- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

The Chicago Bulls finally appeared to be back.

After six dismal seasons following Michael Jordan’s second retirement, they reached the playoffs in 2004-05 and returned the following two years.

The Bulls made more strides last year. They had a young nucleus of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich, a defensive enforcer in Ben Wallace — signed away from Detroit — and a promising supporting cast. They won 49 games under the direction of fourth-year coach Scott Skiles.

Chicago defeated Miami in the conference quarterfinals to earn its first playoff series win since the Jordan era and then pushed Detroit to six games.

More improvement was expected this year; many analysts projected the Bulls to finish among the top three in the East. Some even picked them to reach the NBA Finals.

But the Bulls, who are now 23-34 and play host to the Wizards (27-30) tonight, went in the opposite direction.

“It was [surprising],” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said of the Bulls’ regression. “Still the same team, still the same concept, but you just never know where your going some times. They just couldn’t get it going. I would’ve thought they would’ve gotten it by now, but obviously they haven’t. Hopefully it continues until after Friday and next time we play them.”

Chicago stumbled to a 2-10 start this season amid reports of bad chemistry among players — many of them involving Wallace — and clashes with Skiles.

Early on the struggles were attributed to distracting rumors that several players, including Deng, who last season averaged 18.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, would be traded to the Lakers for Kobe Bryant. Even with the trade talk put to rest, the struggles continued.

Deng has regressed, averaging 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. He also missed 15 straight games with Achilles tendinitis before playing in the last two.

Hinrich, who last season averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists, missed six games with an injury, and his production dipped to 12.1 points and 6.1 assists. Gordon, playing in a contract season, also has struggled with consistency.

On Christmas Eve, with the Bulls owning a 9-16 record, general manager John Paxson fired Skiles. Assistant Pete Smith took over on an interim basis that lasted only one game, and then Paxson put another assistant, Jim Boylan, in charge as interim coach.

The woes have persisted; the team has a 14-17 record under Boylan’s watch.

Then last week the Bulls had another shakeup as Wallace and fellow forward Joe Smith were shipped to Cleveland as part of a three-team, 11-player deal. In return, Chicago landed former Cavaliers Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown.

The new pieces have made for more puzzle work for Boylan, who has trotted out 10 different starting lineups since taking over. Chicago has started 16 different combinations this season.

The trade has given Chicago an increase in production. Hughes, who played for Washington from 2002 to 2005, has averaged 18.7 points off the bench — more than the 11.2 the Bulls received from Smith. And Gooden has contributed 13.0 points and 10.3 rebounds — also more than Wallace’s 5.1 points and 8.8.

In their four games since the trade, the Bulls have gone 2-2 while averaging 109.8 points — up from the 94.9 points a game in their first 53 games. But they also have surrendered more points. Opposing teams have gone from scoring 97.1 points a night to 110.0 after the trade.

But despite the disarray, the Wizards aren’t discounting the Bulls, to whom they lost 95-84 in their first meeting this season and went 1-3 against last season.

“They’ve still got good players, so we’ve just gotta go out there and play with heart,” Washington shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson said. “If we play hard, we should be all right.”

Jamison agreed.

“This team is still talented,” he said. “They still can put together a string of wins. I mean if they win five or six in a row, they’ll be in the playoff hunt just like that. That’s how close the race is. We just need to get this win because they got us the first time we played them, so we’ve gotta find a way to get a win under our belt this time.”


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