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K.C. Johnson's Bulls mailbag

The trade deadline has passed. The playoff push is in sight. It's time to focus on basketball.

And, of course, free agency.

Who are the Bulls going to sign? Rich, Chicago

I have absolutely no flipping idea. (Isn't this the kind of insight for which you come to this weekly feature?) I mean, seriously, I love the speculation game as much as anybody. But does anybody seriously think they know what a player is going to decide over four months from now? Like most, I think LeBron is staying, Wade is growing increasingly frustrated and Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson could leave. But nobody knows. I also think Bosh could surprise people and stay, a subject I discussed with him at All-Star weekend in Dallas. He laughed when asked if he's frustrated by everyone just assuming he's leaving. Based on that talk, I do know this: He wants to be either No. 1 or 1A on whichever team he joins.

Do you think the Bulls legitimately have a shot to attract a major free agent with VDN at the helm? Basketbelle, Somewhere in Illinois

First, there's no guarantee Vinny will be coaching next season. Second, I'd place coach about eighth on the list for free-agent decisions behind money, money, money, chance for team success, city, comfort with teammates and money. Seriously, there are very few instances like Ron Artest wanting to play for Phil Jackson where a coach is involved in a free agent's decision. And those decisions typically center around someone with the pedigree of Phil.

Players like Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook all increased their assist totals in their second seasons. I understand Rose is the Bulls' No. 1 scoring and there is no Boozer or Durant to feed. But my concern here is that it seems like Rose has yet to make the transition from deferring to your teammates and setting up your teammates. You rarely see him make a move that will set up someone for an easier basket. What does he need to do or what needs to happen for that transition to happen? Carlos, Chicago

Acquire someone as good as Boozer or Durant. Seriously. Then your debate could be engaged. I do see your point that most of Rose's spectacular plays lead to scoring opportunities for himself. He's also not great at throwing lob passes, which he admits openly. But it's not like his assist numbers are bad. Which the Bulls' perimeter shooting is.

With Noah clearly ailing, why not keep Chris Richard on board? We've got at least three guys (Joe Alexander, Acie Law, Jerome James, not to mention Lindsey Hunter) who aren't getting into the game. And we need size. Elijah, Chicago

That's a question the coaching staff asked management as well. And the coaches didn't like the answer either. I just figured it was a luxury tax issue but it's not. Management wants to take a look at Alexander and Law, which will have to happen in practice since you're right in that they won't play. I felt like every time I asked Vinny about Richard before he was waived that I couched it in, "Without overstating his value . . ." But still: Dude was giving the Bulls 8-12 viable NBA minutes at a time they needed physicality and size up front. And what if Noah goes down for good with that tricky injury? I thought releasing him was a mistake as well.

I was pretty happy to see the Bulls bring in Hakim Warrick at the deadline. I have always thought he was a pretty good player that just needed the right system to flourish. He seems to be most everything the Bulls wanted out of Tyrus Thomas--a floor runner you don't need to run plays for, can hit an open jumper, rebound and block some shots. The difference being that Warrick has accepted his role in the NBA and plays hard all the time. What is your impression of how he fits with this team and do you think there's a chance the Bulls re-sign him after this season? Bryon, St. Paul, Minn.

My impression is similar to yours. Granted this is early, but I've the impression Warrick accepts coming off the bench. When Tyrus always believed not only was he a starter but a star. Tyrus' high points surely will be higher than Warrick's. But I think Warrick fits well both short- and long-term. Another thing I've noticed about Warrick that I like so far is his offensive rebounding. As for Warrick's long-term prospects, it all depends on where the salary cap lands and whether or not the Bulls land one of the big prizes. They only have six players under contract for next season so they obviously need bodies to fill out the roster. If they have money, I can see them trying to bring back Warrick.

Before we put the Tyrus experiment to bed forever, I think we should revisit what is by far Vinny's biggest blunder as Bulls head coach. And that would be his keeping Tyrus on the bench after he came back from his forearm injury. Tyrus should've gotten 35 minutes in every game he played this season just to see if he was really part of the future. Richard White, New Granada, Colo.

I wrote this in about six straight mailbags. That said, I wouldn't have gone so far as to say Tyrus deserved 35 minutes every game. Minutes have to be based on performance. You could stay starting has to be too but a) Tyrus was the starter before his injury; b) Taj has proven he can handle either role and c) Tyrus had proven he cannot. That was my point: You knew you were going to lose this guy by not starting him. So I would've started him. But if he wasn't playing well, I wouldn't have played him 35 minutes a night.

