K.C. Johnson's Bulls mailbag

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First, of course, a word about the backpack.

In last week's installment, a reader chided me for wearing a backpack, saying it made me look young, childish, fan-like and geeky. In my perennially sleep-deprived state, for some reason I assumed the reader had seen me at O'Hare while traveling for a road game. I answered as such, gleefully seizing the opportunity to tweak my wife, who had suggested the backpack as opposed to the classy plastic Jewel grocery bag with which I had previously traveled.

The answer inspired a flood of e-mails reminding (and ripping) me for the backpack I wear in the very photo that accompanies this weekly feature. To which I respond: Oh. And that the photo was taken at last summer's Beijing Olympics, where an extra backpack was needed to carry media guides, shuttle bus schedules, passport, etc., that didn't fit in my computer bag.

And that, yes, actually I am a dork. Now, on to the questions.

Any thought on a Hughes and Noce swap for Jermaine O'Neal with the Raptors? It looks like the Raptors are lousy at the 2 and 3 position and it appears to be salary neutral for the first two years. Toronto upgrades two positions and can spread the floor while the Bulls get a true center who might benefit by playing with Rose and can slide Gooden back to the 4 where he belongs. We also clear a log jam in the backcourt and at small forward. Thoughts? --Kevin, Austin, Texas

My first thought is: Were you at the Toronto bar last night following the Raptors game? Wow. Over (too many) drinks with Doug Smith, the superb Raptors beat writer for the Toronto Star who has a must-read blog at http://thestar.blogs.com/raptors/, we discussed this very scenario. My second thought is: O'Neal was available for several seasons as a Pacer and the Bulls never showed much interest given his hefty salary and injury history. Granted, his deal expires at the right time. But without asking anyone in the organization about interest in O'Neal, my gut reaction tells me he'd be a bad fit with Rose. He's basically become a large perimeter player. I'm not sure how he would solve any of the interior problems.

I watched the back to back series against Washington and Oklahoma last weekend. It seemed to me that Larry Hughes and to a lesser extent, Ben Gordon were icing-out Derrick Rose at certain points during the game when he might have had a better look at the basket. Even the announcers mentioned it. Obviously Larry doesn't want to be here and the back court is crowded but is this a problem for the team? --Glen, Hyde Park, Chicago

Writers who cover the team regularly have asked players directly about this dynamic. Of course they've denied feeling any jealously or animosity towards Rose, and I can assure you that Rose's genuine commitment to winning and professional demeanor, not to mention his talent, has helped him establish respect in the locker room. I can't get into players' heads, so perhaps there is some subconscious force at work occasionally where they feel they need to get shots and if they pass more often to Rose, that won't happen. But I also respond like this: Who are we to judge a split-second decision on a fast break? Granted, a two-on-one is, as Vinny Del Negro described, a basic basketball play. But it's also a split-second decision made in real time and perhaps Hughes and Gordon thought they were making the right play at the time. In retrospect, Gordon admitted that he didn't. But that's after the benefit of watching film.

Hi K.C. Since Kirk Hinrich's return the Bulls seem to be playing with much more maturity and intensity. How much of this has to do with Kirk's presence on court? With this in mind I think those who were calling for a trade of Hinrich for someone else should now reconsider. What are your thoughts on this? Incidentally, what is the Bulls' record with/without Kirk? --Lincoln, Australia

This very topic dominated my postgame line of questioning in Toronto. And not just Hinrich but, thankfully, Luol Deng as well. Deng has been far more aggressive in attacking the basket in his first two games back from his ankle injury and his 14 rebounds are just one indicator of that mentality. As for Hinrich, granted it's only been two games, but he looks far more like the spry, active defender from 2003-2007 as opposed to the rundown player who, like everybody else from last season, was affected by the malaise that befell the Bulls. I think his defense has been active, his shot has looked strong and his presence has helped in many aspects, particularly in giving Rose a break. This season, the Bulls are 4-4 with Hinrich in the lineup and 13-18 without.

