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Bulls Winning LeBron James Sweepstakes?

That was some trick the Chicago Bulls pulled on Thursday, coming up with one of the best draft days in recent memory without actually having a legitimate pick of their own.

It’s a feat that wouldn’t be possible, except that the NBA Draft is nothing more than an exercise in maximizing your team’s potential for the next few years (because potential is all that’s on offer, really). And while most of the league was vying for potential role-players and journeymen, with maybe an eventual All-Star or three in the lot, the Bulls were dumping dead weight and ginning up the potential to sign some of the biggest free agents in league history.

The dead weight in question, of course, was Kirk Hinrich, whom the Bulls dealt to the Wizards along with a first round pick in return for…well, the Wizards’ willingness to have Hinrich on their roster.

Around Chicago, calling Hinrich dead weight is an excellent way to both win friends and anger people, and has been at least since Hinrich’s stats tanked in 2007–2008, the first year of his massive current contract (which would’ve been bloated even had his productivity kept up).

The loyalists call Hinrich a glue-guy, a leader, a reliable guard with a ton of hustle and still more heart. The haters—and they are legion—call the loyalists saps and Hinrich’s contract a ridiculous boondoggle; they wanted to cut him loose and stanch the bleeding long before this summer’s plum free agent market was any part of the equation.

As for me, it’s not that I don’t feel for Hinrich. I always liked him enough that, having never met him, I’m perfectly at easy calling him by his first name. He strikes me as a good person and a hard worker, but then, I feel similarly about the guy who fixes my tuna melts at the corner deli. And at this point, the two of them have roughly the same business being on the Bulls’ roster next season.

Hinrich is neither shooter nor a strong enough athlete to play the two spot, and Derrick Rose has long since cemented his right to run the offense. Maybe he was “the leader,” but even if he stayed, the Bulls would still charge hard to get LeBron James or Chris Bosh, and either of those two would take the reins the moment they set foot in Chicago’s locker room.

He was a good player, but his usefulness ran its course and there’s no compelling case for keeping him around, so enough of the fine words about holding on to his contract and doing right by him. He’ll land on his feet, or failing that, on the $30 million pile of cash the Bulls paid him over the past three years.

With that argument settled and done with, the real excitement is what will come of all this new cap space. There’s plenty of gossip and speculation, but the most buzzed about scoop has to be from Adrian Wojnarowski, who reported on Yahoo! Sports that William Wesley—the man who’s been called the brains beneath the King’s crown—is telling people both James and Bosh have decided to make Chicago the second city of their NBA careers.

Now that is some juicy scuttlebutt.

Some people even believe it. My working hypothesis is that such people must spend the time they’re not reading NBA blogs comparison shopping for therapeutic crystals and fretting over the coming Mayan apocalypse, but I don’t know that for a fact.

I do know that this free agent coverage has to do wonders for James’ image. Just a month after looking staggeringly mortal in a 4–2 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, he’s being written about like some sort of NBA Championship Miracle-Gro. Word on the blogs is that the Bulls ink him, and they may as well start re-arranging their trophy case to make room for numbers seven through nine.

At least three other major cities—New York, Miami, and the Clipper-side of Los Angeles—are thinking the same way.

Meanwhile, anyone thinking of approaching James for endorsements or appearances, now or in the future, better start digging even deeper into their pockets. And there’s not a chance that William Wesley, who’s evidently some weird combination of Dons Draper and Corleone, would run his mouth and jeopardize all this brilliant publicity.

Point being, the insiders have a vested interested in keeping James’ thoughts on the inside for at least another couple weeks. Joe Johnson’s chip might fall Chicago’s way before then, but it’s a testament to the talent of this free agent class and the potential the Bulls have built up that suddenly, signing Joe “Twenty, five, and five” Johnson seems like winning your dollar back from the Mega Millions.

Not that the Bulls shouldn’t sign Johnson. He’s the true two they need, and his much-touted unselfishness would make a perfect complement to the superstar (James, or Bosh/Dwyane Wade in a pinch) that Chicago really wants. And since it’s unlikely the Bulls will actually have room for two max contracts, a guy like Johnson, whose worth something a bit shy of max, could be the ideal fit.

That said, there are multiple guys out there who are worth max such as James, Bosh, Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire. Since James would make Luol Deng a redundancy in the roster, the Bulls have every reason to use Deng as sign-and-trade bait for a Bosh or Stoudemire, and then try to lure in James with an even bigger name than Joe Johnson.

Or if James-to-Chicago falls through, pick up Johnson and sign-and-trade for one of those premiere forward-centers. A starting five with Rose, Joakim Noah, Johnson, and Stoudemire or Bosh is a major competitor, whatever happens with James.

Wade, being the hometown boy, merits some mention too, but the Bulls’ money could be better spent. Wade and Rose would be dueling top dogs in the same backcourt, and when you’re looking at a lineup with possibly three marquee players, you might as well spread them around some.

This being Chicago, there is, as ever, a small, shrill contingent that wants absolutely none of this to happen. This group is happy to live and die by the “compatible” core of players—Deng, Noah, Taj Gibson, formerly Hinrich—that the Bulls have “developed” through the last stretch of years. (I’d include Rose in the list, except that Rose, despite having nothing of the prima donna about him, is a bona fide All-Star and consequently makes these purists anxious.)

Never mind that this group always hovered somewhere between fiercely mediocre and outright under-performing. Never mind that the NBA is league where stars with enormous stat lines and, yes, sometimes correspondingly-large egos, win championships. What these people want is “heart” and “hustle,” and so long as Vinny Del Negro was in town, their line of thinking reigned, more or less.

For those of us interested in competing, let us hope the departure of Hinrich is also the death-knell of Chicago’s Hustle Doctrine. Player-compatibility and hard work are all good and well. That’s why there are any number of teams working to assemble rosters of solid, compatible players who might win 40 to 50 games.

But there are only four maybe five teams that have the cheddar to be big cheeses in this free agent market. And there’s only one King, and if you’re an NBA player, you want to be one of the lucky few playing in his court every night.

Get James to Chicago, and anyone with any concerns will get over them soon enough.


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