By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Owning a late first-round pick in the NBA draft is supposed to be a sign of success. Unless it’s due to a prescient trade, high picks are for last year’s losers.
Consider this inspiring parade, for example. Take a deep breath, first: Mark Randall, Byron Houston, Corie Blount, Dickie Simpkins, Jason Caffey, Travis Knight, Keith Booth and Corey Benjamin.
You know what that is, other than astonishingly bad at basketball?
The very definition of a championship window.
That’s 1991 through 1998, a period that happened to coincide with champagne, vaudevillian cigars, and lamentable Grant Park rallies. That’s 642 inches of uselessness, back before it was common practice for good, smart teams to use first-rounders on young foreign prospects.
(Sorry to make you look at those names. The cramping is common, and should subside momentarily. Your appetite may return sometime later today, your will to live shortly thereafter. If wheezing and skin irritation persist more than two days, see your doctor.)
A Bulls fan could laugh at bad drafts when there was a new banner unfurling from the United Center rafters each year. New faces were merely interchangeable towel-wavers, rising from the bench to high-five more material teammates after yet another opponent’s time-out.
There’s a problem, however, for this Bulls team. They pick 29th on Thursday night, and have no real idea how close they may be to winning a championship. It is reason to widen the focus when assessing trade possibilities, taking a cold, honest look at where this roster may be headed.
Derrick Rose will likely miss most of next season, and we have no idea what his game will look like when he returns. Luol Deng may finally have long-delayed surgery on his wrist after his British Olympic squad is routed in London, shelving him for significant time. The bench will be rebuilt, with Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and CJ Watson all probably moving on.
A title next year is a pipe dream.
John Paxson loves the Little Engine that Could, and always has. He has tended to assemble tight-knit groups of hardworking players and hire stern coaches to squeeze everything out of them. Scott Skiles managed Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Deng just as Tom Thibodeau has overseen the last two seasons. We’ll choose to forget the wasted years of Vinny Del Negro.
The problem with this philosophy is that it doesn’t work. Admirable in its romanticism, it flies in the face of NBA reality. The Little Engine Just Can’t, even when a star like Rose descends from the lottery-luck heavens to join the cause.
It all looks great in the regular season, of course, when just sustained hustle and roster depth help them pile up victories, causing simpletons to gush like that means something, adorable hearts aflutter.
Playoff games – and ultimately NBA titles — are won by the teams with the best players, playing their best against defenses designed to stop them. Remember that. Print that out and tape it to your mirror. Or make a wood-burned plaque and hang it above your desk. Tattoo it somewhere.
Outside of getting one extra home game, regular season wins cannot be redeemed for any significant advantage when anything matters. In fact, some league observers now feel the 2-3-2 finals format favors the team with the middle three at home.
The Bulls need another star player, as they have for too long. Maybe more than one.
Even if Rose is himself again, an injury-prone 6-3 guard is a piece, not a foundation. Real teams don’t have to run perfectly-executed continuity plays in June, doing everything possible to get one good look per possession with the shot clock at 4. Real teams have multiple players who can get their own shots off the dribble, going to the basket. Individual talent stresses defenses.
If the Bulls want to be a real team at the real times, they’ll consider a bold stroke or two. This is not a top-heavy draft, but it’s deep with pro talent. Experts feel it’s one of those years where a future star could be snagged well down the board.
Paxson needn’t hesitate when his phone rings right now. He’s no longer tinkering around the edges of something, content to watch another beloved “core” of players set to blossom. With any hopes delayed for a year at least, the timing may be just right for the kind of risk that pays off big.
The mix of effort, discipline, coaching and teamwork is cute, until it has to get past LeBron James.
The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM (or you can listen online).
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