So, it's basically two separate deals, but it could work like this: Bulls remake their front line. Aldridge and Jermaine O'Neal with Noah and Thomas behind them; let's Noah bring energy off the bench and Thomas can play alongside either. We lose Deng who hasn't thrived under Del Negro, but Portland has always liked (or so I hear). But we have Outlaw, Thabo and Bargnani (more a 3 than a 4 anyway) to compete for minutes at small forward. Rose and Gordon start in the backcourt with Thabo backing up either position and Hunter getting spot minutes at the point. Relieves the logjam at guard, sheds dead weight, improves interior defense and rebounding, and gets players who will probably play better under Del Negro's system than the systems they're currently in. Or should I send this to Sam Smith at Bulls.com? --Bradley, Chicago

You can send it to Sam as well if you'd like but I guarantee he'd say the same thing I would: Why would Portland or Toronto do this deal? Seems pretty pro-Bulls to me.

My question is regarding this guy Joakim Noah. I have a suggestion: Please tell this kid to shave his head and maybe he will be good and will have more aerodynamic to jump and think on the court. --Fritch Bayan, Aurora, Ill.

Um, OK.

I hear all the time about Chris Kaman, Brad Miller, and Marcus Camby being guys the Bulls should go after, but one guy that keeps my attention but is never mentioned is Andris Biedrins of the Warriors. I know they just signed him to a long-term deal and he is a base-year player, but with that franchise being out of whack, do you think the Bulls could get him with the right offer? Gooden, Noah, Nocioni and a first-rounder for Biedrins, Maggette and Anthony Randolph? --Andrew, Richton Park, Ill.

I can't see Golden State dealing both Biedrins and Randolph. Actually, I have no knowledge of them wanting to deal either, other than Nellie pulling his classic bully tactics with rookies in Randolph. If either were available, I'd definitely make a play, especially Biedrins. I think he'd fit perfectly with the Bulls.

I see Ben Gordon as a player who might go to play in Europe for a bigger contract if he doesn't get the type of offer he thinks he deserves. Your thoughts? With that in mind, who do you think would possibly make a decent deal with the Bulls for Ben Gordon? --Chris D., Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Having covered Ben since his rookie year, I do not see this happening. There were a couple of rumors floating around last summer about Ben possibly signing with Olympiacos, the same team that signed Josh Childress. But Ben is a very proud individual. And while he's also rational in understanding that sports is a business, my gut tells me he always wants to be in the NBA because he knows it's the best competition. But I've been wrong many times before.

I know you don't do trade scenarios... However, who is most likely on the outs? And what is Hughes' value? What can we reasonably expect to get back for him based on who's available out there? --David, Shelby, N.C.

While I'm not ready to start printing the "Monday Morning General Manager" business cards that Jerry Krause once good-naturedly gave to Sam Smith, I do feel I've addressed more trade scenarios as the season has progressed. I'll never be Sam--and am thankful for that because I don't look good in sweater vests and saddle shoes. But I do know this Bulls team needs a change. The obvious one would be shedding Hughes, but I really see this being quite difficult because the Bulls refuse to take back more money or years on Hughes' contract. Perhaps a team gets desperate near the trade deadline. After all, Hughes remains an NBA rotation player. But it's more likely the Bulls will have to give up a part like Hinrich or Nocioni to get something done.

Devin Harris and Derrick Rose have been the best PGs in the East. But there's one thing that puts Harris over the top. It's that when he drives he's looking for the contact and to get to the line when he knows there's a big guy there. But when Rose gets into the paint he tries to do double clutch layups or tries to dunk it, instead of trying to draw the foul. Your thoughts on this? --Eric, Chicago

Maybe we're watching different games. I agree Rose attempts some double-pump shots with spin off the backboard. But almost all opposing coaches and many players talk openly about Rose's strength and ability to absorb contact. He's far stronger in the paint and attacking the rim than Harris in my book.

I think Derrick Rose is going to be great. That being said, right now he is a BIG part of the problem defensively. He routinely relaxes during possessions, allowing penetration and failing to closeout on rotations. Also, ever since the game at Charlotte when Okafor blocked a number of his shots (including the drive at the end of regulation) he seems to be overly afraid of getting his shot blocked around the rim and is clearly not finishing the way he was early on. Thoughts? --Danny, Deerfield, Ill.

