Weekly Countdown: The Gordon situation bears watching (again)
The Bulls have to try to make it work with impending free agent Ben Gordon
Last season, contract issues were a factor in the team's unexpected collapse
More column topics: HOF debate, Mo Williams interview, thoughts on Greg Oden
5 Takes on the business of Ben Gordon's predicament
For the second straight year, Gordon enters the season in search of a new contract. Unable to negotiate a long-term deal with Chicago last summer after rejecting the Bulls' offer of $58 million over six years, the shooting guard signed a one-year, $6.4 million qualifying offer that will make him an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that time, the Bulls may be able to parlay a sign-and-trade with another team; until then, Gordon appears stuck in Chicago because his contract status makes him virtually untradable.
5. Will Gordon and his teammates learn to deal with his uncertainty better than they did last season? The downfall of the 2007-08 Bulls was one of the more surprising collapses in recent memory. Months after reaching the final eight of the NBA playoffs, the young Bulls stopped defending, lost 49 games and fired coach Scott Skiles in December.
"We can't ignore last year,'' general manager John Paxson said. "There were reasons that it happened.''
Those reasons included the contract uncertainty of Gordon and Luol Deng, who had been unable to negotiate extended deals over the summer, and the persistent preseason rumors that Gordon, Deng and others would be traded to the Lakers for Kobe Bryant.
"That was the first season since I've been here where there was a legitimate, major trade rumor around training camp,'' said the 25-year-old Gordon, who is beginning his fifth year in Chicago. "We would have team meetings, and we would talk about the trade stuff. Coaches would bring guys in to talk about the contract stuff and try to keep them focused. I think it was something that we had never been through before as a team, and especially as a young team it swayed the focus.''
4. How could one or two unfinished contract negotiations damage a franchise? The Bulls were successful because they defended as a team and shared the ball offensively. When Deng and Gordon turned down big-money deals in 2007, it raised suspicion among teammates that they would be looking to increase their stats at the expense of teamwork. Those doubts combined with the Kobe rumors to undo their unity.
"A lot of times when you're in college, or even early in your rookie year, you hear that professional sports is a business,'' Gordon said. "You don't really know what that means until you start to go through it. I've definitely experienced the business side firsthand, so I have a great understanding for it now.''
Gordon suffered decreases in shooting (a 2.1 percent drop to 43.4 percent) and scoring (down 2.8 points to 18.6 ppg) last season, while Deng and other key Bulls realized similar lapses. But Gordon believes those have strengthened him, so that his contract status will inspire rather than distract him this season.
"I pretty much know what to expect,'' he said. "I know what's on the line.''
Rival teams wonder if Gordon will be able to maintain a winning attitude, knowing that this will be his farewell year in Chicago. An advance scout put it best as part of SI's annual preview: "Will [Gordon] care about the Bulls? Let's face it, he wants no part of the Bulls after they wouldn't give him the long-term money he was looking for. He will not be a Bull after this year.''
Paxson notes that Gordon has continued to behave professionally; he came off the bench to score 18 points on 12 shots in the Bulls' opening win Tuesday against Milwaukee. But the GM also knows that his backcourt is crowded with five guards as the emphasis has changed from Gordon to the development of point guard Derrick Rose, the No. 1 pick who could become the All-NBA talent needed by the franchise.
"I think there's uncertainty in our mind, and I think there's uncertainty in Ben's,'' Paxson said. "It's uncomfortable because in this day and age those [contract] things play out so publicly, and you try to guard against it coming out negatively. But no matter what you say, the perception always is -- when something doesn't get done -- that it is pretty negative.
"It's hard for a player to mentally invest himself. But that's the job, and you have to do it.''
3. How could Gordon walk away from $58 million? One part of the business that can't be ignored is the role of money in establishing a team's hierarchy. Say that Gordon accepts less than he believes he is worth. Will that money go to another teammate? Will minutes and touches be awarded according to salary? (Money may not influence coaching decisions in Chicago, but it surely has affected roles on other teams.)
Paxson brings up another point of view that I hear frequently from a number of GMs.
"I think what has happened a lot in the league now is that guys do want to be able to compare contracts to other guys,'' he said. "From what I see, it's pretty simple: Everybody knows what everybody else makes -- players, agents, everyone. And in some ways it becomes a contest, and you don't want to lose that contest.''
I believe the same dynamic exists among owners. When they gather at All-Star weekend or other meetings, they judge each other based on frugality and efficiency and which of them squeezed the most out of payroll investments.
"San Antonio has done it as well as anyone -- they have a pecking order,'' Paxson said. "Every team would love to have a pecking order in terms of players, from your best player all the way down. In the perfect world, the best players are paid the most, and San Antonio has done such a good job with that. But that's hard to emulate in this business right now.''
2. How will Gordon fit in with a roster that is being built for the future? The truth is that he probably won't be the only one to leave after this year, as the Bulls watch closely to decide who best accommodates the style and skills of Rose.
"The biggest thing is our players have to bring Ben in to the fabric of the team,'' Paxson said. "I think we've got a lot of really good guys on our team, and I know the guys who were here last year were embarrassed by what they did. But they have to be the ones to bring him in, and Ben has to buy in, too.''
Gordon's status may create an uncomfortable situation for Deng, who last summer succeeded in negotiating a six-year, $71 million deal with the Bulls. When I spoke with Deng during the preseason, he said he hadn't discussed the contract ramifications with Gordon.
"I didn't because I know more than anyone what Ben is feeling,'' Deng said. "It was that close to being me [in the same contract situation]. I was in the same boat, and when I was in that boat I did listen to everybody. But at the same time, it came down to me and the Bulls and where we were going to meet. That's how it was with Ben and the Bulls, that's where they were, but they never met anywhere. It's hard for me to tell him, 'Do this and do that,' and then tell the Bulls, 'Do this and do that.' So I just stay out of it and let both of them make their decisions.''
Deng understands that Gordon may feel pressure this season.
"All of that talk with the contract stuff is not in the back of my mind [anymore],'' Deng said. "I'm just really focused on trying to avoid what we had last year. I'm going to try to bring something positive and be more of a leader, rather than being on the side and watching it happen like I did last year.''
He hopes the ambition to prove his value will bring out the best in Gordon.
"We've got to wait and see,'' Deng said. "He went through it last year, where to me and to him it was a distraction. So hopefully going into this year he'll be able to cancel it out and just focus on having a great year.''
1. There will be more Ben Gordons in years to come. "In this case with Ben, a couple of things have happened,'' Paxson said. "The market has tightened up. You have more teams now that are losing money as organizations. A lot of teams are over the [luxury] tax line or right at the tax line. Where five years ago mid-level deals were being thrown around, they're not being thrown around anymore. The market has changed, and it's hard for especially young players to understand, but it's definitely happened.''
The financial crisis and looming recession will deepen the impact.
"I don't know how it can't,'' Paxson said. "Tickets and sponsorships and that type of thing were addressed before the U.S. economy slid into what it's slid into the last few weeks. Common sense tells you that next year and maybe beyond is when it's going to affect the [NBA] bottom line. Yes, wealthy people own professional sports teams, but there have been a lot of teams in the NBA that have lost money the last few years. And that's a hard thing to keep doing.''