The Chicago Bulls will always remember this season for multiple what-if scenarios that surrounded an inspiring, yet ultimately fruitless campaign.
Chicago's adversity dates back to last season, when former MVP Derrick Rose suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the postseason. Rose's return date was widely speculated, over-analyzed and a constant question mark hanging over the franchise.
Of course, that actual day never came.
Still Tom Thibodeau's team powered through a multitude of body blows with its championship heart and resolve always finding a way to shine through.
When Rose was joined on the sideline by Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Luol Deng (illness), the undermanned Bulls looked completely gassed with a trio of double-digit losses to the Miami Heat engulfing the momentum that Chicago's Game 1 upset victory had built.
Game 5 appeared headed for another unsightly loss, as the Bulls were faced with a 22-4 deficit less than seven minutes into the game. But Thibodeau's team responded once again, scoring 49 of the final 74 points of the half.
But the overworked roster lost its legs late in the contest, and a 25-14 fourth-quarter advantage for Miami was more than Chicago could take.
Now the focus turns to next season, as the Bulls hope to rid themselves of the bitter taste from this year and return to the league's elite ranks.
Getting Rose back healthy and mentally comfortable is obviously key to this franchise's return to championship contention. If he can rediscover his MVP form, there's no reason for this team to stray far from the top of the preseason power rankings.
Barring an exercised amnesty clause (Carlos Boozer, perhaps) this Chicago core is set to return nearly all of its key contributors.
And that fact has already translated to lofty expectations for Thibodeau, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Daily News:
Thibodeau "If everyone comes back healthy, I think we'll have a chance to be very good." Says they're looking forward to the challenge ahead— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 16, 2013
But there are still some issues that will need to be addressed.
The lone addition of Rose won't solve Chicago's depth issues, meaning the cash-strapped Bulls will be forced to search for bargain buys in free agency.
The point guard position's in good hands, assuming a clean bill of health for Hinrich and Rose and a summer of seasoning for rookie Marquis Teague.
Everything else could be up in the air, with a reliable reserve big and consistent perimeter threat topping Chicago's wish list. Nate Robinson is slated to hit the free-agent market and could be joined by Richard Hamilton if the Bulls buy out his partially guaranteed deal for next season.
Chicago has the benefit of not needing to find starting-capable talent in the draft, which is important because its late-round position keeps the team out of the running for the cream of the crop.
The Bulls have some clear areas of need on the second unit and would be thrilled to add a pair of inexpensive rotation pieces if they could.
Defense is always a coveted commodity for a Thibodeau team, so the Bulls may opt to use their 20th selection on Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng if he's still available. NBADraft.net has him on the board through the 23rd pick, while DraftExpress.com ranks him as the 17th-best prospect in the class.
His mid-range jumper showed signs of improvement over the course of the season, but he left his biggest imprint as a shot-blocker and glass eater.
If Dieng's off the board, Chicago might consider Kansas' block artist Jeff Withey or Pittsburgh's athletic big man Steven Adams. If Thibodeau's looking to increase the tempo on his bench, North Texas sophomore Tony Mitchell may be an intriguing option to pair with Taj Gibson.
Second-round selections are always a gamble, but with the 49th pick the Bulls could do worse than Illinois shooting guard Brandon Paul. He's got some potential as a long-range threat and plays hard-nosed defense when he's engaged on that end of the floor.
Bulls fans preparing for the debut of stretch forward Nikola Mirotic (the 24th pick in 2011) reportedly will have to wait another year before the Real Madrid star heads stateside, according to via ESPNChicago.com.
Chicago's front office is in a tight spot when it comes to trade talks.
If a trade does take place, it could likely mean taking pennies on the dollar for one of its marketable assets.
That doesn't guarantee that this will be a trade-free offseason, though.
The Bulls were reportedly considering a Boozer-for-Andrea-Bargnani swap at the trade deadline, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. While nothing took place on that front, it is a conversation that could be readdressed over the summer.
On the floor, it's a potentially one-sided deal favoring the Toronto Raptors, particularly if the former top draft pick can't rediscover his shooting form. An elbow injury derailed the early part of his season, and he never looked comfortable after making his return (12.7 points per game, 39.9 field-goal percentage).
From a financial standpoint, though, it could be the path Chicago needs to get beneath the luxury-tax threshold. Boozer still has two years and $32.1 million left on his contract, while Bargnani is owed $22.2 million for the next two seasons and could opt out of his deal after next season.
Beyond these conversations, though, it's been relatively quiet on the trade front.
Luol Deng's name has been floated on the rumor mill before, but the Bulls may decide to let him play out the final year of his contract and hope for a discounted rate (or a potential upgrade) in the 2014 offseason.
Unrestricted Free Agents
The diminutive scoring guard was both brilliant and ghastly in the Bulls postseason run, more or less a microcosm of his roller-coaster eight-year career.
Robinson's ability to create shots for himself (13.1 points per game) and for his teammates (4.4 assists) was a needed addition to this year's Bulls. But once Rose returns to the fold, Chicago may have all of the offensive creativity it needs.