Rose had such a stellar start offensively that any slight dropoff is going to be noticed. I don't discount your offensive point outright but would call those temporary blips as we all have to remember that this kid remains just 20 and a rookie. His fourth quarter in Toronto should remind all that he has a unique ability to attack the basket, particularly for a first-year player. Your defensive points are right on and the writers who cover the team addressed that point this week when we asked Del Negro about Rose's defense. Quite simply, it has to improve. And given his athleticism, it should.

About Vinny Del Negro, it does appear that Jerry Reinsdorf is the reason that Mike D'Antonio isn't here. So they settled on VDN, fine. I agree it's too soon, they knew he's a rookie coach. But one of the goals of the new coach (during the search per Pax) was "a teacher" for the young talent. How good is he in that regard? Also, even with VDN being a rookie, doesn't he have 20+ years of assistant coaching experience at his side in Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff? What have been their contributions? Do the players treat them differently? Is there any undermining of VDN by the assistants going on? --Lazyk, Cary, N.C.

I think "communicator" was talked about more openly than teacher. Not to say the latter isn't important, but players clearly stated the need for more open communication after the train wreck of last season. Vinny wowed management during his interview with his communication skills. And I do know players like Vinny on a personal basis. As for his teaching ability, I fall back on the default of him being a rookie coach. Vinny even admits he has plenty to learn. He does have experience on his staff and I have seen no evidence of undermining by Bernie or Del. It also needs to be pointed out, though, that I reported last summer Vinny wanted to hire Bob Hill as his lead assistant. Instead, Paxson was instrumental in the hiring of Bernie and Del. That's not to say Vinny doesn't get along with these guys because, to my understanding, he does. It is to say the staff is more a creation of Paxson than Vinny.

The BIG benefit of Vinny Del Negro's tiny contract is that when we fire him at the end of this season for being a terrible coach, we are responsible for a relatively small sum of $$$. A coach determines how hard the team tries; Skiles was able to get these guys to play above themselves. They've played below themselves under Boylan and now VDN. When will Pax pull the plug on his coaching experiment nightmares? How did we just complete the easiest stretch of the season and are still behind Skiles' Bucks? --Dan, Chicago

Yes, that brutal Oklahoma City loss brought a flood of Fire Vinny e-mails. I'm on record saying even thinking about firing him this season is laughable since the Bulls knew exactly what they were getting with a first-time coach. Look, the D'Antoni thing didn't work out, neither did Doug Collins and it was obvious in the three finalists of Del Negro, Dwane Casey and Chuck Person that the Bulls were going to hire somebody who took a second-tier coaching salary. I thought Casey would get the job. I think he did a nice job in Minnesota and I'm told he interviewed well. I actually think the Del Negro hire would've been more warmly received if it had happened right away, rather than at the end of an eight-week search that included the high-profile courtships of D'Antoni and Collins. It would've been viewed as thinking outside the box. Instead, most fans are frustrated by what might've been. As I've written before, I think Vinny has done some really nice things for a first-time coach, particularly when it comes to playing time. And while it may be too early to call this a trend, I've seen a subtle shortening of the rotation since Hinrich and Deng have returned. That's a good thing. You can't be all things to all people as an NBA coach.

I just cannot believe we lost to the Thunder. At the end of the game, Larry Hughes and Noah kept making dumb mistake after dumb mistakes that cost us the game. Why were they not benched? To have their trade value increase? This is just pathetic. --Aalok, Chicago

I have no answer to this. I'm merely including it because I got about 50 e-mails after the Thunder loss and needed to represent the frustrated voice of the fan.

I think Kirk coming back is going to be a big plus for the Bulls. He has gotten a lot of flack recently in Chicago, but he is our best perimeter defender and is probably the best backcourt pairing we have for Rose. But with the bevy of guards we have, do you think we will see a lot of small lineups? Skiles had a lot of success playing Kirk/Ben/Duhon together; will Del Negro try the same thing? And could we see a four guard set? --Troy, Crystal Lake, Ill.

