Baffled Bulls Trying to Shake Slump

The Bulls have rallied after slow starts to win 41 or more games in each of the past three seasons.
The Bulls have rallied after slow starts to win 41 or more games in each of the past three seasons. "Yeah, we've done it before . . . But we can't just think we can do it again," Coach Scott Skiles said. (Jonathan Daniel -- Getty Images)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

CHICAGO, Dec. 18 -- It had been 46 days since Chicago Bulls General Manager John Paxson announced that his pursuit of Kobe Bryant had ended.

But as the Lakers star stood on the United Center court on Tuesday morning, his well-publicized desire to don a Bulls uniform still haunted the organization, hanging over the Bulls this season like the six championship banners in the arena.

The Bulls have been stuck in a malaise caused in part by months of Bryant trade speculation that included almost every player on the roster. Even worse, frustrated Bulls fans responded to the team's abysmal play the first month of the season by chanting "Kobe! Kobe!"

Bryant said he was "shocked" to hear that his name has been shouted in Chicago. But he isn't too surprised to look at the standings and see the Bulls last in the Central Division. "They normally get off to [stinky] starts," Bryant said. "Then they turn the corner, and at the end of the year, they're always in the playoffs giving hell to Eastern Conference teams."

The Bulls -- who will play the first of three meetings against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center tonight -- started 0-9, 3-5 and 3-9 in each of the past three seasons, only to finish with 47, 41 and 49 wins, respectively. Coach Scott Skiles said the precedent gives his team confidence but shouldn't be used as a crutch. "Yeah, we've done it before, which is great; it means we can do it. But we can't just think we can do it again," Skiles said. "We have to actually take action and make it happen because we don't surprise people anymore."

That the Bulls started this season 2-10 was startling, though, following a season in which they won a playoff series for the first time since Michael Jordan played here, sweeping the defending champion Miami Heat. Before the season began, talk of the Bulls competing for the Eastern Conference title got as much, if not more, attention as the Bryant rumors.

Bulls forward Luol Deng said the expectations for this team were reasonable. "If we raised the bar too high, it doesn't matter. We did what we did and every year, you're supposed to be better than you were before," he said.

But scroll down the Bulls roster and it will be difficult to find a player who isn't having a disappointing season.

Ben Gordon is shooting below 40 percent from the floor and three-point range for the first time in his career. Ben Wallace, the 33-year-old center signed as a free agent two summers ago, is averaging less than 10 rebounds for the first time in almost seven seasons, when he was in Orlando.

Point guard Kirk Hinrich's shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio have moved in reverse for the first time in his career, and he has been benched for long stretches on two occasions this season. Deng, whose profile was raised during the rampant trade speculation, has battled nagging injuries to his wrist and back -- and increased attention from opposing defenses following a breakout playoff performance.

When asked Tuesday which player he can turn to for leadership on the floor, Skiles chose not to comment. Deng and Hinrich were elected by teammates as captains, but when the Bulls started the season 1-5, veteran Adrian Griffin, who had played zero seconds at the time, initiated a players-only meeting to air their concerns. The Bulls went on to lose five of the next six.

Skiles said he couldn't put the Bulls' struggles "on one single thing." The team also had to deal with Deng and Gordon turning down contract extensions in the neighborhood of five years and $50 million before the season started. "My first three years here, there were no major trade talks, Kobe, or contract talks and we still seemed to get off to a slow start," Gordon said before taking a deep breath. "It's tough. It's very disappointing that we have so many good players and it seems like we can't get going at the same time. It's like a crossroads. Are we going to come together as a group or are we going to be inconsistent?" The Bulls have won six of their past 10 games after Tuesday night's 103-91 loss to the Lakers, but no one on the team is prepared to say that they have turned the corner. Hinrich said the team is playing better, but added that they are "teetering."

"It doesn't feel the same," Hinrich said. "We thought we had grown out of having slow starts. It's probably a little bit different in that regard. It was the last thing we expected."

With each of their past three playoff teams, the Bulls were always able to go on a winning streak of four games or more before Christmas. These Bulls haven't won more than two in a row. They also can't consider many aspects of the game -- outside of team rebounding -- as a strength. They rank last in the league in field goal percentage, near the bottom in scoring and, on most nights, they have lacked energy.

Opinions vary about whether the Bulls can again become one of the top teams in the East, but this week one longtime scout said, "I don't know if I'm ready to pull the money out of my pocket to bet on them."

"When you look at the records in the Eastern Conference and in our division, we're not that far off," Hinrich said. "We don't have that many more losses than a lot of other teams, so that's encouraging. We're not out of it, at the same time, we have no room for error."

And, they likely will have to endure trade speculation until the Feb. 21 deadline. Bryant said Tuesday that he is "happy to be with my guys" but until he rescinds his trade demand or the Lakers make an official announcement that he isn't going anywhere, the Bulls know that the rumors won't disappear.

"It's still going to come up, one way or another," Deng said.

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