From one Tyrus apologist to another: Now do you think Taj Gibson is better than Tyrus Thomas. (see first Q&A of the season.) Kudos to management for having the courage to act on this obvious reality. He sets great screens, is defensively aware and knows his role. He reminds me of an aging Buck Williams, not the most athletic but gets it done. Former Tyrus Apologist, Hinsdale

Taj indeed has been the surprise story of the season. He's looking at a 10-year NBA career for sure. I still think, when focused, Tyrus offers a higher ceiling. But the NBA is about production and Taj offers that consistently.

The Bulls will have between $18-20 million under the salary cap. With only six under contract next season, that doesn't seem like a lot of money for 6-7 contracts. Jerry, Harvard, Ill.

This is true, which is why any team going all in for free agency is taking a risk. Let's say the Bulls get one of the big-name free agents. That eats up most of their cap space, which means they'll be signing a bunch of minimum-salaried players (and possibly a rookie contract off their draft pick) to fill out the roster. Just think about the Knicks, who have cleared enough cap space to try to sign two maximum free agents. You might be filling out that roster. Anyway, I found it telling that at his news conference to announce the Bulls' trades, general manager Gar Forman, in unsolicited fashion, offered that there are various ways cap space can be used--as in signing multiple players, signing one and trading for another, etc. I know the Bulls are going after the big guns. But I also know that comment showed they are planning for all scenarios.

I'm curious what your thoughts are on Scott Skiles as a coach. From afar, it seems he has the reputation of being a guy who eventually starts to grate on multi-millionaire athletes. But I've also read that inside NBA circles he is considered a sharp coach when it comes to in-game strategy and getting his team to play hard. Do you see him wearing out his welcome in Milwaukee? Mark, Greenville, S.C.

You nail the stereotype on Skiles, that he improves teams, gets players to play hard and then wears out his welcome. The reality is even players who might not have loved him personally have said he's one of the best--if not the best--game strategist and X and O coach they've ever had. He lasted longer with the Bulls than he did with the Suns so perhaps that reputation is fading and he's going to last longer with the Bucks. I know for sure that management and ownership think he's doing a great job. And he is. With the roster and the injuries the Bucks have had, it's shocking they're near the playoffs, even in the weak East. I'm not so sure Skiles grates on players as much as he just isn't very social with them. He isn't a big fan of imperfection and the NBA is an imperfect league.

I'm interested in your assessment of which teams in the NBA helped themselves the most with recent trades both short-term in their pursuit of immediate and playoff success and long-term in making themselves more attractive to land marquee players in the offseason. Which teams laid an egg by giving away too much or not making the right move? Do you think the Bulls have made themselves better on both counts? Glenn Wagner, Holt, Mich.

I think it's unquestioned that for the second straight season, the Bulls made trades that improved both their financial situation while not upsetting their basketball situation. Last season, you could make the case that the trade that landed Brad Miller and John Salmons improved them in both areas. This year, there's no question the trades helped them financially and it's either a slight improvement, slight downgrade or a wash basketball-wise. Hakim Warrick doesn't possess Tyrus Thomas' upside or high points but he's more consistent and, most important, accepts his role. Flip Murray isn't as good as John Salmons. But he's also a viable NBA rotation player who can provide scoring off the bench. I found a story questioning whether these trades showed the Bulls were tanking the season laughable because most league observers applauded the moves, particularly since it pushed the Bulls all in for free agency. I think other trade deadline winners were the Cavaliers, Clippers, Mavericks and Rockets, while the losers, mostly for inaction, were the Lakers, Celtics and Heat. The Knicks are an incomplete just because their audacious plan to try to sign two free agents with a horrible roster hasn't yet played out. Stay tuned.

With all the hoopla about free agency, can you tell me when is the deadline for free agency signings this summer? The suspense is killing me. Bill Reddy, Palos Heights, Ill.

There's no deadline. Teams can start negotiating with free agents at midnight on July 1 and can reach verbal agreements immediately. The contracts can't be signed until about a week later.

I love basketball, but my least favorite thing about the NBA is its predictability. Only about five players in the league can lead your team to a title and if you don't have one of those guys, your team is stuck hoping to make the conference finals a couple of times. Do you think this is a problem and will the new CBA address that? A hard cap might force teams to choose between a first-tier player and four scrubs or three second-tier players, which might be an even match. Alex, Boston

Well, the Pistons title team might disprove your theory but that definitely was an exception, not the rule so I like your argument. I do think the new CBA will alter the NBA landscape. How exactly, I don't know yet. But you raise an interesting point that I was discussing with a league executive the other day: Unless LeBron is coming to the Bulls, they're not a title team next season. Doesn't that make all this hand-wringing over this summer's free agency a bit like window dressing? It's a fun debate, to be sure.

