Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Next Step

The Chicago Bulls dream season came to a close on Friday night after the Washington Wizards eliminated them with a 94-91 win. For the first time since MJ was wearing a Bulls uniform, the Bulls actually mattered. They were no longer the laughing stock that they had been for the past six years. Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler finally got it. The rookies of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon and Andreas Nocioni contributed earlier than expected. What I loved most about this team is that unlike the previous six years, this team never quit. The Bulls could have continued to accept their losing ways after starting the season 0-9, but they bounced back to win 47 games. They could have rolled over to the Wizards, who were starting three studs in Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, while the Bulls were forced to start three guys in the front court (Othella Harrington, Antonio Davis and Nocioni) that would not start on any other playoff team because of injuries to Deng and Curry. But the Bulls refused to give into the Wizards and were just one fewer bad pass away from potentially forcing a Game 7.

While this was a phenomenal season for the Bulls, they have a critically off-season ahead. They have three big priorities in the offseason. One, retain their core, which means they have to re-sign Chandler, Curry and Duhon at a minimum. Resigning Curry is going to tricky with his unknown heart condition, but the Bulls could and should work out a contract that would be beneficial for both sides (e.g., sign Curry to a large contract, but only guaranteeing the money if he plays a certain number of games in a given season). The Bulls should also look to re-sign Harrington and Jannero Pargo, who are excellent role players and added to the Bulls depth.

The second priority is to re-sign Scott Skiles to a long-term deal. Skiles squeezed about as much as he could out of this team. The fact that he almost got a team with such a lousy frontline out of the first round of the playoffs is a minor miracle.

The third priority for the Bulls is to address their two shortcomings on this year's team which is their lack of depth in the post and the lack of a tall, defensive-minded, shooting guard, a la Ron Harper during the Bulls second three-peat run. Unfortunately for the Bulls, this is going to be a difficult proposition. They do not have a lot of cap space. After they resign their own free agents, they will probably only have the mid-level exception which will be around $5 million and the veteran's exception which will be around $1.5 million. The Bulls also do not have a draft pick, so any outside changes will have to come via free agency or trade (unlikely).

So who should the Bulls target to address these two needs? Here are a couple of possibilities. For their low post presence, the best available option is Shareef Abdur-Rahim. If the Bulls were as lousy as they have been, Abdur-Rahim would probably be of their price range, but after playing on nothing but lousy teams his entire career, I have to think he might take the Bulls mid-level exception to have the opportunity to finally play for a winner. Abdur-Rahim is a solid 18 points and 7-8 boards a night guy. While Abdur-Rahim is not a true post player and is a bit of a tweener (i.e., not quite a power forward and not quite a small forward), he would give the Bulls enough of a low post presence that they would not have to run pick and roll every offensive play when Eddy Curry is not on the floor like they had to during the Wizards playoff series.

In getting that defensive-minded, tall shooting guard, the best free agent option that fits within the Bulls budget is Shandon Anderson, who is known as a defensive stopper. Anderson is a below average offensive player, but with the scoring ability of Hinrich and Gordon, Anderson would not need to score much. Anderson can likely be had for $1.5 veteran exception, assuming the Miami Heat do not try to resign Anderson.

The Bulls took that critically step this season in becoming a competitive NBA team, now it is time for the Bulls to take that next step and become one of the elite NBA teams.