AS THE ChicagoBulls, gloom enshrouding them like a cold Lake Michigan fog, pack their bagsfor an 11-day, six-game road trip that begins on Thursday in Phoenix, coachScott Skiles should consider bringing a psychiatrist on the team plane. For theBulls are scheduled to spend Friday through Sunday in Los Angeles, a place thatcan make anyone crazy in the best of times, never mind anyone subjected toendless mentions of the name Kobe Bryant. ¬∂ Yes, still another weapon in theastounding arsenal of Bryant has surfaced: He has the power to screw up twoteams. Shouts of "Ko-BE!" could be heard last Saturday in the UnitedCenter, where the Bulls were wrapping up a disgraceful 101--71 loss to theToronto Raptors, Chicago's reputation as a scrappy democracy that wins withpersistence, defense and a hail of jump shots in ruins after a 1--5 start.
Bryant, who mostrecently asked out of L.A. last May, has been the subject of multiple tradeconversations between general managers John Paxson (Bulls) and Mitch Kupchak(Lakers), and after Saturday's disheartening defeat, it's likely that Paxsonhas 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 eveningof clanging jumpers (Chicago made only five of 21 three-pointers),disappointing defense (Toronto shot 75.0% in the third quarter) and a secondhalf of garbage time (Viktor Khryapa, the Bulls' 11th man, played 22 minutes).The season-ticket refund line starts to the left.
Predictably, noneof the Bulls would come out and say that the uncertainty about Bryant hasanything to do with the malaise afflicting the team. But even before theseason's nadir, Skiles had held group and individual meetings about the specterof Bryant. The coach emphasized two things: 1) Yes, it's tough being publictrade bait every day, and the organization feels for you, but 2) hug it out andmove on. (When Skiles played for the Orlando Magic in 1993--94, rumors were sostrong 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, butSkiles was presented the jersey--which he still has'when New York visitedOrlando.)
Some of thoseBulls whose names are in heavy rumor rotation concede that, yes, things arebad. "Frustration is at an alltime high since I've been here," pointguard Kirk Hinrich, in his fifth year, said after Saturday's loss. "Thecrowd is frustrated, and we're frustrated as well."
"This is mylowest point," said small forward Luol Deng.
"We can'texpect the crowd to be happy with the effort," said shooting guard BenGordon. "We're in some kind of funk right now."
Two key questionsremain: Will a Bryant trade happen? And should it happen?
First thingsfirst. "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.'" OnNov. 1, Paxson said, "There's not a deal done. There's not going to be adeal done.... We kind of put it to rest." The operative words are kind of.In the language of Hollywood, where, as screenwriter William Goldman memorablynoted, movie deals can be set but not set set, a prospectiveBryant-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 leaguewith a full no-trade clause, is no simple thing. On the one hand, while he hasnot specifically enumerated the destinations he considers acceptable, the WindyCity is certainly one of them. Bryant, however, has reportedly nixed any dealwith Chicago that would involve Deng, whom he presumably casts as ScottiePippen to his Michael Jordan, while the Lakers insist that Deng beincluded.
But keep this inmind: Trade talks are often like labor negotiations, heating up ascircumstances become more dire. A disastrous road trip for the Bulls, andPaxson will be going to bed with his cellphone in hand; a few more Lakerslosses (they were 3--2 through Monday and were scheduled to play the SanAntonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Pistons before the Bulls visit on Sunday)and another week of heavy Kobe pouting, and Kupchak will be answering on thefirst ring.
Should Chicagopush for a deal? In a word: yes. "I would give up Deng, Gordon and Hinrichto get Kobe," says an Eastern Conference general manager, who requestedanonymity. "They're all good players, but none has shown he's an All-Staror even a prospective All-Star."
For all thebaggage that Bryant would bring, he remains an irresistible figure,particularly to a team whose weaknesses have been so nakedly exposed. The Bullshave a center (33-year-old Ben Wallace) who can't shoot and whose celebrateddefense (1.17 blocks per game at week's end) and rebounding (4.8) havedeclined. They have a point guard (Hinrich) who is not creative with the balland 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 andfrequently gets bowled over inside. And they have an undersized shooting guard(the 6'2" Gordon) who so vastly overrates his abilities that he declinedmanagement's five-year, $50 million extension offer. (Deng also passed on afive-year extension, for $57.5 million, earlier this season.)
Bryant's arrivalwould create a whole new world of issues for Chicago, but the Bulls' world aspresently constituted appears pretty bleak. And if you think Bryant might beafraid to take up residence in the House that Michael Built, forget it. This isa guy who would gaze at the statue of MJ outside the United Center and wonder,It's nice, but where will they put mine?
He missed last week; find out if Joakim Noah can crackthis week's NBA Rookie Rankings.
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
TRADE-A-BULLS Hinrich (from left), Thomas, Deng, Gordon, Joakim Noah and Wallace (but not Joe Smith) have all been linked to Bryant (inset).
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BRYANT)
[See caption above]