Friday, May 14, 2010

If He Brons It, Will They Come?

Today's rumors center on LeBron James's next team, after Cleveland lost, surprisingly to some pundits, to the Boston Celtics in the second round. A cursory analysis suggests that, of the teams with room under the salary cap to sign a top free-agent player to a "max" contract, the Chicago Bulls are the most attractive, followed closely by the Nets and Clippers. This superiority arises from those teams' employment of talented young players under low-money rookie contracts — hence their low aggregate salary rolls. Chicago boasts several champions of the under-23 circuit, including Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, while New Jersey fields Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams, and Brook Lopez, and the Clips include Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. (Each of those teams also has good veteran players, such as Kirk Hinrich, Devin Harris, and Chris Kaman.) New Jersey also finished with the league's worst record in 2009-10 and is assured of a draft pick somewhere in slots #1 through #4. The New York Knicks, meanwhile, have been trading away talented players like Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Jordan Hill, and Jared Jeffries since 2008 in order to clear salary in order to sign two top 2010 free agents.

It would be a cruel blow to fans of other historically weak teams, particularly the Knicks, if the Bulls manage to grab LBJ. The Bulls have long been the fourth act in a sports-crazy town. In Jerry Sloan's playing days, the Bulls were a curious oddity who only won their division once.
Michael Jordan spoiled the city with six championships, though his arrival coincided with the "Monsters of the Midway" Bears championship team and the Cubs captaincy of Ryne Sandberg. Since Jordan left in 1998, the Bulls have returned to their fourth-class status. Yes, they routinely sell out their arena and have led the league in attendance for the past decade, but it is difficult to find any young person sporting a Luol Deng jersey on Michigan or Kedzie Avenues. Tailgating at Bears games or bratwursting at Cubs tilts is far more common.

Just to illustrate this disparity, I scored tickets to attend last month's Bulls-Cavs first-round series at $47 each (including all taxes and other ancillary charges). Lately I have been exploring attending the pending Blackhawks-Sharks NHL series; the cheapest seat will cost me $183! Even hockey, another country's national sport, beats basketball here in the home of Kevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade.

Signs have burgeoned recently suggesting that LeBron James may join the Bulls as a free agent this summer, perhaps with another top FA like Chris Bosh. What's more, now President Barack Obama has an opinion about Mr. James's next team! I support our President, but I feel he should leave this one to the professionals.

While basketball-mad Knicks fans have patiently waited through nine years of futility (the Knicks' last winning season was 2000-01) for this coming summer, Bulls fans generally have had little expectations. As I noted in this earlier post, the Bulls have not shown a single clear direction in the twelve years since Jordan pushed off. The Bulls lucked into the top pick of the 2008 draft though they ranked only ninth-worst in the regular-season standings. They subsequently hired the wrong coach, as I charged here. Even in the past couple years, as it became apparent that Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are championship-caliber pros, few took seriously the notion that the Bulls could sign a star, until GM John Paxson quietly traded away John Salmons to the rampaging Bucks last February, clearing sufficient room off the Bulls' 2010-11 salary roll.

If Chicago is able to dominate the Teens of the NBA with the panache it showed in the Nineties, it would represent a rather plutocratic concentration of basketball success for a city that hardly craves it. Knicks fans deserve a fantastic team, but it may be Bears and Blackhawks fans who get it.

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