|Bulls remain work in progress|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 18 May 2007 11:31|
It all added up to the Chicago Bulls' best season since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were collecting titles, but they still have work to do to get back to that championship level.
``I don't mind change,'' Bulls coach Scott Skiles said Friday, a day after the Detroit Pistons eliminated his team in the Eastern Conference semifinals. ``I tend to, even after I've lived somewhere a little while, get a little restless.''
Skiles isn't itching to leave. Nor does he want general manager John Paxson to take a sledgehammer to the roster.
Not after a season like this.
Chicago finished with 49 wins after a 3-9 start, then swept defending champion Miami in the opening round of the playoffs to advance for the first time since winning the championship in 1998. It was a major boost for an organization that endured a long, painful rebuilding process.
And just as it seemed the good vibe was fading, the Bulls injected some drama into the conference semifinals. They won two in a row after dropping the first three to the Pistons, but fell in Game 6, 95-85.
In a different era, Detroit eliminated Chicago three years in a row. Those Bulls learned and went on to capture six championships in eight years once they got by the Pistons. And these Bulls got a lesson, too.
``There was some valuable experience gained in these playoffs,'' guard Kirk Hinrich said. ``Obviously, I'd like to learn while we win, but at the same time, we made some big steps and will be ready for next year.''
There are some issues to address in the interim, like what to do with restricted free agent Andres Nocioni and whether to give Ben Gordon and Luol Deng contract extensions.
The most pressing need is someone who can score inside.
``A big man,'' Gordon said. ``Someone we can rely on to command the double team, take a little bit of the pressure off.''
But how do they get that player?
It could come from the draft, where the Bulls have the New York Knicks' lottery pick. But if they miss the jackpot, do they trade a core player to get that inside scoring presence? Does it have to come from a forward or center, or could it come from a big guard? And could someone on the roster develop into that post threat?
The Bulls don't have the salary-cap space they did last year, when they signed four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace away from Detroit. So barring a lucky bounce of the pingpong balls, some creativity will be needed - or improvement from someone on the roster.
Skiles suggested Deng could be that player.
The Bulls think enough of him that they passed on an offer from Memphis to trade Pau Gasol before the deadline, and it's easy to understand why. In his third season, Deng all but abandoned the 3-point shot for the midrange jumper and set career-highs in scoring (18.8 points), rebounding (7.1) and shooting (51.7 percent).
He was even better against Miami in the first round, averaging 26.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. Deng had a tougher time against Detroit and Tayshaun Prince in the second round, shooting 47.8 percent, but was 25-for-42 over the final three games. He averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the series.
Like Deng, Gordon enjoyed his best season, averaging a career-high 21.4 points in his third year. His name figures to circulate in trade rumors this summer, just as it has the past few years, but he made it clear he doesn't want to leave. In fact, Gordon said Paxson told him they would start discussing a contract extension in August.
``I've always said I would like to retire here,'' he said. ``I still stay true to that.''
Whether the Bulls stick with Nocioni remains to be seen.
When healthy, he is a pesky defender and rebounder who can hit the 3-pointer and whip the home crowd into a frenzy with his energy, but he missed 28 of 29 games down the stretch in the regular season because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. After averaging a career-high 14.1 points in 53 regular-season games, he clearly wasn't himself in the playoffs.
His playing time was limited, his shot was off and his energy wasn't there.
With a throbbing foot and a sore hip, he averaged 8.8 points on 36-percent shooting after averaging 17.6 against Washington and Miami the previous two postseasons.
Skiles wasn't sure how a healthy Nocioni would have affected the Detroit series, but he was certain about one thing.
``I'm overall proud of our product,'' Skiles said. ``Our guys try to play the right way. I think you can make the case we play as hard as anybody in the league night-in and night-out. I think you could make the case we play as well together as anybody night-in and night-out. You've got guys with good hearts; they're trying to do the right thing. It's just true, and I'm glad to be a part of it with these guys.''