If Kobe Really Wants Out of L.A., the Bulls Can’t Say No

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The Chicago sports scene has certainly been hopping lately, with the White Sox having the greatest collection of sluggers that have failed to slug in history, Wrigley Field turning into the world’s largest Ultimate Fighting Championship venue and the media going nutty on some random Tommie Harris comment about Donovan McNabb being taken as a slap at Rex Grossman. Of course, it’s hard for me to think about any of those other items when Kobe Bryant says every other day that he wants to be traded with the Bulls as the most probable destination. I still don’t buy that this is going to happen this summer, but it certainly seems to have a bit better odds than the complete crapshoot that it was a couple of weeks ago.

What’s interesting to me is that it seems as though a majority of Bulls fans, at least the blogging/message board-types, are opposed to bringing Kobe to Chicago. The argument on that side of the ledger are that the Bulls as currently composed have a strong core of young players that just need a legitimate post-up scorer (Pau Gasol or the cheaper but “riskier” Zach Randolph would probably work) in order to become the top team in the East. If we were in a vacuum and guys such as LeBron James didn’t happen to play in the Bulls’ same division, I might buy that argument.

However, if a transcendent superstar such as Kobe Bryant truly comes onto the market, John Paxson has to explore that option hot and heavy. Pax has done a great job of putting together a team of, well, John Paxson-type players – hardworking gym rats that bust their asses on both ends of the floor on the court and keep their noses clean off the court. So, it’s natural that the Bulls GM has a lot of affinity for his guys. Still, I think Paxson is a pretty smart basketball man, and he knows that his own personal high moments of his career – the hot-shooting fourth quarter in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers and his three-point shot to clinch the 1993 NBA Finals against the Suns – were a result of Michael Jordan drawing double and triple-teams and getting Pax the open shots. At the end of the day, as I’ve noted many times on this blog, you need a superstar to win championships in the NBA, namely one that can draw a double-team that leaves other teammates open.

Once again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself since there’s still a much less than even chance that Kobe gets traded this summer, but the fact is that the Bulls are really the only place that he could possibly end up. The Knicks are only mentioned as a potential destination because of their New York location. It’s nice to say that a superstar of Kobe’s stature ought to end up playing in Madison Square Garden every night, but let’s not forget what Isiah Thomas did to that franchise in terms of pretty much having no one of any trade value whatsoever. Go ahead and try to find a combination of Knicks to trade to the Lakers that wouldn’t cause any sensible basketball fan to laugh his or her ass off. It’s just not possible. Meanwhile, the other rumored destinations of Phoenix and Dallas are absolutely positively never happening ever – they might have the personnel to trade, but the Lakers aren’t stupid enough to trade Kobe to another team within the Western Conference.

Therefore, that leaves the Bulls. Chicago provides the huge media market that Kobe needs, the Bulls have good players to trade and, assuming that Paxson wouldn’t have to completely gut the team in a deal, a Kobe-led squad at the United Center would be the best team in the Eastern Conference. To get Kobe, the Bulls would definitely have to give up Luol Deng, probably Ben Gordon, maybe Tyrus Thomas, and throw in a first-round draft pick (either this year or next year) on top of all of that plus maybe another bench player or two. That might sound like a lot, but I’m telling you if the Lakers offer that up, John Paxson HAS to take it. If you’ve read me regularly, you all know that I love LeBron James, yet I can tell you unequivocally that Kobe Bryant is head-and-shoulders the best single player in the NBA. LeBron was able to single-handedly take the Cavs to the NBA Finals at age 22 and he’s going to be around for another decade and a half. The Bulls can either take on the role of the late-80s/early-90s Cavs teams – the nice hardworking group-oriented team that didn’t have a superstar and ended up getting squashed in the playoffs by the superstar-led team (as in MJ’s Bulls) – or they can fight power with more power.

I think a lot of us, including me, got a little too heady in thinking of how good the current Bulls are.  This year’s Bulls team swept a Heat team with an aging Shaq and an injured Dwyane Wade in the first round and only got 2 wins against a Pistons team that’s on a downward slide when Detroit decided to mail it in after going up 3-0. I’ve seen many arguments that the “young” Bulls core needs more time to “grow” – I call bullshit there. This team has been to the playoffs three seasons in a row and I cannot tell you with great confidence that they have really significantly improved over that time (remember, the 2004-05 Bulls were the #4-seed in the East just like this year and they took a big step back in 2005-06). At the same time, the Bulls signed Ben Wallace to a monster long-term contract in order to win TODAY, not a couple of years from now. If the Bulls really wanted to pursue a multi-year plan, then they should have just kept a younger Tyson Chandler as opposed to getting Wallace for an outrageous price at the tail-end of his career.  I believe that Scott Skiles is a masterful coach that has been able to squeeze out every last bit of effort and talent out of this team, but that also means that there really isn’t much more of a ceiling to this Bulls team – they’re just not going to get much better than they are now.

As long as the Bulls keep one of Hinrich, Deng or Gordon (I think Hinrich would be the most likely to stay) and then trot out Big Ben and Kobe, that’s bar-none the best team in the East. LeBron, who as of today isn’t the all-around player that Kobe is (even though the potential is there), was able to get out of the East this year with a lot less talent than that around him. If the Bulls are then able to also add, say, Zach Randolph or someone of his ilk down low, then I think they would be right there with the Spurs, Suns and Mavs in terms of being at the top of the league.

Bulls fans cannot get complacent here.  If you actually think that the Bulls as presently constructed can win the NBA title, then more power to you and I’ll let you get back to ingesting your shrooms.  If you’re just satisfied with a nice clean-cut team that won’t ever win it all, then move to some place other than Chicago where they don’t care about sports.  For those grounded in reality (at least in terms of the ceiling of the current Bulls – the realistic chances of Kobe being traded is a different matter), however, this is an opportunity to create another dynamic true contender to win in the NBA Finals.  When the franchise legacy is six titles with Michael Jordan at the helm, nothing less than more championships will suffice.

(Image from Chicago Sun-Times)