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,
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
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 (
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
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
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
"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.