- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- A couple days after returning home from two weeks on the road -- the Born-again Bulls Tour -- Derrick Rose had some tough questions to answer.
Like, "How excited are you about the All-Star Skills Challenge?" and "How would you handicap the field of challengers?"
Rose, a newly minted All-Star, stood at his locker before Tuesday's game and talked about the Skills Challenge, which takes place during All-Star Weekend at Cowboys Stadium, for a full four minutes, an interminable amount of time for an event that no one -- repeat, no one -- cares about, or should care about. And for the record, he's reasonably excited and he had no idea whom he'll be competing against, until someone told him.
(Unbeknown to Rose, he also received a vote in the Democratic Primary election earlier that afternoon.
I added him as a write-in candidate for Metropolitan Water Commission. I can see his slogan now: "Derrick Rose can't walk on water. Yet.")
Needless to say, the Bulls raised more questions during their 90-82 loss, which ended a five-game winning streak. Questions like, "How can you win five on the road against winning teams, and lose so easily to the sub-.500 Clippers at home?"
The only answer the Bulls could give was simple. They just didn't play well.
"We were sluggish from the get-go," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.
As leadership skills challenges go, Rose failed to help lift his team out of its extended doldrums Tuesday. The Bulls committed 19 turnovers and shot 38 percent, and when the Clippers gave them an opening with a fourth-quarter scoring collapse, the Bulls matched them with their own drought.
"We didn't come close this game," Rose said.
The Kerouac Kids are back out on the road, in Philadelphia on Wednesday night and then off to Atlanta, before a home game Saturday against Miami. It's easy to joke that the Bulls play better on the road, but that's beside the point.
This is a team with little depth and one that will have problems distancing itself from the rest of the playoff hopefuls. Defensively, the Bulls rely on length in the post and hustle plays, both of which were glaringly absent against the Clippers. Aside from Rose, who did all of his damage in the third quarter Tuesday, there is no other player capable of jump-starting what is often a feeble offense.
Against the Clips, Luol Deng hit his first five shots Tuesday and scored the team's initial 12 points. He finished the first quarter with 16, but scored only two points the rest of the way, while missing all seven field goal attempts. Why didn't the Bulls run more plays for Deng early?
"We didn't have any movement," Deng said. "We've got to do a better job when we have a hot hand out there. But I have to move without the ball. Honestly, defense was our problem. We can't focus on points too much."
Deng isn't lying. The Bulls got worked in the middle by Clippers big men Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, and guard Eric Gordon torched them for 18 second-half points. This will continue to be a trend for the next week or so, maybe the season, as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are both limited by plantar fasciitis. They combined for 14 points and 12 rebounds, each playing less than 30 minutes.
This wasn't a game you could really pin on the coach. The Bulls just looked sluggish on the floor and couldn't execute their offense.
"We weren't sharp," Del Negro said. "No excuses. We didn't play the way we're capable of playing lately."
It was a hard game to watch, and the Bulls fans on hand (there were plenty of available
seats) were bored to sleep. The biggest ovation of the night came not on Gibson's crossover and dunk on Kaman, or Rose's All-Star highlight montage, but rather when Cuppy Coffee pulled off (another) comeback win over his Dunkin' Donut rivals. Heck, we all could've used a cup of coffee watching this game.
Bulls fans caught a mild case of Bulls fever during their Disney on Ice-induced trip. Beating five straight winning teams, while Rose got his All-Star nod, understandably caused a wave of optimism for a team that didn't do anything in the offseason to improve its lot for the 2009-10 season, aside from drafting Gibson.
But now that we're back to reality, we can only be excited about possible moves before the trading deadline on Feb. 18, ones that would be designed solely to free up cap space to pursue LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and/or Joe Johnson.
Does anyone want John Salmons and his player option next season? Would someone take Deng to be a third or fourth option? The Celtics are an intriguing possibility, if they choose to dangle Ray Allen, but if Paul Pierce is really out with a bum foot, then they would likely hold on to the guard, even with his expiring contract.
Trading high-priced backup Kirk Hinrich seems unlikely, simply because the Bulls don't have another point guard on the roster. (No, Lindsey Hunter doesn't count.) Regardless of the Bulls' plans for this season, wearing out Rose isn't one of them. If Hinrich goes, the Bulls have to get another point immediately.
Barring a mutiny, I think it's safe to say that Del Negro's job is safe for the rest of the season, so that storyline is thankfully fading away. But the organization isn't exactly mounting an NBA Coach of the Year campaign for him, and it will be interesting to see if the team makes any moves in the coming weeks to make this season more palatable. As it stands now, Del Negro, with one year remaining on a cheap three-year deal, could have the staying power of Jerome James.
"In our mind, Vinny is not a story. Vinny's our coach," Bulls GM Gar Forman told the Chicago Tribune last week.
That about sums it up, doesn't it?
Vinny is their coach and this is the Bulls' team, a unit capable of surprising wins and woeful losses and likely incapable of harnessing any momentum. But nothing lasts forever, and if the Bulls can't replicate at least some of their road magic the rest of the way, and if they can't pull off any major deals this month, the rest of this season will amount to a waiting game.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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