By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) The good news amid this whipsawing season for the Bulls is that the guys running the team are apparently watching the same games we are.
Executives John Paxson and Gar Forman have long been more likely to overestimate both the value of their assets and proximity to an NBA title, content to stick with a core of players that’s always good but never good enough. That tendency has been confronted with the reality of this team’s current position, now, stuck maddeningly in between so many things and internally conflicted as they sit at 22-15.
Mark Schanowski of Comcast SportsNet Chicago told 670 The Score that management is very much aware.
“The front office has probably decided privately that they don’t have any chance this year,” he said. “They don’t have the right roster for what Fred Hoiberg wants to run, they’re committed to Fred – he’s going to be here long term – so let’s get him a roster he’s more comfortable with.”
Joakim Noah’s name has gotten more attention than any other, but he’s not the piece on which trade talks should be focused. Neither is Taj Gibson, who’s also reportedly available but is under a team-friendly contract for another season and could have value in facilitating the installation of Hoiberg’s system.
So what’s the move to make? Dealing center Pau Gasol now would have benefits beyond whatever he brings in return.
The 35-year-old Gasol’s defensive lapses have been glaring and constant, despite his eloquence in describing the importance of effort on that end. He also has seen a downturn in production offensively, shooting just 45.5 percent from the field and struggling against better individual defenders. He is – and has been for some time – an ideal second-unit scorer, however, perfect for a team that sees itself one weapon away from championship contention. Gasol can still destroy backup bigs, and his championship pedigree may entice a playoff-bound team to give something up to rent him before his opt-out arrives after the season.
Gasol’s a presence in the locker room, too. This isn’t to say that he’s actively seeking to undermine a rookie coach, but he sets an example of doing and getting what he wants. While he’s not disliked by teammates, he keeps mostly to himself due to his age and tastes for more esoteric things away from the game.
Less entitlement might mean more authority for Hoiberg, who’s already had to deal with Jimmy Butler’s ironic exhortation that he “coach harder,” despite Butler essentially rejecting Hoiberg’s passing and cutting offense in favor of isolation plays. Hoiberg’s also learning quickly about how difficult it is to establish communication with Derrick Rose’s home planet as it wobbles around the galaxy.
The Bulls should be listening to offers for the three frontcourt players and others, of course, with an eye on a new core and a new roster construction. Gasol and Noah are gone after this year anyway. Getting something is better than nothing, provided it fits the time horizon.
Schanowski thinks it will.
“What they are going to do is look at it long term and how to put a roster together that can function in the Hoiberg system,” he said. “It’s going to be more athletic, it’s going to have more shooters, and it’s going to be better defensively. Any deal they make before the deadline would be long term.”
Kevin Durant’s the next big free-agent prize this coming summer, but there are others who could fit. Raptors wing DeMar DeRozan is just 26 and expected to opt out of the final year of his deal to become a free agent. Also 26 and headed to the open market is Miami center Hassan Whiteside. Hawks big man Al Horford is 29 but still a top-line player when healthy. There are ways to accelerate an on-the-fly rebuild, as the minutes continue to take their inexorable toll on the powers of LeBron James.
It’s just critical that the Bulls are honest with themselves about what this team is at the moment and what it clearly isn’t. It’s heartening to know that Paxson and Forman see what the rest of us do.