Where do you see James Johnson in the Bulls' future? Henry, Evanston

He's one of only six players under contract for next season. So barring a trade, he'll be back. We keep hearing about progress he's making in practice and he did have perhaps his best stretch of the season during the second quarter of Monday's loss in Washington. But he's still raw to me and the questions that dogged him during the draft process---poor defender, sporadic worker---leaves the jury out on him. Coincidentally, you write from my hometown under the name of my oldest son, who just so happens to share James' birthday. See the extra tidbits you get from the mailbag?

What are the chances of the Bulls stealing away from Coach K from Duke and bringing him home to coach the Bulls and their new free-agent superstar? Bryan, Normal, Ill.

About as high as me winning a Pulitzer.

Has anyone mentioned the 2007 NBA Playoffs when the Bulls played the Pistons in the second round and Flip Murray posterized Kirk Hinrich? John, Bay Area, Calif.

I wrote about it the first day after the trade. Hinrich gave me a great quote: "I remember I wished I hadn't tried to take a charge." That was a great playoff series.

Do you see Joe Alexander getting a chance to actually play for the Bulls? I see him as a player with a lot of talent and if given the chance, he can excel. Bob S. Chicago

I don't see him getting much playing time but management is eager to get a look at him in practice and I'd assume he could be on their summer-league team. He is a major mystery in that his athleticism and strength are off the charts but he hasn't done much because of injuries and lack of opportunity. I've heard he plays a little "nervous" and too fast. That's not uncommon for young players. You'd like to think he'll figure it out at some point given how hard he works, how athletic he is and how nice he is. He's the first athlete ever to call me Mr. Johnson when I introduced myself, which made me feel damn old.

How's the Turkish center doing? (There's your quota for one question on him a week.) Also, how many emails from readers for your mailbag do you receive each week? What percentage get selected for inclusion in your reply? Lazyk, Cary, N.C.

Omer Asik is still alive. (Tongue-in-cheek update for you.) I receive anywhere from 100-200 questions per week. This week, I received right around 100 and am answering 20 publicly, so that's about 20 percent. I also provide a bunch of short answers via email straight to the questioner rather than printing them all. I used to answer every email I received and still am near 90 percent. But between family and travel, time isn't what it used to be. Thanks for your interest.

Who do you want the Bulls to sign and why? Mark Ludden, Cape Coral, Fla.

This assumes LeBron is staying with Cleveland because he's obviously everybody's first choice. I don't waffle much---I'm sticking with my preseason prediction of 40-42 even though it's going to be wrong just because I made it and don't change---but I have come full circle on Bosh. I used to think most of his stats came in non-impact ways and he wasn't a winner or great defender. He might not still be the latter but I think he's having a terrific season and he's choice No. 1. I used to put shooting guard first so either Joe Johnson or Wade would be the best targets. (Johnson is a better fit with Rose; Wade is the superior talent.) But I think at this point you just need to add the best pieces you can get and Bosh would give a lot of scoring up front. You'd still need to find some perimeter shooting on the cheap though.

The Bulls discovered 10 years ago you can have all the cap space in the world and wind up with Ron Mercer to show for it. I'm glad they didn't dump Hinrich in an attempt to pursue two free agents. But say they are able to get Agent X to sign and still have a chance at Agent Y. If they get Agent X's team to take Hinrich or Deng back in a sign-and-trade, do they have enough room for another guy better than what we have? Then when the dust settles and the cap space is gone on seven players and maybe a draft choice, what are their options for re-building the roster? Bob Rich, Springfield

If they executed a sign-and-trade for a free agent, the other team is signing that player so their cap space would remain intact. It's a longshot way to get two players out of this market. Although if you merely traded Deng or Hinrich, their salaries wouldn't match what you would need to pay a maximum free agent. So other parts would have to be involved.

I don't know what all the backpack and beef goulash fuss is about, but I do know I enjoy reading your column every week. Now that the brown-nosing is out of the way, I was recently having a heated discussion concerning the Bulls with a friend. We managed to come to the general agreement the Bulls tend to win games when Luol is DRIVING to the basket instead of falling in love with that 19-foot jumper. Has anyone ever crunched the numbers on the Bulls' record contingent on how many free-throw attempts Luol shoots per game? I'm willing to guess the Bulls are nearly undefeated when he is over six attempts per game. Moute Stains, Chicago

Brown-nosing will get you everywhere. I haven't crunched those numbers but I guarantee you somebody in the Bulls' front office has. And, yes, the Bulls are better when Luol doesn't settle, as Vinny likes to say. Luol is averaging 4.9 free-throw attempts per game this season, a full attempt over his career average of 3.9 per game. As I've said many times in this mailbag---and been ripped often because of it---I think Luol is quietly having a very consistent season and is unfairly criticized for the contract he signed. Look past the money. He's a piece you can move forward with.

Thanks for your questions. Talk to you next week.

K.C.

kcjohnson@tribune.com

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