CHICAGO -- It would figure in a season full of missed chances and opportunities that on a night the Bulls' front office should be celebrating one of its biggest achievements, it also has to face the realities of one of its biggest errors in judgment.
Rookie Cristiano Felicio, who the Bulls found off the basketball radar in Brazil, had his best game as a pro in Saturday night's 105-102 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Felicio was 7-for-7 from the field, scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and dished out an assist in 23 minutes.
After admitting over the last week that he has thought about sticking with Felicio down the stretch in games in front of decorated veteran Pau Gasol, first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg finally rode Felicio down the stretch of this game and kept him in to close out the victory. It was the right move in a situation where Hoiberg has struggled to make the tough decision at times.
When asked after the game if any other NBA teams had interest in him before the Bulls signed him last summer, Felicio thought about the question for a moment and responded.
"I don't think so," he said, adding that if the Bulls hadn't shown interest, he wouldn't have continued playing for his team in Brazil.
The Bulls front office should be celebrated for finding Felicio. He could turn out to be a valuable rotation player in the future and is one of the only young players on this roster who has shown significant improvement throughout the season. But Felicio's rise only reinforces what a poor error in judgment Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson made in not dealing Gasol before the trade deadline.
Forman came out after the deadline and said that the Bulls felt Gasol was a "big piece" and "part of our core" moving forward. The front office believed that it wasn't getting enough value in return in any potential deal back for a player of Gasol's stature. The reason that line of thinking was -- and still is -- shortsighted isn't just because Gasol could walk at the end of the season after opting out of his contract, causing the Bulls to get nothing in return. He'll be 36 this summer and never should have been viewed as a building block for a team in desperate need of a rebuild.
The reason that decision looks even worse these days is because Felicio has developed into a better player than many expected early in his career. The 23-year-old has proved he's not afraid to mix it up defensively and shown some offensive touch around the rim. Dealing Gasol, even if it wasn't for a great return, would have opened up more minutes both for Felicio and rookie Bobby Portis to continue to grow and learn on the job. It would have made the Bulls a more athletic group, even if the Bulls would have been diminished in the short term without Gasol in the fold.
Aside from the poor value the Bulls front office thought it was getting back in any potential Gasol deal, another big reason the deal wasn't made is because of the front office's belief that the Bulls' consecutive seasons playoff streak -- which stands at seven -- is a big selling point to free agents, not to mention an extra moneymaker for the franchise.
The problem is, that prized playoff streak stands to end with one more Indiana Pacers win or Bulls loss over the next few days. Hoiberg acknowledged that the Bulls should "hope for a miracle" in regard to three straight Pacers defeats. While the Bulls wait to find out their playoff fate, Gasol, the 35-year-old whom the front office felt was too valuable to give up, sat at the end of the Bulls bench with a dejected look on his face.
"It's been a frustrating season, without question," he said after Saturday's game. "Pretty much the entire season has been difficult. That's why we find ourselves in this position. It's hard to swallow -- a team that is capable of beating the best teams in the league and is one loss or one win from Indiana away from being eliminated, so it's hard to swallow."
The Bulls have all talked about controlling what they can control down the stretch. They don't know why they couldn't play well when they needed to earlier in the season. If they had shown the type of energy and effort that they did against the Cavs, they wouldn't be in this type of situation to begin with.
But as the final notes of this forgettable season are written, one of the biggest flaws by this front office is in the decision not to dump Gasol for an asset or two when the Bulls had the chance. Felicio's performance only underscored that point again on Saturday night.