Wednesday March 12th, 2008

First the Pacers, and now the Bulls: It's as if an emerging virus is spreading through the Central Division, ruining contenders before they peak.

In the doomed case of Indiana, Ron Artest and injuries wrecked a 61-win franchise (in 2003-04) that now ranks last in attendance at 12,152 per game. For Chicago, the trigger was passive -- contracts that went unsigned last summer have divided the locker room.

Of course, there's more to it than that, but that's a bad start. One of the league's most promising young teams has collapsed after winning 49 games and reaching the NBA's final eight last spring. Like Indiana, the Bulls are facing an overhaul that no one saw coming.

It's like they've been victims in a car accident. How did this happen? The one mistake for which Bulls VP John Paxson can be accountable is using the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft to trade for No. 4 Tyrus Thomas (6.3 points per game this season) instead of taking LaMarcus Aldridge (17.4), who might have fixed Chicago's need for scoring at power forward. But leaguewide opinion before the draft was divided on Aldridge and Thomas, and Paxson sided with the athletic upside of Thomas in hopes that he would explode like Amaré Stoudemire.

So maybe -- for Thomas is only 21 and could yet become a star -- Paxson missed this one. But that's holding him to a phenomenal standard, as his other lottery choices (Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah) have been excellent in an era when the talent is younger and harder to judge than ever.

The introduction of Aldridge would not have changed the polluted climate of the locker room resulting from the decisions by Deng and Gordon to turn down more than $100 million combined in new contracts from the Bulls last summer. They are not saboteurs or franchise-killers; like Andre Iguodala and Emeka Okafor, they simply wanted more money. But the unintended consequence is obvious. Their expectations for more money led teammates to naturally wonder if the shot selection of Deng and Gordon was aimed at raising their value instead of winning games. The pressure on those players to prove their value created fissures throughout a team that until now had been all for one.

A season like this will create a lot of second-guessing, but if Deng and Gordon had re-signed with Chicago last summer, and if Aldridge had been drafted instead of Thomas, then I would argue that the Bulls would have picked up where they left off last year.

Instead, one thing has led to another. No longer in contention, it made no sense for Chicago to hold onto Ben Wallace, who had been brought in for his playoff experience but obviously wasn't providing leadership to prevent the downfall this year. (There's no doubt, too, that Wallace would have looked like a better signing for Chicago had he been teamed up front with Aldridge or another productive power forward.) So he was unloaded last month for Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes, who was seen as a worse free-agent signing in Cleveland than Wallace had been viewed in Chicago. But Hughes, 29, is four years younger than Wallace and could be easier to trade in the future, provided he improves his value in Chicago.

Hughes was criticized for welcoming his move from a defending conference champion to a losing team that currently stands a half-game outside the East playoffs. But he insists it's wrong to conclude that he didn't mean well in Cleveland.

"I took shots before the Eastern Conference finals games, before the NBA Finals games,'' he said of his decision to receive injections to cope with plantar fasciitis during the playoffs last year. "I said I don't have to win a championship, but a lot of guys in this league, past and present, are not going to win [or have not won] a championship. "I have no control over it.''

Whether a complementary player like Hughes ever wins an NBA Finals will depend mainly on decisions of team management and good luck, such as winning the lottery rights to LeBron James or Tim Duncan. And then Hughes must fit into the team's system, which did not happen in Cleveland but may occur on a smaller scale in Chicago, where the ball is supposed to move through several players who aren't All-Stars and therefore must share the work.

"I like to play basketball and be happy playing basketball, and if people would go around to every locker room and ask my [former] teammates if I'm a selfish player, it wouldn't hold water,'' Hughes said of the criticism. "I want to play hard and share the basketball so that everybody's involved, everybody's aggressive -- setting my teammates up, stealing the ball. All those things that I've done in the past, I just want to get back to it.''

Which wouldn't be a bad first step for a team that has played without joy or hope this season.

As for Gooden, he is now with his fourth team in six years. At 26, he has a lot to play for, with free agency only a year away. If he can provide the scoring up front that the Bulls need alongside Noah, he'll also be creating a bigger market for himself.

Gooden has learned to not worry about what will be -- and the Bulls could benefit from that perspective too. "I learned that 50 games into my rookie season when I got traded,'' said Gooden, a No. 4 pick who was quickly dealt by Memphis to Orlando. "So I've learned how to cope with the blues in basketball and what an organization needs to do to start winning. And I've been on the other end of the stick, too, being able to play with a winning organization [in Cleveland] and going to the Finals.''

What the Bulls need over the next month is to salvage something good from the playoff race, if that is possible for a team that has stopped playing like a team. Then this summer Paxson must find new sources of leadership, which might have prevented the mess in which they find themselves now.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.