatively anonymous among NBA stars. Moving to Chicago could do wonders for his national profile and off-the-court earnings potential.

His dilemma will be deciding if it makes sense to leave a winning situation in Atlanta and break up a successful alliance with power forward Al Horford.

The Bulls are thinking big next summer. The plan is to sign one of the two guards, then use remaining assets to trade for Chris Bosh or Carlos Boozer. If a trade doesn't work, they'll try to find a way to re-sign Tyrus Thomas.

Of course, if LeBron James decides he'd like to play in Chicago, everything changes. That's probably a long shot, and the Bulls figure to know by July 1 if there is any reason to contact James' people.

Whether or not the Bulls make the playoffs this season, free agents should appreciate the potential of the roster. The Bulls have three pretty good pieces locked in for the near future with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.

New York improved in December, but some of its better pieces will be in limbo next summer. David Lee, Al Harrington, Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson all have expiring contracts.

It's silly, though, for people to suggest James won't go to the Knicks because they can't win. Take James off Cleveland's roster and where would the Cavaliers be now?