You can't do it all the time, but I thought Vinny's use of the small lineup down the stretch in Toronto won that game. I'd try it more, even though it will burn you occasionally.

Hypothetically speaking, the Bulls are horrible when Rose's contract is ending, and the Bulls have the money on the table. Does Rose defer to play for a playoff/championship contender or does he stay in Chicago, his darling city? --Dave, Omaha, Neb.

Given that I'm way, way tired of 2010 questions, I merely shake my head at 2013 questions. Thanks, though.

When VDN was first hired, we were told the additions of assistant coaches with head coaching experience (Bickerstaff, Del Harris) would mask his inexperience while he learned on the job. How effective do you think this strategy has worked out? How much input do these assistant coaches have in making decisions and adjustments in-game? During his tenure with the Bulls, Scott Skiles was sometimes referred to as a savant by players such as Damon Stoudamire and Jason Kidd at drawing up offensive plays and sets - do we have someone like that on our staff right now? It seems like whenever we come out of a timeout, we just give Rose the ball and let him create. Do these Bulls use set plays out of timeouts and if so, who usually draws them up? --Stephen Noh, Hyde Park, Chicago

Such good questions that you get them all included. Confession time: I haven't figured out this staff. One minor issue is Vinny instituted a rule before the season placing his assistant coaches off-limits for interviews unless you go through the team's media relations staff. Other franchises (Spurs and Nets come to mind immediately) practice this as well. It's not that big of a deal in that I rarely interview or quote assistant coaches anyway. But it did create a little bit of an odd dynamic at first in that Bernie and Del went out of their way to limit even small talk with reporters because they wanted to be sure to defer to Vinny out of respect. Bernie and Del have been around the block a million times and certainly know how to handle the media and my informal conversations with them have increased as the season has progressed. (Remember: I had no previous relationship with either coach and thus both sides are getting to know each other.) And Vinny, to his credit, relaxed the policy when I asked if I could spend some informal time with the assistants on the road.

Anyway, this is a long-winded response for background in that I don't have as much intimate knowledge of the inner workings of this staff as I did, say, when I covered the Skiles-Boylan-Adams-Myers-Wilhelm staff for several seasons consecutively. I do know Vinny values the input of Bernie and Del but makes the final decisions. I don't know who draws all the set plays out of timeouts but given that Vinny prepares the pregame scouting report every game on the greaseboard inside the Bulls' locker room, I'd guess him.

I read David's question last week and I was surprised that some people can't see pure basketball talent and the win-first mentality of Derrick Rose. I noticed at the beginning of the season Rose was trying to set teammates up for shots and Ben Gordon was about the only one that was making them. As the season has gone on Rose has been scoring more but only because he has to. He looks like he can score whenever he wants and would be happy to pass first if he actually had someone to pass to. (He'd have Deron Williams' numbers if he was on a good team.) If Paxson can ever build a team around this guy he'll not only be a superstar but one of the best leaders in the league and a money player with the game on the line. Watching Rose play has made me realize how average the rest of the Bulls are. He's that much better than everyone else on team. I thought he'd be the best player on the team by the end of the year, but he was the best Day 1. Am I wrong? --JayMan, Salt Lake City

Can I get an Amen? Our thoughts on Rose are identical.

As a Bulls fan, I find it frustrating hearing the Chicago media and members of the Bulls organization repeatedly use the team's inexperience as a reason for inconsistency in their game. I find it to be nothing more then excuses and the media is essentially allowing the Bulls a free pass. Outside of Derrick Rose and Noah, Gordon, Deng, Gooden, Noche, Hinrich and Hughes have all played a number of seasons in the NBA. Why isn't their more accountability placed on the veterans? So many games this season, the Bulls have been uncompetitive and clueless on the court, how do you fix something that occurs so often? --Arif, Plainfield, Ill.

I must've missed the memo that the media is responsible for how the Bulls fare.

