Bulls look ahead after disappointing season

DEERFIELDûKirk Hinrich tore out of the parking lot, and Andres Nocioni waved as he drove away. While they made hasty exits, Ben Gordon made it clear he wouldn’t mind sticking with the Bulls. Sure, he turned down a five-year contract extension last fall.

Yes, he wants to be a starter. And, by the way, there’s a logjam in the backcourt. "I didn’t get any indication from Pax that I wasn’t in the plans," Gordon said after his exit interview with general manager John Paxson. "It’s still very early.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but the organization knows what I’m capable of. If they feel that I’m a piece that they need, they’ll make the necessary moves." The Bulls’ makeover began with interim coach Jim Boylan’s firing, one day after their disappointing season ended.

Several players could be following him out the door after going from 49 wins to 49 losses. Instead of contending in the Eastern Conference, they let individual agendas take hold and strangle their shot at a fourth straight playoff appearance. Coach Scott Skiles was fired in December, and the Bulls continued to unravel under Boylan, going 24-32.

The unselfishness and hard-nosed defense that defined them in recent seasons disappeared, as opponents shot 45.3 percent and averaged 100.4 points. A year ago, the Bulls were second in opponents field goal percentage after leading the league for two seasons. They lost their way on defense. And they lost their way, period.

"Given what we did last year and the belief that young players are going to take another step with that experience, we were one of the most disappointing teams in the league," Paxson said. Players lashed out at each other and the coaches as the losses mounted, and some skipped practices and shootarounds.

If there is a silver lining for the Bulls, here’s one. They didn’t fall as far as Miami, the team they swept in the playoffs last year for their first series win since the Michael Jordan era. The good feelings they brought to training camp dissolved right as the season began. The Kobe Bryant trade rumors shook the team, and Gordon and Deng made questionable decisions by turning down five-year extensions worth more than $50 million.

They’re restricted free agents, meaning the Bulls can match any offer they receive. "I feel like I’m in their plans, but in this league, you never know," Deng said. Viewed as an emerging star a year ago, Deng was bothered by back pain early on and missed 16 games midseason because of left Achilles’ tendinitis. He averaged 17 points and 6.3 rebounds.

Gordon led the team in scoring but his average dropped to 18.6 from 21.4 while coming off the bench most nights. The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year as a rookie in 2004-05, he has never really embraced that role and reiterated his desire to start.

______ Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.  

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