Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Running of the Bulls

The NBA Slam Dunk competition is behind us, as are those events on Saturday night before the big throw down. (Do you see what I did there? Clever, huh?) Anyway, it's time for the second half of the season, and the final push to the playoffs. For a couple of years now the Bulls have been treading water: a playoff team, but not a contender. That was great, and a whole lot better than the wasteland following Michael's departure. But now there are expectations, especially since the team spent big bucks to bring in Big Ben. The general feeling is that the best way for the Bulls to meet those expectations is to acquire a legit post presence, most likely Memphis's Pau Gasol. To get a star like Gasol, the Bulls will have to give up players they want to keep. PJ Brown, Chris Duhon, Tyrus Thomas, and #1 pick are probably not enough. One guy from the Bulls' core will probably have to go too to make this happen.

The Bulls have four legitimately intriguing chips. The "least" of these, and the guy the Bulls would probably be most willing to part with, is Andres Nocioni. Nocioni is a good player, and he's only 27 years old. But to get quality, you have to give quality, so that's what we're dealing with here. Nocioni has established this season that his second year in the league was more indicative of his abilities than his rookie season. He has an effective field goal percentage (efg%) of .536 and averages 21.6 points per 40 minutes. He also averages 8.6 boards per 40 minutes. Still, he's the least valuable of the Bulls' big four. In fact, I wonder if he'd be enough of an incentive for Memphis to make the deal.

If Nocioni isn't enough, the Bulls would be wise to unload the player who is in many ways the face of the franchise. Kirk Hinrich was the first guy to give Chicago fans hope at the end of the franchise's dark age. He's only 26 and played on Team USA this summer. He averages 18.0 points and 7.0 assists per 40 minutes, and he's actually pretty good protecting the ball. He's having the best season of his career statistically. Still, he' the least valuable of the Bulls' perimeter studs. And, his progress has slowed dramatically if not stalled entirely. Hinrich is probably as good as he'll ever be, and that's not as good as Luol Deng or Ben Gordon.

The 23-year-old Gordon has stepped up his scoring this season, and not just because he's playing more minutes. His 26.8 points per 40 minutes is 5 points more than his previous career best. And he's shooting better than 45% from the floor. Then there's Deng. With a full off-season to prepare, Deng is having a career year. He's averaging 20.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per 40 minutes. He's shooting .523 from the floor, as compared to .463 last year. The improvement stems from a determination to take the ball to the basket. Forty-two percent of his shots are coming on the inside. AND HE'S ONLY 21! Sorry for yelling, but holy crap.

The Bulls might be unwilling to part with Gordon or Deng, and I'd feel really uncomfortable about giving up Deng, who may be an elite stud by the time he would have used up his eligibility at Duke. Still, you'd have to consider anything for Gasol. Gasol is also only 26. Though he's coming off an injury, he's averaging 23.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes, and shooting a career best 53% from the floor. The single guy in the history of the NBA whose stats most resembled Gasol's at that age? Tim Duncan. What wouldn't you give up to add a youngTim Duncan to your line-up?

So, let's be optimistic for a minute (not Sam Smith, Duhon for Gasol straight up, optimistic), and assume that Hinrich can serve as the centerpiece for a deal. Based on my understanding, and with a big assist from ESPN's trade machine, the following deal could happen under the league's cap: The Bulls send Kirk Hinrich, PJ Brown, Tyrus Thomas and their #1 pick (which should be protected if its in the top 2 or 3 because the Knicks figure to be in the lottery) to Memphis for Pau Gasol and Damon Stoudamire (or Brian Cardinal).

I'd make that trade in heartbeat. The Bulls would be left with Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon, with Malik Allen, Andres Nocioni, Thabo Sefolosha and Damon Stoudamire on the bench. To me that's a team that can make the next step. And, it's time to make the next step, for which we should be grateful. This is a lot more fun than just hoping not to sink further into the abyss.


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