The Chicago Bulls have had an interesting offseason.
Since Derrick Rose fell to a torn ACL, the Bulls' front office has demolished its bench mob and completely replaced it with an entirely new ensemble.
Out went Omer Asik, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. In came Nazr Mohammed, Nate Robinson, Vladimir Radmanovic, Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli.
What does all this mean for Chicago's future as a franchise?
Well, unfortunately for fans, it's a long-term plan.
With Rose likely out until March, the Bulls' management team has effectively accepted that the 2012-13 season is going to be a failure as Chicago struggles to compete at the elite level without its superstar player for 80 percent of the season.
Alongside this, owner Jerry Reinsdorf has never paid the luxury tax as owner of the Bulls and has said he will only do so to turn a winning team into a championship team. Chicago will not be a championship team and had they kept the old bench mob together, they would have been paying the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history.
Mohammed, Radmanovic, Belinelli, Hinrich and Robinson all signed short-term deals. These enabled the Bulls to get cheaper players to keep the team ticking within the luxury tax and maintain financial flexibility going forward.
Backup power forward Taj Gibson becomes a free agent at the end of the season and Chicago will be expected to pay out to keep the superb defender in town for years to come.
Rose will then be back for the 2013-14 season and should be approaching full fitness. The Bulls, however, look to be targeting the 2014-15 season as their return to competitiveness as these short-term contracts expire and Luol Deng's hefty contract also runs out, freeing up a lot of cap space.
Simultaneously, Chicago is presumably going to amnesty Carlos Boozer, clearing another $16 million off the books and giving the Bulls roughly enough cap space at $48 million to offer a max-salary contract to one of that summer's free agents.
That seems to be the plan, though the 2014 free agency class projects to be full of aging stars and average talent. Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Pau Gasol are all scheduled to become available, though they will be close to retirement.
Perhaps the real plan in Chicago is to go through a third season of mediocrity in order to reach the 2015 free agency class, which will contain at least one franchise-changing star, Minnesota Timberwolves big man Kevin Love.
Love would be a massive addition in Chicago. Rose will be 25 and Noah 29, still with many productive years ahead. Love will also be young, and a Rose-Love-Noah trio would figure to lead the Eastern Conference alongside the Miami Heat, should they also stick together.
Love could be a realistic target for Chicago, as he had voiced his displeasure with the Timberwolves' inability to make the playoffs, though that was before this summer, when they made a series of moves with the aim of securing one of the lower seeds of the Western Conference.
The immediate future
The Bulls are still capable of making the playoffs in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
How many teams could really be better than Chicago in the East?
Sure, the Miami Heat will lead the conference and possibly the league in wins. The Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Chicago-esque Indiana Pacers and new boys Brooklyn Nets are all candidates. After that, who can outperform the Bulls over an 82-game season?
The Orlando Magic? A team with a new head coach and general manager and a superstar who wants out now and will want to stay in five minutes' time?
The Philadelphia 76ers? A team who looks to start Kwame Brown at center?
Chicago can aim to make the lower end of the playoffs next season. What will be important is avoiding the top one-vs.-eight and two-vs.-seven brackets, as those will contain the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. The sixth seed is the target for Chicago; that way the Bulls can avoid the Heat in the Conference Semifinals, and by then, with Rose back and with a few weeks under his belt, anything can happen.
Breaking down the 2012-13 lineup
Starting Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah ahead of Taj Gibson and the names above is still a formidable lineup that returns four of five starters and its most important backup.
Nazr Mohammed is not a great player and certainly no match for Omer Asik, but with Tom Thibodeau's lauded defensive prowess, Mohammed can at least become a competent defender in a system that relies more on team chemistry, rotations, switches and help defense than pure one-on-one battles.
Kirk Hinrich had a poor season last year with the Atlanta Hawks, though he was battling injury and has played with some of these Bulls before. He spent seven seasons in Chicago and, despite bouncing to Atlanta via Washington in 2010, maintained his offseason home in Chicago close by the Bulls' Berto training center.
Marco Belinelli has scoring ability, but he is an average defender. Again, Thibodeau's scheme will come in handy because it can hide poorer defenders like Carlos Boozer.
Vlad Radmanovic is the new elder statesman on the Bulls' roster, and Nate Robinson will mostly heat the bench while providing occasional spark-plug performances.
Losing Asik to the Houston Rockets was a big blow and a tough pill for Bulls fans to swallow, but the team still boasts Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, two of the best big defenders in the league today. No center can defend out to the perimeter like Noah does, making him a terrific defensive asset. Not to mention it is a rare ability (for a big guy) to be able to be the primary ball-handler on a fast break.
Ever see Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum take the ball coast-to-coast?
Didn't think so.
The future is bright for Chicago, though it appears to be an ever-distant future that is being sold by the front office. Their moves this offseason can be argued either as genius cost-cutting for a lost season or financial frugality by an owner who steadfastly refuses to go into the luxury tax for one of the most profitable teams in the NBA.
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