Once upon a time, 6'9" Antonio Davis was among the NBA's most athletic players, an explosive leaper who seemed able to hang, Matrix-style, above the floor. That time has passed.
In a 109-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday, the 35-year-old Davis looked : creaky, stiff-jointed and—dare we say it—Mutomboesque. On one play he caught the ball under the basket and went up for a dunk only to get stuffed by center Daniel Santiago. On another attempted jam he had the ball swiped out of his hands before he could get it to the rim. Though he's still a gritty player and a good rebounder, Davis admits, "I'm not the same guy I was at 28, 29 years old."
Unfortunately for Chicago, he's still being paid as if he were; Davis has two years and $27.5 million left on his contract. When rookie G.M. John Paxson traded Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and Lonny Baxter to Toronto for Davis and reserve forwards Jerome Williams ($6.5 million a year through 2008) and Chris Jefferies, he not only gave up more talent than he got back, but he also failed to clear room under the salary cap. Bulls fans aren't calling for the return of the team's longtime architect, Jerry Krause—there's no forecast of frost in Hades just yet—but one imagines they can tolerate only so much rebuilding before their patience wears thin.
So why did Paxson do it? He says he wanted to surround his trio of talented youngsters—forward Tyson Chandler, 21, guard Jamal Crawford, 23, and center Eddy Curry, 21—with solid complementary players who would assist in their development. And while Paxson won't say so explicitly, it's clear he thought the mercurial Rose didn't fit that description. In Chicago, Rose reportedly broke off called plays to get his own shot and was disruptive in the locker room (charges that he denies). Worse, from Paxson's point of view, he had become a negative influence on Crawford. Paxson was determined to move him, no matter the cost.
In doing so, however, he left the team low on firepower. Crawford and Curry have become the focal points of the Bulls' offense—which, for the first time in 14 seasons, is not the triangle—but neither one is consistent enough to carry the load nightly. Without Chandler (out indefinitely with a back injury) and Scottie Pippen (probably out for the season after left knee surgery), coach Scott Skiles has even resorted to calling isolation plays for Kendall Gill. Yes, that Kendall Gill, the 35-year-old swingman who's on his sixth team in 14 seasons. "Of course we miss their offense," Crawford says of Rose and Marshall. "But we have everything we need right here."
That's debatable. Since Paxson replaced Bill Cartwright with Skiles on Nov. 28, the team has played much better defense, notably in an 86-75 win over the Pacers last Saturday, and Skiles's more conventional offense has benefited Crawford, Curry and rookie point guard Kirk Hinrich in particular. Still, the Bulls were 2-4 under Skiles and 6-16 overall at week's end, the third-worst record in basketball. Because of cap constraints the team is not likely to change radically in the near future. "Maybe our young guys haven't come along as quickly as people would like," says Paxson, "but we're trying to build around them, and that takes time."
While Paxson's goal is a worthy one—to create a team of hardworking, character guys—he will reach it only if those guys are productive. Skiles sounds less than convincing when he says of his team, "We do have talent. Honestly. Really."