K.C. I just finished watching the Bulls beat the Wizards, 98-86, at home. Any Bulls fan knows if the Bulls score 100 points and win every fan gets a Big Mac. The Bulls had the ball last with 23 seconds left. Larry Hughes did what every player in the NBA does and just held it. I NEVER understood this. I don't want to hear it's sportsmanship because that is just silly. Your taught to play all 48 minutes. Not 47 minutes and 37 seconds. Fans pay a lot of money to go to a game and if they need two more points for a Big Mac, I say score two points. If the other team doesn't like it than play hard and don't lose. If not, well tough luck. It's just that simple. Do you agree with me? Or are you one of those people who believe its wrong to score a basket when the game is pretty much over or do you agree players should just suck it up and play the full 48 minutes? --Ryan Borja, Chicago

I'll tell you the same thing I told my sister and my two young nieces who were at the game with her: You don't embarrass another team to win a promotion. Think of it this way: If the score was 94-90 and Hughes did the same thing, nobody would've made a mention of it. It's not his fault the Bulls had 98 points. The game was over and you don't show up another team to win fans free food. Sorry.

I'm a Wizards fan, just finished watching you beat us. Every time I watch Ben Gordon, I love everything I see, from his play to his composure. Do I just see him at the right times, or is he terribly underrated and under-appreciated in Chicago? Can we have him? We'll give you, Stewie, Nocioni's favorite stepstool. --Chris, Greenbelt, Md.

I'm trying to figure out which I like more--Stewie or your view on Gordon. You're talking to the right guy. I get ripped all the time for defending Gordon but here's the deal: He has a legitimate NBA skill. He can score. I'll take Gordon any day of the week and live with his deficiencies because he has mastered at least that one skill and works at it tremendously. Now, I wouldn't pay him what he seeks. But I'd try to re-sign him at roughly what the Bulls offered last summer or a little less.

Hey KC, just read your answer to "who you got, Cubs or Sox?", to which you said "I now root merely for good stories, not teams." I know journalists are supposed to be objective and just tell it like it is, without being homers, but come on, are you honestly saying that you don't root for the Bulls, you just write about them? Doesn't that ruin the fun of the job? --John, Columbus, Ohio

I definitely don't root for the Bulls. Obviously, I might root occasionally for certain people because you spend a lot of time around these people and hit it off with some of them and would like to see them succeed. But I always say: My job is the same whether the Bulls win or lose. Report and write what happens. I've covered championships with Jordan, horrible teams with Tim Floyd, a fun playoff run with Skiles and now this season. Trust me when I say that spectacularly bad teams often create more and better stories than good ones. I think if you take the emotion out of rooting for the team, the job actually is even more fun because you write and report for the sake of the story alone.

Now that said, my favorite Bulls season I've covered was the 2004-05 season, when a team of young players started 0-9 and bonded together for a great run that concluded with the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1998. And an unexpected one at that. But I also fondly remember some of those awful Floyd teams and the characters on those. So it's all the same to me.

When Thabo gets minutes, we usually see: some assists, steals, blocks, rebounds. On a team dying from lack of "D", why isn't it already clear to the Bulls that we need this guy? --Lyn Fox, Naples, Fla.

Thabo is in the shortened rotation ahead of Hughes. I'd like to see him play more too.

I know you always get questions about trades, and would like to leave that to people who enjoy prognosticating much more than you. But I think the greater issue in the lack of trades is the league's proclamation that salaries match. That prevents a lot of possible trades, and leaves us with a lot of poor fits in terms of personality and talent. The NFL Competition Committee reviews the rules every offseason. Does the NBA have such a thing, and how often do they review issues like salary matching? --Greg, Crest Hill, Ill.

This wouldn't be a competition committee issue but a collective bargaining issue. All I've heard speculated for the next round of labor talks is that guaranteed contracts might be shorter in length. But you make an interesting point.

What's up K.C.? I think you need to get off the Luol Deng bandwagon. The Bulls gave the contract extension to the wrong person (should have been Gordon). Deng has been the same player since he came out off Duke. He'll never be an All Star. Trade him with Noah, Hughes to Golden State for Stephen Jackson, Maggette and Wright. What do think about that assessment and please have a compelling argument. --Elijah Sanya, Chicago

My coffee buzz is fading so I don't have a compelling argument. But you begged me to include your question so I did. The Bulls tried to re-sign Gordon. It's not management's fault that he rejected its offer. I thought Luol played very well in Toronto and the way he needs to play--cutting hard, attacking the basket, hitting the boards. As for your trade proposal, I don't see why Golden State would make that deal.

