K.C. Johnson's Bulls mailbag

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On Nov. 24, 2004 in Salt Lake City, I spent the day reporting and writing a story in preparation for the Bulls' 10th straight loss to open the season. I talked to longtime franchise stalwarts like Johnny "Red" Kerr and others for a story that was to run on Page 1 of the entire paper---not Sports---about the sad state of the franchise.

And then the Bulls gutted out a 101-99 road victory over the Utah Jazz. And editors gladly spiked the story. And the Bulls stormed to a 47-victory season and their first playoff berth since the dynasty ended.

We have no such special plans should the Bulls fall to their 10th straight loss Friday against the Cavaliers. But we do have answers as the playoffs keep fading from possibility.

It seems the trades to get cap space for next year seriously hurt the chances of making the playoffs this year. Salmons and Tyrus accounted for over 50 minutes of playing time not replaced by the current bench (Murray, Warrick, Johnson, et al). Especially with Noah out, the bench is now woefully thin. Are free agents as likely to sign with lottery teams as opposed to playoff teams? I think not. Jimmy Linn, Chicago

That's the $16.5 million dollar question. I do think team success--or at least potential for team success--is probably a higher factor in free agents' decision than, say, who the coach is. But it still ranks way behind money, money, money and maybe city fit. The Bulls still can offer playing with a young core of Rose and Noah. That counts for something. But, yes, not making the playoffs will add a risk to this summer. Bulls management figured the team might take a small step back with the trades but made them knowing it had to do something to ensure the ability to offer a maximum contract. What management didn't know--and couldn't predict--is the massive injuries that beset the team. Even with the step back in bench production, you have to believe the Bulls would've competed for a playoff spot had Noah, Deng and Rose stayed healthy. But we'll never know.

Realistically, what are our core players' ceilings? Scot, Chicago

The Bulls have six players under contract for next season. Assuming all six stick, I say the following: Rose: perennial All-Star and top-10 player. Noah: occasional All-Star and longtime starting center. Gibson, Deng and Hinrich: About what you see now. Johnson: Starter, with high bust potential. Is that a title team? Nope. Which is why you have to add a star this summer or at least major pieces.

Are you real or a character played by Jason Sudeikis on Saturday Night Live? Josh, Dayton, Ohio

I've heard McLovin from Superbad and in fact Luke Stuckmeyer from Comcast SportsNet did a "Luke a Like" with an image of McLovin and me on screen together. I don't watch TV and rarely see movies, so I wouldn't know. (Yes, I'm Amish as well as geeky. Actually, I'm a reader and music lover.) But I am, indeed, 100 percent real. Just ask Vinny.

Why not give Acie Law some time and see what he can do over Flip Murray and Pargo? Rocky D., Mount Prospect

Injuries and disciplinary action on James Johnson forced this move and Law delivered two strong offensive showings against the Grizzlies and Mavs. He's still really lax defensively (then again, so is Rose often) but I think he's proving he can be a backup point guard somewhere next year, possibly with the Bulls.

Please explain again what happens to our first-round pick this year? Do the Bucks have the right to swap picks? Is it lottery protected? Where will we end up picking? Jonathan, Geneva, Ill.

If the Bucks finish with a better record than the Bulls, they own the right to swap first-round picks. However, if the Bulls' pick falls in the top 10, that right is relinquished. And the ability to swap is only for this draft. So if the Bulls finish 11th and the Bucks finish 17th, the Bucks would move up six picks.

All the answers to the "Who will the Bulls sign in free agency ?" always begin with "Assuming they don't get LeBron . . ." Let's assume for a minute they are able to bring LeBron to Chicago. What happens to Luol Deng? And how much is left on his contract? Jon, Champaign

Be still my beating heart. I'm guessing the Bulls wouldn't care if Deng became a United Center parking lot attendant if they signed James. More seriously, you worry about that later. If you get James, good for you. It's obviously the ultimate prize. If they got James, they wouldn't care about Deng being an expensive reserve, assuming they can't trade him. And with four more seasons averaging near $13 million, that would be difficult.

Will the top brass of the Bulls look to replace Gar and Pax if they don't make the playoffs? It's very obvious they don't know what's important and that is making the playoffs with the players you started the season with, not making a splash in 2010 free agency. Jamie, Chicago

I received plenty of anti-management emails this week. My stance on this is let's see how the summer plays out. If the Bulls fail to significantly improve their team, management is ripe for legitimately strong criticism. Until then, everybody knew this season was a treading-water season and you can make the argument that, until the injuries, this team was on track to make the playoffs while getting in position to significantly improve their team. Again, if they fail to do so, that's on management. As far as the top brass, that's chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his history is one of loyalty. He has defended and supported John Paxson publicly every time in the rare times he talks about the Bulls.

