David Haugh's In the Wake of the News
October 31, 2012
With a nervous chuckle, the most experienced general manager among Chicago's five major professional sports teams pondered his new distinction.
Promoted by the Bulls in May 2009 two months before the Blackhawks elevated Stan Bowman, Gar Forman became the dean of the city's GMs when the White Sox made Ken Williams an executive vice-president.
"Is that a good or bad thing?'' Forman asked Tuesday.
Forman will hang up and listen for his answer in 2014.
As the Bulls open a season full of unknowns Wednesday night, Forman's positives easily outweigh any negatives, even if three years into the job outsiders still occasionally wonder where Forman's reach ends and vice president John Paxson's begins. Not that anybody at the Berto Center dares to complain, not after back-to-back seasons with the NBA's best regular-season record.
This season the only certainty seems the Bulls won't make it three straight, not with Derrick Rose rehabilitating his knee. But if Rose returns in, say, early March — 10 months after ACL surgery — then the Bulls respectably can win 48 games. History suggests that would be good enough for a fifth seed in an evenly matched Eastern Conference everywhere outside Miami.
If that sounds like settling, welcome to the Bulls' new, temporary reality. GarPax built up enough equity to accept the Bulls taking a half-step backward the next two seasons as Rose fully recovers — provided they do whatever necessary in that span to acquire a second star player every NBA champion needs.
The longer Forman sits in his seat, the hotter it will feel until that happens.
"It's a tough balancing act,'' Forman said. "We have a team that can have success now. We don't want to take away the opportunities that can present themselves to get better in the future because of the window of opportunity we have. If our core of guys were in their early 30s you might look at it differently.''
Nobody looks at the Bulls as a threat to win the Central Division, let alone the East, and those modest expectations figure to motivate a proud, veteran bunch.
Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton don't care about the Bulls' grand plan to make the NBA Finals in 2014-15, because both will be long gone. But they represent solid bridge players intent on proving they're not getting older but better.
"You definitely use it as motivation,'' Boozer said of age assumptions.
Boozer lost 10 pounds and has looked more active than in past preseasons. Expect Boozer, 31 next month, to treat this as a contract year as threats of the Bulls exercising their amnesty option on him loom. Hamilton, 34, committed the summer to making his body stronger and more flexible. He won't have to deal with the compressed schedule of last season and returns, if healthy, as the Bulls' most viable option to take big shots.
All-Star-caliber starters Luol Deng and Joakim Noah figure to take on expanded roles in terms of leadership and production. Kirk Hinrich, who replaces Rose in the lineup, represents an upgrade from C.J. Watson.
As for the revamped bench, fans will start calling Marco Belinelli names before coming up with nicknames for the second unit if Belinelli can't start hitting 3s. Forman has more faith than I would in a guy who never has been expected to produce in a market this demanding. Likewise, fellow sub Vladimir Radmanovic didn't show enough in preseason to suggest anybody will remember how to spell his name by Christmas.
On the bright side, center Nazr Mohammed, 35, appears rejuvenated by returning to his hometown. Backup point guard Nate Robinson's extremes might take years off coach Tom Thibodeau's life but his charisma will make him Brian Scalabrine's replacement as fan favorite.
The glue that holds the bench together remains Taj Gibson, whose starter skills make a contract extension Forman's priority. Even if Wednesday night's deadline passes without one, Forman doesn't worry about eventually losing Gibson to restricted free-agency the way the Bulls lost Omer Asik.
"Totally different,'' Forman said, citing the CBA's "Larry Bird Exception.'' "If it doesn't get done, we'll have the opportunity to negotiate next summer when we can match any offer. He's part of our core.''
As the core takes shape without Rose, Thibodeau essentially becomes the star of the franchise. The Bulls will hustle, defend, rebound and share the ball like a team that responds to coaching more than most. They will be better than many expect in this thorny season without Rose because they have one of the NBA's best coaches.
"(With) the culture Tom has created, I wouldn't want to put a ceiling on what this team can become,'' Forman said.
Forman speaks from experience — more than any other GM in town.