Tuesday November 13th, 2007

As the Chicago Bulls, gloom enshrouding them like a cold Lake Michigan fog, pack their bags for an 11-day, six-game road trip that begins on Thursday in Phoenix, coach Scott Skiles should consider bringing a psychiatrist on the team plane. For the Bulls are scheduled to spend Friday through Sunday in Los Angeles, a place that can make anyone crazy in the best of times, never mind anyone subjected to endless mentions of the name Kobe Bryant.

Yes, still another weapon in the astounding arsenal of Bryant has surfaced:He has the power to screw up two teams. Shouts of "Ko-BE!" could be heard last Saturday in the United Center, where the Bulls were wrapping up a disgraceful 101-71 loss to the Toronto Raptors, Chicago's reputation as a scrappy democracy that wins with persistence, defense and a hail of jump shots in ruins after a 1-5 start.

Bryant, who most recently asked out of L.A. last May, has been the subject of multiple trade conversations between general managers John Paxson (Bulls) and Mitch Kupchak (Lakers), and after Saturday's disheartening defeat, it's likely that Paxson has added Kupchak's name to his Five. Any optimism that arose from the Bulls' 97-93 win over the Detroit Pistons two nights earlier evaporated in an evening of clanging jumpers (Chicago made only five of 21 three-pointers), disappointing defense (Toronto shot 75.0% in the third quarter) and a second half of garbage time (Viktor Khryapa, the Bulls' 11th man, played 22 minutes). The season-ticket refund line starts to the left.

Predictably, none of the Bulls would come out and say that the uncertainty about Bryant has anything to do with the malaise afflicting the team. But even before the season's nadir, Skiles had held group and individual meetings about the specter of Bryant. The coach emphasized two things: 1) Yes, it's tough being public trade bait every day, and the organization feels for you, but 2) hug it out and move on. (When Skiles played for the Orlando Magic in 1993-94, rumors were so strong that he was going to be traded to the New York Knicks that the Knicks' trainer had a number 1 jersey made up for him. The deal fell through, but Skiles was presented the jersey -- which he still has -- when New York visited Orlando.)

Some of those Bulls whose names are in heavy rumor rotation concede that, yes, things are bad. "Frustration is at an alltime high since I've been here," point guard Kirk Hinrich, in his fifth year, said after Saturday's loss. "The crowd is frustrated, and we're frustrated as well."

"This is my lowest point," said small forward Luol Deng.

"We can't expect the crowd to be happy with the effort," said shooting guard Ben Gordon. "We're in some kind of funk right now."

Two key questions remain: Will a Bryant trade happen? And should it happen?

First things first. "What would I say about the chances of a trade right now?" Paxson said on Saturday. "I'd say, 'Check what I said last week.' " On Nov. 1, Paxson said, "There's not a deal done. There's not going to be a deal done.... We kind of put it to rest." The operative words are kind of. In the language of Hollywood, where, as screenwriter William Goldman memorably noted, movie deals can be set but not set set, a prospective Bryant-to-the-Bulls deal is dead but not dead dead.

That said, putting together a package for Bryant, who is the only player in the league with a full no-trade clause, is no simple thing. On the one hand, while he has not specifically enumerated the destinations he considers acceptable, the Windy City is certainly one of them. Bryant, however, has reportedly nixed any deal with Chicago that would involve Deng, whom he presumably casts as Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan, while the Lakers insist that Deng be included.

But keep this in mind: Trade talks are often like labor negotiations, heating up as circumstances become more dire. A disastrous road trip for the Bulls, and Paxson will be going to bed with his cellphone in hand; a few more Lakers losses (they were 3-2 through Monday and were scheduled to play the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Pistons before the Bulls visit on Sunday) and another week of heavy Kobe pouting, and Kupchak will be answering on the first ring.

Should Chicago push for a deal? In a word: yes. "I would give up Deng, Gordon and Hinrich to get Kobe," says an Eastern Conference general manager, who requested anonymity. "They're all good players, but none has shown he's an All-Star or even a prospective All-Star."

For all the baggage that Bryant would bring, he remains an irresistible figure, particularly to a team whose weaknesses have been so nakedly exposed. The Bulls have a center (33-year-old Ben Wallace) who can't shoot and whose celebrated defense (1.17 blocks per game at week's end) and rebounding (4.8) have declined. They have a point guard (Hinrich) who is not creative with the ball and who is not compensating for that deficiency with perimeter shooting (31.8% from the field, 3 of 20 on three-pointers). They have a power forward (6'?9", 215-pound Tyrus Thomas) who's built like a small forward and frequently gets bowled over inside. And they have an undersized shooting guard (the 6' 2" Gordon) who so vastly overrates his abilities that he declined management's five-year, $50 million extension offer. (Deng also passed on a five-year extension, for $57.5 million, earlier this season.)

Bryant's arrival would create a whole new world of issues for Chicago, but the Bulls' world as presently constituted appears pretty bleak. And if you think Bryant might be afraid to take up residence in the House that Michael Built, forget it. This is a guy who would gaze at the statue of MJ outside the United Center and wonder, It's nice, but where will they put mine?

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