The day before the season started, Blake Griffin was well-wished to go "break a leg." And he did. An Amber Alert was issued for Hasheem Thabeet. And Ricky Rubio turned down lovely winters in Minneapolis for Barcelona. Go figure. These were the three leading candidates to win Rookie of the Year. With the season winding down, who do you like for Rookie of the Year? P.S. I ran into Cleetus in the Dagobah system. He is studying with Yoda. Chewbacca, Willowbrook

Thanks for the update, Chewy. I typically get a ballot for Rookie of the Year and if I do again, my vote will go to either Tyreke Evans or Brandon Jennings. Stephen Curry has attracted some late-season buzz. But Evans' numbers are superior. And while Jennings' field-goal percentage is bad, he is playing significant minutes at the most demanding position for a playoff team. That counts for something.

What do you think about James Johnson's game? I have noticed he has a nice offensive game and also comes away with a lot of loose balls and hustle plays. Do you think he has a chance of becoming a solid starter or at least a solid bench player? Jack, Mount Prospect

Of course he does. Anyone can see his ample athleticism. I haven't been a fan though. Most rookies play the game too fast, but he seems to offset most of his positive plays with either horrible defense or really bad decisions/turnovers. I think it's up to him. He has struggled with promptness this season and has the potential to struggle with conditioning if he doesn't stay on that. The athleticism is there. The jury is still out on whether he will get it.

If the Bulls miss the playoffs and a miracle happens where they get the top pick in the lottery again, do they use it on John Wall or Evan Turner? And if they pick Wall, is it because he's clearly the best player in the draft or because they think they can ship him somewhere and get something in return? Though this is less than .0001% of happening, I hope they have given this thought. Ricky Borges, Wheaton

Teams prepare for all scenarios so, sure, I'm guessing they've had this internal discussion. It's a fun speculative game, isn't it? My guess--and, again, this is a guess--is that they would find a team dying to get Wall and orchestrate a trade. From all accounts, Wall is a bonafide star although I wouldn't know since, as any regular reader of this feature knows, I don't watch college basketball.

Why doesn't someone step up and take care of Dwight Howard? Twice he hurt Rose and said all the right things but he needs to be put on his Superman butt! MoDog, Grand Rapids, Mich.

With all these injuries, maybe the Bulls should sign Oak to a 10-day. The game has changed and so has the league, so retaliation isn't what it used to be. The Blackhawks are going through similar questions with the recent hits on Campbell and Seabrook. It's a fine line and I only thought the second Howard foul crossed the line, but I do think the Bulls needed to shove back a bit. They did the following night in Miami, a game where you could clearly see them releasing some frustration. And for whatever this is worth, I received some form of this question from about 37 people.

Hey Mr. Johnson. I'm happy to report that I'm still alive and reading. My enthusiasm for the season may have waned with the waving of the white flag at the trade deadline, but my appreciation for this column will not be extinguished. You might want to go ahead and start the paperwork for that restraining order. If you need any information, I'd be happy to oblige. After the loss to the Magic and Rose being thrown around like a rag doll once again, I was particularly disheartened . Fortunately, ESPN Classic had some old Jordan highlights on the next morning, complete with the Pistons' and Knicks' thuggish attempts to stop him. What happened to the thumper (or goon if you allow me to steal a hockey term) in the NBA? I know Noah stood up to LeBron earlier in the year, but as we can now painfully see, Noah's value to the Bulls goes beyond his ability to push back. I'm not saying Howard's foul was dirty--it wasn't--but how hard is it to shove him and hide behind a referee that holds you back? It has nothing to do with being right but everything to do with sending the right message. Cleetus, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Ladies and gentlemen, Cleetus is alive and well after a lengthy absence. That should be almost as comforting as $18-20 million worth of cap space. The league has changed, my man. Shove Howard and suspension central is coming. But, yes, somebody should've fouled Howard with the ball. At least once.

I've been a Bulls fan since I was 7. I'm now 33 so I've seen the glorious times and the terrible times. The Salmons trade was understandable for salary cap reasons but why trade Thomas to a playoff contending team for Murray, Law and a protected first-round pick? We could've gotten Harrington who would've made an immediate impact. He can score, rebound and stretch the floor. That also sends Thomas to a non-contending team. I can understand if the draft pick from Charlotte was unconditional but it's protected. Nick, New York

It's true management held out for a draft pick. Multiple outlets, including the Tribune, reported this Harrington deal as a possibility. I've since heard Donnie Walsh denied he would've added Thomas. I'm not sure what to believe. It is true management wanted a draft pick for Thomas. It's only lottery protected (and probably will come in 2012, not this year) and that protection becomes more limited if certain things happen. But you raise the classic issue between management aiming for the future with a coaching staff that wants to win now. Harrington isn't a long-term answer but he can score. What I actually would've done is keep Thomas. Sure, he occasionally lapsed into knucklehead behavior. But he didn't affect the cap situation this summer--no matter what management said about his cap hold because they could've just renounced him--and with all the injuries, he would've played a lot. And when Tyrus played a lot, he typically produced.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you next week.

K.C.

kcjohnson@tribune.com

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