The Chicago Bulls didn’t have a player compete in Sunday’s All-Star game, but they still generated a lot of news during the break.
The Bulls look to put aside trade rumors and reports of their general manager stepping down Wednesday night with a strong effort against the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the teams they’re chasing for a playoff spot.
While Chicago (23-30) didn’t have lofty expectations this season, many believed they could be competitive after selecting Derrick Rose first overall in the draft. For most of the first half of the season, though, the Bulls struggled.
General manager John Paxson has been criticized for the team’s performance and on Friday, a published report said he would step down—something the team has denied. First-year coach Vinny Del Negro said he spoke to Paxson over the weekend and they joked about the rumors. Del Negro also said he expects Paxson to stay on the job for the rest of the season.
Power forward Tyrus Thomas, who is averaging 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in five games this month, has also been the focus of several trade rumors. With the deadline looming on Thursday, his name has been mentioned in potential deals with Phoenix and Toronto.
“You have to ask them,” he said as he pointed toward the team’s offices at the Bulls’ practice facility Tuesday. “I don’t control anything.”
Despite all the off-the-court issues, Chicago is within striking distance of a playoff berth. The Bulls are 10th in the Eastern Conference, 2 1/2 games back of the eighth-place Bucks (27-29).
Chicago lost to Miami 95-93 on Thursday, but still won five of eight games prior to the break.
“I think we are playing better. But we definitely got room to improve,” said Ben Gordon, who scored 34 and averaged 28.7 points - 8.3 points better than his team-leading average - in his final four games heading into All-Star weekend.
Rose, who won the Skills Challenge on Saturday, also went into the break playing some of his best basketball this season as he averaged 20.3 points on 56.0 percent shooting in his last six games.
In his pro debut on Oct. 28, Rose had 11 points to help the Bulls to a 108-95 win, spoiling Bucks coach Scott Skiles’ return to the United Center. On Dec. 3 in Milwaukee, Rose finished with 18 in a 97-90 loss.
He also had nine assists in each of those contests and leads all rookies with 6.3 per game.
The Bucks came out of the break Tuesday with an impressive 92-86 win at Detroit to pull within two games of the second-place Pistons in the Central Division.
Milwaukee has won three straight and improved to 5-4 since leading scorer Michael Redd’s season-ending left knee injury.
“We are looking at it like - why try and stay in the spot that you’re in? Why not try and move up in the playoffs? Why not try to get above .500?” said Richard Jefferson, who scored 29 points. “These are our goals that we’ve had all season just because of injuries and some inconsistency we haven’t been able to do it but those are still our final goals.”
Jefferson has been carrying the Bucks’ offense this month, averaging 25.8 points - 7.8 points above his season average - through five games. He’s also shot 71.4 percent (15-of-21) from 3-point range.
Milwaukee, which is opening a three-game homestand, has been tough to slow down at the Bradley Center lately. The Bucks are averaging 119.3 points on 51.9 percent shooting in their last four games there, winning three.