What should their definitive blueprint be as the summer approaches? Furthermore, what constitutes a "successful" offseason for the gritty Bulls?
A fundamental factor in this discussion is money, because the Bulls are lacking in financial flexibility. With the majority of their money going toward Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, they can't entertain any and every free-agent possibility.
Therefore, the Bulls' definitive blueprint for a winning offseason is nothing glamorous. But it can be without glamor and yet still be successful. In fact, the points listed below could make Chicago's already bright future even brighter.
Avoid Foolish Free-Agent Signings
As previously mentioned, the Bulls are strained in terms of money. However, this doesn't mean that they can't make a "bonehead" free-agent signing.
This could potentially happen if they give a prospective player way more than he deserves. Consider J.J. Redick or J.R. Smith. Both are free agents in 2013 and, depending on their asking price, they could draw interest from Chicago. If their asking price is something the Bulls could pull off, they'd give Chicago a newfound asset.
Here's the problem: Such signings will not get the Bulls any closer to a championship, and they will further inhibit their financial flexibility going forward.
The Bulls should stay away from such free agents, because while they may look enticing at first glance, they will limit Chicago's mobility in the future while also only making it marginally better.
This is especially imperative because the 2014 offseason features a plethora of quality free agents. The Bulls should save their money and hope for a true superstar or difference-maker down the road.
Therefore, one element of a winning offseason is avoiding impulsive signings that don't improve their outlook.
Minor Free-Agency Moves
While a bold free-agency signing would be senseless, a few minor moves are certainly necessary.
For one, the Bulls must decide if they want to re-sign players such as Marco Belinelli, Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed, all of whom have expiring contracts.
Hamilton is likely gone, because he has a team option for $5 million which the Bulls almost surely won't pick up. And, even if Hamilton is willing to re-sign for less, he's likely not a part of their future due to his age and continued bout with injuries.
Mohammed will likely depart as well, since his creaky legs are about on empty. The Bulls would be better suited to seek a more adept backup big man in the free-agent pool. Names such as Jermaine O'Neal or Samuel Dalembert could be ideal fits, and they would probably come at a reasonable price.
Robinson is yet another current contributor who'll likely bid farewell to the Windy City. With Rose back next season, Robinson is instantly expendable. Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague are already under contract for 2013-14, so the Bulls' depth is covered at the point guard spot. Plus, Robinson will almost certainly receive better offers from other teams who are offering him a solidified backup point guard role.
Belinelli presents an interesting scenario for Bulls management. He is currently playing for less than $2 million, but he'll likely look for a multi-year extension that pays closer to $3 to 4 million. He's worth bringing back at such a rate, but if a potential suitor throws $5 million a year at him, then Chicago should let him walk. They could then address this void by targeting an offensive-minded shooting guard in the draft.
The only other free-agency maneuver the Bulls should consider involves a proven wing defender, which is critical when matching up against the Miami Heat. Tony Allen, a free agent this summer and currently a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, would be a wondrous fit. Former Bulls Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans are other options Chicago could ponder, both of whom would come for very cheap.
These are the types of tweaks that are necessary come the summertime. Nothing fancy, but respectable moves that position the Bulls nicely.
The Bulls should take the best player available at one of two positions: center or shooting guard.
Centers such as Mason Plumlee, Kelly Olynyk and Jeff Withey could all enhance Chicago's second unit. They would help fill a void behind Joakim Noah, which has been a clear void all season since Omer Asik departed for the Houston Rockets. If the Bulls go this route, then they could neglect signing a veteran center (as previously mentioned).
A shooting guard with an offensive skill set also would be a logical pick. Gary Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Allen Crabbe are all players that should be on Chicago's watch list.
A successful offseason will feature nabbing the best of such players at one of these positions. Perhaps the Bulls will carry their trend of late first-round steals (Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic).
Trade Luol Deng
This last element comes as a surprise. Luol Deng has been the glue of the Bulls' success for numerous years now. He's a favorite of Tom Thibodeau. He's been an All-Star the past two seasons.
So, why on earth trade him? There are numerous reasons.
For one, Jimmy Butler's emergence has been on the fast track. This is quickly making Deng expendable.
They are very similar players—versatile defenders and active offensive slashers. Deng is arguably the better shooter at this point, but Butler's shooting is progressing at a rampant pace (shot 42 percent from three-point range in March, up from 28 percent in February).
What's eye-popping is their plus/minus. Butler carries a plus-70, while Deng notches a surprisingly low minus-23. This is a rather wide discrepancy, and it alerts us to the reality that Deng's production isn't as potent as what it may seem.
Plus, Deng is at a stage in his career where he isn't going to get much better. He's a quality piece to have, but his production has reached its ceiling.
The kicker in this conversation, though, is not about production. It's about money. Deng will enter into the final year of his contract next season. He will make over $14 million in 2013-14 and will then desire an extension. This is where the concerns are.
If Deng wants another long-term lucrative deal, the Bulls would have the money next summer (2014) to provide this. But, such a deal would likely take them out of the running for an elite superstar. They could only still pursue an superstar-caliber player (someone desiring a max contract) if Deng decided to accept a much lesser offer.
Perhaps he would consider signing a "bargain" deal with the Bulls, but it's also very likely that he'd inspect outside offers that are more alluring.
This dilemma signals the main reason why Chicago should trade Deng soon. They should trade him this summer, while he still has value, and then begin looking towards the 2014 offseason, when they can make a big splash in free agency without worrying about Deng's status.
It would simply be imprudent to hang onto Deng and then see him walk away for nothing in 2014. It would also be imprudent to re-sign him long-term and then miss out on snagging a potential stud who could become "Robin" to D-Rose's "Batman."
There is clearly much to consider here. Deng is beloved, but his time with the Bulls should be running short.
These strategies—avoiding foolish signings, making minor maneuvers, filling a void via the draft and trading Deng—comprise Chicago's blueprint to a winning 2013 offseason. If they handle these heavy decisions in a prudent manner, then the Bulls will be in position to contend for years.
Once Rose regains his usual form, the Bulls have the cornerstone to their franchise. If they can successfully navigate adding the necessary supporting characters around him, they'll likely reap the rewards in two or three years, when the Larry O'Brien trophy will very much be within reach.