CHICAGO - Sure, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry haven't performed as the Bulls had hoped and expected. One coaching change later, the question remains whether Chicago can reach its stated goal of the playoffs this season.
But there's another key issue in the belated development of the Nos.2 and 4 overall picks in the 2001 draft. After this season, Curry and Chandler become eligible for extensions for the first time. Because the two once were thought of as maximum-contract players, the Bulls have been adjusting their future payroll to accommodate their expected annual salaries of $10-million-plus.
But with their indifferent play and Chandler's injuries, the Bulls are unlikely to offer either an extension. The belief is both will become restricted free agents after next season, when Chicago could match any offer for either.
Curry is averaging 14.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. Chandler, with back problems, averages 13 points and 10.3 rebounds.
But there's hope for the Bulls.
"Usually they mature a little slower than guards," said Mavericks coach Don Nelson when asked about Chandler and Curry. "The bigger guys take the second year, the third year and maybe some of them even the fourth year and then round into shape. Most coaches get fired in between.
"You get together in the draft with your GM and the GM says, "Hey, let's draft these two high school kids and they'll grow into our team in four years.' And you know darn well you'll never see the fourth year."
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Is it too early to compare the Lakers and Magic to the best and worst teams in history? Perhaps, but let's do it anyway. The Lakers began the weekend 16-3. The 1995-96 Bulls, who finished 72-10, were 17-2 after their first 19 games and 23-2 at Christmas. Friday's loss to the Spurs extended Orlando's skid to a franchise-record 18 in a row. The 1972-73 76ers, who finished 9-73, started 1-17. With the season beginning in early October back then, the Sixers were 3-33 by Christmas.
KNICKS CLIQUES: Former Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell struck a nerve with his former team when he claimed the Knicks had "little cliques" that resulted in a lack of togetherness. Sprewell specifically mentioned "Christian guys," which would seem to refer to Charlie Ward and Allan Houston, both devout Christians.
"Cliques? That's every team," Ward said. "It's just a matter of playing together on the court and not what you do in your spare time."
LUXURY TAX: Seven teams paid almost $100-million in "taxes," which was distributed to teams that didn't exceed the luxury-tax threshold of $52.8-million last season. The result is that several of those tax-paying teams, some of which didn't make the playoffs, are trying to cut salaries after seeing their taxes distributed to competitors. The biggest loser was the Trail Blazers, who paid $45.226-million, more than double any other team. As salaries are reduced, the likelihood of a luxury tax decreases, meaning salaries throughout the league are likely to drag. As a result, young players will find it difficult to justify the big maximum contracts.
AROUND THE RIM: The Lakers' Karl Malone finds Los Angeles traffic a tad different than in Salt Lake City. He tries not to drive alone, traveling with an assistant primarily so he can use the car-pool lane. ... The Knicks' Antonio McDyess always has been an emotional player, but nothing compared with Monday, when he played his first game in 20 months after being sidelined because of a knee injury. During the national anthem, McDyess got so choked up he left the court. ... Houston's Yao Ming, quietly sitting in a nearly empty locker room recently, offered this to reporters: "Thanksgiving just passed, so you should probably know what I'm thankful for. LeBron James."
- Information from the Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, Miami Herald and Rocky Mountain News.