- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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You want an NBA team to have one of two things: an identity or a plan. Right now the Chicago Bulls appear to have neither.
The Orlando Magic found a way. They decided they'll bombard teams with 3-pointers if they devote too much attention to Dwight Howard inside. Maybe it's unconventional, maybe they overspent on Rashard Lewis in the process, but they've discovered something that works.
The good teams have identities. The best-situated bad teams have hope. The Bulls have slid somewhere in between, dropping out of the playoffs last season after three consecutive years of reaching the postseason.
I ask Luol Deng what this team's identity is and he smiles, with a little chuckle that indicates he has wondered the same thing himself.
"We've got to realize that we've got to play hard every night," Deng said. "I think our identity is to play hard."
Playing hard. He thinks.
"Sharing the basketball, playing hard," coach Vinny Del Negro suggests. "My thing is we have to compete every night and play; develop our young guys but also give ourselves opportunities."
It wasn't too long ago that playing hard wasn't a goal; it was a staple of this team, and there was an easy pattern to detect its assembly. The Bulls kept acquiring player after player with Final Four experience on draft day. There was Kirk Hinrich from Kansas in 2003, GM John Paxson's first year as the Bulls' executive vice president of operations. Then they landed Duke's Chris Duhon and Connecticut's Ben Gordon and Deng the next year. After that came LSU's Tyrus Thomas, via a trade of (gulp) the draft rights to LaMarcus Aldridge. Paxson says there wasn't a mandatory Final Four requirement, it just so happened that all the players he liked had been there. Whatever the criteria, it was working. A team that started two rookies and a sophomore and brought another rookie (Gordon) off the bench made it to the playoffs. In their third season together they swept the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round and managed to take two games off the Detroit Pistons in the second round.
"We were always on the same page," Deng said. " We knew where our shots were coming from, and we just played hard."
When it was just about playing, they were fine. That's only half of life in the NBA. Maybe only 25 percent. There are things like trade rumors and contract negotiations, and when those two business aspects of the sport swirled around this team it fell apart like a Roots CD, resulting in a 33-49 record and a pink slip for coach Scott Skiles along the way.
"I think we had too many things at the same time," Deng said. "Contracts, Coach not getting along with some players. It's a lot you can point at. At the end of the day, good teams are consistent. We were not consistent. Even the good years, I felt like we still had a long way to go."
So what path do they take? You hear the Bulls pop up in all sorts of trade rumors. Paxson said he doesn't want to make a deal just for the sake of making a deal. He wants to bring in another big-time player to go with rookie Derrick Rose, who appears headed toward stardom.
The Bulls' greatest need is a big man who can give them a low-post scoring threat but the Bulls' most appealing players are guards, which means you'd be asking another team to violate the trade axiom of not trading big for small. These days there's a temporary trading commandment that Thou Shalt Seek Contracts That Expire by 2010; Bulls that fit that description include Gordon, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. But Gordon, like Deng, is a base year compensation player, making it more difficult to trade him.
And all the players are having to do this under a rookie coach in Del Negro.
At least they made the right choice when they were given the opportunity of the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery and selected Rose. But when I was in Chicago over the summer, I noticed none of the Bulls' advertisements featured him.
"I think we wanted to avoid the temptation of wanting to put undue pressure on Derrick by making him a focal point of the marketing campaign," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' executive vice president of business operations.
In fact, no players were in the summertime campaign. Instead there were commercials featuring, say, a group of women at the United Center, talking about how much fun it is to go there.
"We want to make sure people understand that there are still tickets to be had, that
all Bulls games are available on TV but the best way to experience it is to 'love it live,'" Schanwald said.
Enough fans are buying into it to give the Bulls the second-highest average attendance, at 21,003 fans per game. Yet the Bulls also run the risk of becoming generic.
To maintain consistent sales has meant to de-emphasize the individuals, including the greatest individual in the history of the NBA. The Bulls go easy on the Michael Jordan hoopla; after all, he works for the Charlotte Bobcats now. This is Phil Jackson's ninth season as head coach of the Lakers, which matches his total with the Bulls and makes him as much of an L.A. dude as he was a Chicago guy. Without the icons around to maintain the lore, the franchise feels disconnected from its not-so-distant past. The players don't feel compelled to maintain the tradition the way the Celtics seemed to be last season.
For the general population of sports-crazy Chicago, the Bulls were a great diversion in the '90s, but now they can go back to obsessing about the Bears and waiting on the Cubs' perpetual mistakes next year.
It's almost as if they'll get back to these Bulls, who remain a work in progress. One of the problems that come with having a rookie point guard as your best player is having to wait as he learns to win. A recent five-game losing streak in which four of the losses came by a total of 13 points underscored this team's inability to master the details during crunch time.
"When you get the chance, you've got to take it," Rose said of the lessons he has learned. "No 'I should've,' or second thoughts about anything. You've got to go with it."
You wonder if the message will sink in with this group of Bulls, or if the chance has already passed them by.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss