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My, look how much it costs to maintain the status quo these days: $400 million for the Yankees; the firing of the wrong “sacrificial pig at Indiana U”:http://www.firecoachsampson.com; sneaky camera trickery for the undefeated Patriots; and apparently plenty of Xs in the win column for the Bulls.

For the 3–10 Chicago Bulls, mediocrity doesn’t come cheap either, and apparently it doesn’t even know its true value. Both Luol Deng and Ben Gordon turned down phat contract extensions shortly before this season began. Taking cue, Chicago general manager John Paxson then promptly refused to trade Luol (and perhaps Little Ben) to the Lakers for Kobe Bryant. Doing so, Paxson more or less agreed with his young players’ assessments of their worth: “Yep, too good to give up.” We’ve heard that one before.

Now, before you click away to catch up with the latest worthwhile basketball analysis, rest assured that my purpose here is neither to side with those fans worked into a lather by the prospect of acquiring a probable rapist who just happens to have mad game, or to stick both index fingers into my ears while screaming “Nah, nah, nah, nah…” to the Kobe chants that still echoed from the United Center’s “cheap” seats well into the Bulls always-good- for-a-laugh “circus trip.” No, this column will largely define the problem, not identify the specific solution.

The problem is the Bulls’ star players sort of suck. Anyone who’s spent a good deal of the previous three seasons watching Bulls basketball has also spent a good deal of time suppressing that likelihood. Sure, we’ve allowed ourselves to be dissuaded of that fact as we got caught up in the hoopla surrounding the slightly above-average Bulls actually making the playoffs in a weak conference. Then last season, ohmygosh, they took out the once-proud defending champs in a series sweep. (Let’s check in with the Heat now, shall we? Four and ten, next to last in the points per game, but somewhat on the upswing now that Dwyane Wade is back. So, you see, the Heat were already well on their way to becoming a mediocre team when we thumped them in the playoffs last year.)

Returning to those players who sort of suck, if I had a nickel for every time a Bulls TV announcer commented on the team’s energy (or lack thereof) I could buy a pair of Ben Wallace’s $15 sneakers. All that magical energy combined with tough-nosed, man-to-man defense and the ability to hit an open three-pointer had been the Bulls’ trademark last season. But watching the 2006–07 team, any astute television viewer could probably see the same thing I saw: the Bulls had to work awfully hard to notch those 49 victories. The phrase “nothing comes easy” was created for this Bulls team. So are we really surprised that the team has regressed from that high point? Are we just going to accept the company line — “The Bulls start off poorly every year under Scott Skiles” — and hold our breath until Christmas?

Paxson has failed to address the glaring issue of low-post scoring, opting instead to corral as many “energy guys” as possible onto his active roster. Those guys — Wallace and Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah — have produced a healthy plus margin on the offensive glass; but I’d prefer if a few of those shots they are rebounding simply went in the first time around.

There is a reason why teams enjoy employing a Tim Duncan or Elton Brand or even a Rasheed Wallace. A five-foot baby hook typically has a higher percentage of going in than a 23-foot jump shot from the wing. (That is, unless Big Ben is the one releasing the hook.) Plus, the tall guy may be fouled while attempting said shot (a bonus for a team like the Bulls, who rank near the league’s bottom in free throws attempted). If a team’s typical definition of low-post scoring is a put-back dunk, then it’s probably going to be scanning the classifieds hourly for the next BIG thing. Paxson played on some great Bulls teams that won despite the lack of a dominating offensive threat in the post; then again, he also played with MJ (who, by the way, looks terrific in orange). These Bulls have no MJ, which brings me back once again to these Bulls players who sort of suck.

Luol, I love ya buddy, but at best you’re a poor man’s Scottie Pippen. Actually, let me rephrase that: a poor man’s Scottie Pippen on offense. On defense, you sir are no Scottie Pippen at all.

Gordon is one of the most infuriating players I’ve been forced to watch night-in and night-out since, oh I don’t know, Nick Smith? Gordon’s flair for the dramatic jump-shooting binge is a joy to watch. Too bad he couples it with enough 4-for-17 nights from the floor to make my 74-year-old dad reconsider his chances to make it in the pros on a reconstructed hip and knee (but with a killer set shot). There’s also Gordon’s weak handle and inability to guard players his own size, let alone those four inches taller.

And Kirk Hinrich, where do we even start with him? He’ll do an average job running the offense for you when he’s not busy bricking 22-foot jump shots or fouling opposing two-guards to death. At least he was smart enough to sign on the dotted line when offered his own phat contract extension.

I’ve tried to support this Bulls nucleus; after all, they are quite likable if you’re the blue-collar type. But if come January the Bulls are at .500 or worse and there’s an offer on the table to ship out our bundle of offensively inept energy or even Deng or Gordon or Hinrich for a big man with tools to spare, I won’t make the same mistake I made last season by siding with my silly emotions concerning this flimsily constructed concept of a group of over-achieving good guys — cause that’s precisely what they now appear to be.