Once upon a time, 6'9" Antonio Davis was among the NBA's most
athletic players, an explosive leaper who seemed able to hang,
Matrix-style, above the floor. That time has passed.
In a 109-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday, the
35-year-old Davis looked creaky, stiff-jointed and--dare we say
it--Mutomboesque. On one play he caught the ball under the basket
and went up for a dunk only to get stuffed by center Daniel
Santiago. On another attempted jam he had the ball swiped out of
his hands before he could get it to the rim. Though he's still a
gritty player and a good rebounder, Davis admits, "I'm not the
same guy I was at 28, 29 years old."
Unfortunately for Chicago, he's still being paid as if he were;
Davis has two years and $27.5 million left on his contract. When
rookie G.M. John Paxson traded Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and
Lonny Baxter to Toronto for Davis and reserve forwards Jerome
Williams ($6.5 million a year through 2008) and Chris Jefferies,
he not only gave up more talent than he got back, but he also
failed to clear room under the salary cap. Bulls fans aren't
calling for the return of the team's longtime architect, Jerry
Krause--there's no forecast of frost in Hades just yet--but one
imagines they can tolerate only so much rebuilding before their
patience wears thin.
So why did Paxson do it? He says he wanted to surround his trio
of talented youngsters--forward Tyson Chandler, 21, guard Jamal
Crawford, 23, and center Eddy Curry, 21--with solid complementary
players who would assist in their development. And while Paxson
won't say so explicitly, it's clear he thought the mercurial Rose
didn't fit that description. In Chicago, Rose reportedly broke
off called plays to get his own shot and was disruptive in the
locker room (charges that he denies). Worse, from Paxson's point
of view, he had become a negative influence on Crawford. Paxson
was determined to move him, no matter the cost.
In doing so, however, he left the team low on firepower. Crawford
and Curry have become the focal points of the Bulls'
offense--which, for the first time in 14 seasons, is not the
triangle--but neither one is consistent enough to carry the load
nightly. Without Chandler (out indefinitely with a back injury)
and Scottie Pippen (probably out for the season after left knee
surgery), coach Scott Skiles has even resorted to calling
isolation plays for Kendall Gill. Yes, that Kendall Gill, the
35-year-old swingman who's on his sixth team in 14 seasons. "Of
course we miss their offense," Crawford says of Rose and
Marshall. "But we have everything we need right here."
That's debatable. Since Paxson replaced Bill Cartwright with
Skiles on Nov. 28, the team has played much better defense,
notably in an 86-75 win over the Pacers last Saturday, and
Skiles's more conventional offense has benefited Crawford, Curry
and rookie point guard Kirk Hinrich in particular. Still, the
Bulls were 2-4 under Skiles and 6-16 overall at week's end, the
third-worst record in basketball. Because of cap constraints the
team is not likely to change radically in the near future. "Maybe
our young guys haven't come along as quickly as people would
like," says Paxson, "but we're trying to build around them, and
that takes time."
While Paxson's goal is a worthy one--to create a team of
hardworking, character guys--he will reach it only if those guys
are productive. Skiles sounds less than convincing when he says
of his team, "We do have talent. Honestly. Really."