Bulls need graybeard veterans more than promising draft picks in title quest
I'm sitting here obsessing over scouting tidbits about kids born, incredibly, in the 1990s. Upside, downside, wingspan, vertical leap, 3-point range, coachability, footwork, defensive instincts, stretch-4s. I have convinced myself beyond a shadow of a doubt that a kid I have never seen play in person or on television, a 6-foot-10 Latvian shooter named Davis Bertans, is exactly what the Chicago Bulls need. Again, he's a shooter. Remember what none of the Bulls could do in the final minutes against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals? They couldn't shoot. This Bertans kid, if I believe what I read and am told by people who get paid to nail these things, can not only shoot it, he can shoot it with range, he can shoot it after putting it on the floor and that he's a quick draw. Did I mention he's 6-10?
I've convinced myself, as I pour over more mock draft results and notes from conversations with two more club executives, that if Bertans isn't the guy to help Derrick Rose finish the job, then it's Tyler Honeycutt, a 6-8 shooter from UCLA. Honeycutt weighs 185 pounds and is 20 years old.
A friend who is completely suspect of the draft called and screamed at me to find reality. He reminded me of something I've been certain of for years, a philosophy that serves me well when I'm sane enough to pay attention to it. It goes something like this: Kids don't win jack in the NBA. Old guys win in the NBA. Veterans. The more grizzled, the better. It'll be 5-7 years, at the earliest, before Bertans can hold his own in a duel in the middle of June. Remember, the team that just won the NBA championship, the Dallas Mavericks, are chock full of old people.
Dirk Nowitzki is 33, Jason Kidd is 38, Jason Terry is 33, Shawn Marion is 33 and DeShawn Stevenson is 30. That was the starting lineup for the bulk of the playoffs. Brendan Haywood is 31. Fine, you want to factor in J.J. Barea, who was moved into the starting lineup in the Finals? He's the baby of the bunch at 27. Tyson Chandler is 28, but he entered the league at 18. Peja Stojakovic is 34. Brian Cardinal, who replaced Peja during the Finals, is 34. Caron Butler, who would have been in the starting lineup if healthy, is 31. Literally, there's not a youngster of consequence in the bunch.
Before the Mavericks, the Lakers won back-to-back NBA championships. Old guys. Before that, the Celtics with KG, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Old. Before that, the old Spurs beat the young Cavaliers. Before that, OK Dwyane Wade was young but Shaq was old and so were Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton and Antoine Walker and Jason Williams? You get the drift. Not one of those guys was drafted by Pat Riley before the start of the championship season.
If the Bulls want to use their draft picks to take young players who will become players -- or at the very least assets -- fine, just as long as they find some old guys, players north of 30, before the season begins, whenever that is. But as Gar Forman reminded reporters Tuesday, the draft ain't the only way to fill needs. "Every team in the league has certain needs," he said, "and when you look at needs, in my mind, there's three ways to fill them, it's not just the draft. You've got free agency, you've got trades and you've got the draft."
During the conference finals, two player agents told me that rebounders/passers/defenders all over the league want to play with LeBron James and Wade in Miami, and that scorers all over the league want to play with Rose. Makes sense. They want to enhance their chances to win a championship. Miami still needs role players, everything except guys who need to score because the Heat already have those. And the Bulls need scorers, shooters -- probably two of them. One Bulls official told me that week, "Yes, the way things have worked out we could very well now become a desired destination for veteran players who could really help us."
Of course, you can't say "Bulls" and "trade" in the same sentence without addressing the idea of going after Dwight Howard. Everything that's come out of Howard's mouth in the last few weeks indicates he's done in Orlando, and no, he's not going to Miami for LeBron, even though Jeff Van Gundy makes an interesting argument for just that. Having lost Shaquille O'Neal to free agency in the summer of 1996 for nothing, then turning into nothing for a decade, Orlando is much, much more likely to acquiesce and make a deal for Howard.
The Clippers have the pieces to get into the mix but never seem to be clever enough or have the sense of urgency to do anything that creative. The Nets, who have center Brook Lopez to offer, will almost certainly be a player. And if the Bulls are serious, really and truly serious, about winning a championship, they should at least be looking very closely at the possibility. The Bulls, as presently constituted, aren't going to be able to beat Miami, and anything to the contrary is just spin. To beat LeBron/Wade/Bosh -- and they're only going to get better -- the Bulls need a second great player. A lineup with Rose/Howard/Luol Deng could go toe-to-toe with Miami the next half-dozen years.
Thing is, even the club officials around the league who find the possibility intriguing are quick to put up a stop sign. There are those who seriously believe Rose's creativity and personality would be stifled if he had to incorporate Howard, that it simply wouldn't be a good fit, that the Bulls would be better off finding veteran scorers (Jason Richardson?) to put around Rose, which would allow the personality of the team to remain pretty much the same.
Either way, if the Bulls are going to take that one step further it's not going to be a rookie who enables them; it'll be a veteran or two and almost certainly via trade(s). One of the ways to facilitate that is to make smart draft picks that turn into assets. One of the reasons the Bulls were able to clear salary cap room so efficiently last summer was that they had draft picks (or draft-night acquisitions) which other teams found attractive (Kirk Hinrich, Tyrus Thomas).
Maybe a kid like Richmond's Justin Harper becomes part of the trade that brings a veteran shooter. Perhaps he has to replace a front-court player the Bulls have to part with in a deal. So, while those picks, should the Bulls make them, are unlikely to change the team's fortunes immediately, they could fetch some graybeards, which would be the most important result the team could achieve on draft night.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.