Looking back, isn't the Nocioni extension a giant mistake? You had a chance to be all set up for 2010. Now we're stuck with a non-athlete at an athletic position who, on his best days, is just a three-point shooting threat. I cant see anyone league-wide offering anything for him, and it's a problem. We have to get out from under that contract. Also, thoughts on "In Rainbows"? --Paul, Chicago

I go back and forth on the Nocioni extension. I don't think they grossly overpaid for him. Maybe a little but that's kind of nit-picky. I do agree while you have to love his effort and intensity he does offer some duplication, but I think that was in mind when the deal was done. And contrary to your belief, his contract isn't prohibitive to other teams and there is interest in him. If they make a significant trade this season, he certainly could be in it.

Radiohead could pull a Neil Young and release an entire album of feedback and I'd buy it.

Hey there Mr. Johnson. I was wondering if you'd like to give me your job? Or perhaps you might like an assistant? I can make you sandwiches and bring you coffee all day long. And we can room on road trips! Let me know. Thanks. --Frank, Chicago

Only if you call me K.C., get a separate room and add beer to the coffee.

KC, I understand and agree with your point about this season being about finding out who can play with DRose. But I think if Pax concludes that Ben Gordon is a yes in that regard because he is able to mesh offensively with Rose, then the identity of the team will shift long-term to an offensive mentality. As we all know, that does NOT win championships. The most important thing is to get this team to play defense. And if that means losing BG as a free agent, then so be it. Do you agree? --Patrick, New York

I agree you have to play defense to win championships. But who's to say you can't resign Ben and continue to make other moves to better the other end of the floor? You need a balance. And Ben hasn't been as bad defensively this season, to me, as he has in the past.

If this team does not re-sign Ben Gordon it will be a major set back. Is there something I am missing? They give Deng a big new contract, and let the better player become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. --Bill, Westchester, Ill.

I have a question for you: Does your email address mean you're a Wilco fan? Jeff Tweedy is the LeBron James of songwriting.

In your defense of Paxson in the last mailbag you casually said, "Paxson didn't want to include Deng in the original Gasol deal." Not so fast my friend. That is without question his biggest error. Gasol dominates games. He is everything that the Bulls need. He scores inside, he rebounds and he can pass. On the other hand, it is clear at this point that Deng will never be more than a complementary player in a league where you need stars to win. Face it, Paxson fell in love with his draft picks; it is clear at this point that they just aren't good enough and now the Bulls have to start over around Rose. Looking back on it, I would credit the modest successes with Paxson's picks to over-achievement under a very good coach in Skiles. You are right, you are a Paxson apologist. --George, San Francisco

The point I was trying to make is that, at the time, Deng's projected value ranked higher than Gasol's. The argument is certainly more debatable with the benefit of hindsight. Although Gasol never won a playoff series until he joined the Lakers.

Is it me or does Noah get the ball stripped from him 9 times out of 10? K.C., can you teach this guy a post move? --Patrick Bouchard, chicago

In my long-ago Division III basketball career, I never moved inside the three-point line. And I also played no defense. But, yes, Noah brings the ball down too often.

There are some reporters and bloggers suggesting that Ben Gordon will re-signed with the Bulls next year. I think there is a 99.9 percent chance that he is going elsewhere. So, if he is not with the Bulls, which teams do you think he could end up with? --William, Bayamon, Puerto Rico

New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Denver.

Who is the Bulls all-time assist and rebound leader? --C. Mitchell, Sauk Village, Ill.

Michael Jordan's 5,012 assists rank first and Scottie Pippen's 4,494 assists are second. Michael Jordan's 5,836 rebounds rank first. Tom Boerwinkle's 5,745 rebounds are second.

The caffeine is officially gone. For those who haven't figured this out yet, I answer these every Thursday. Thanks for writing and talk to you next week.

K.C.

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