Here's what we know at this point: Robinson's set himself up for a massive raise from the $850,000 he collected this season. Of course, that may not bode well for his future with the franchise, via Johnson :
Richard Hamilton: "I haven’t talked to them about (my future). Who knows what direction they’re going in?" One likely without Rip and Nate.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 16, 2013
Marco Belinelli was added to the equation to help replace the perimeter shooting lost when Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson left the Windy City last summer, but he struggled to shoot with any consistency (39.5 percent from the field, 35.7 from three).
He still found ways to help this club. He gave Thibodeau another playmaker on the floor and poured in the sixth-most points on the team (9.6). He might be worth keeping around, particularly on a low-cost deal.
Nazr Mohammed has the size to fill the lane (6'10", 221 lbs) but brought next to nothing on the offensive end (2.6 points, 36.7 field-goal percentage). He's 35 years old and may have a hard time finding a job.
Vladimir Radmanovic appeared in only 25 games during the regular season, and his entire postseason performance consisted of 10 minutes of mop-up duty at the end of Chicago's 37-point drubbing in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
He's played for four different teams in the last four seasons and will likely need to find a fifth to prolong his 12-year career.
At one point in time, Daequan Cook was a premier perimeter shooter. A sharp enough marksman to take home the 2009 three-point contest championship in fact, via InsideHoops.com.
He's since been identified as a one-trick pony, and had trouble even making the most of that solo trait in limited action with Chicago (24.6 three-point percentage in 33 games with the club). The six-year pro has been traded four times and waived once in his career, so another change of address shouldn't faze him.
Potential Free Agent
Richard Hamilton's contract for 2013-14 is only partially guaranteed, and there's no indication that Chicago plans to hold on to the 14-year veteran.
He disappeared from Thibodeau's playoff rotation before suddenly being granted major minutes in the final two games of Chicago's campaign. The 26 points and five assists he tallied in those contests showed he may have something left in the tank, but he couldn't hide the fact that he's a defensive nightmare playing for a team that would never allow him on the floor under different circumstances.
As it currently stands, the Bulls are looking at an empty slot in their shooting guard rotation for next season.
Sure, Hinrich and Jimmy Butler could fill the void if none of the free-agent guards are retained. but neither player would be lining up at his natural position.
Enter O.J. Mayo, a knock-down shooter from the perimeter (40.7 three-point percentage this season) to space the floor for Rose's pick-and-roll plays with Joakim Noah. Throw in the fact that Mayo's a capable creator when the offense breaks down, and he's potentially an ideal addition for the roster.
His talent alone might push him out of Chicago's price range, but he was only able to secure a $4.2 million deal for last season.
And the market's looking a little murky for the former USC star. In his first 61 games he flashed superstar potential (17.4 points, 46.2 percent from the field, 42.4 percent from deep). But he fizzled down the stretch, managing only 9.3 points per game on 39.9 percent shooting (33.3 percent from long range) over his final 19 games, via to Basketball-Reference.com.
The Heat struck free-agent gold when they added the former Denver Nuggets energy man to their roster in late January.
He's since brought a jolt of adrenaline every time he's stepped foot on the hardwood (4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game) and flashed his athletic gifts on both ends (1.0 blocks per game).
Obviously, he's found an ideal landing spot in Miami, but that doesn't guarantee he won't listen to other sales pitches over the summer.
The Bulls would love to add a low-post scorer, but that's a tall task in today's NBA even with deep pockets.
So they'll settle for a frenetic, physical player who seems perfectly suited for Thibodeau's system and has the legs to sprint the floor with Rose.
In a season filled with a series of lowlights, Jimmy Butler's development was unquestionably the brightest highlight in Chicago hoops.
The sophomore forward made dramatic statistical improvements across the board, fine-tuning the skills he'd already displayed (suffocating defense, next-level athleticism) and adding new weapons to his arsenal (38.1 three-point percentage).
And when the stage grew bigger, so too did Butler's gaudy performances. He poured in 15.6 points per game in Chicago's series with Miami, and spent the majority of Game 5 holding his ground with the reigning MVP, LeBron James.
He has the versatility to defend either wing position, meaning he'll be ready to share the floor with Deng or whichever shooting guard the Bulls can lure in from the free-agent market.
What Will Derrick Rose Look Like When He Finally Returns?
It's already been mentioned here but certainly bears repeating: No player means more to this franchise than a healthy Derrick Rose.
That's why Thibodeau and his staff exercised tremendous patience through his rehab, understanding that a lone lost season was a far more desirable outcome than potentially derailing what could be an all-time great career. Via the team's official Twitter account:
Thibs on D-Rose: "He's in a good place mentally. If we were going to make a mistake, we wanted to make the mistake on the side of caution."— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 16, 2013
Rose understands this roster, knows the strengths and weaknesses of each one of his teammates. Those offensive struggles are a thing of the past if the Windy City's finest is back leading his team.
Chicago's cupboard was far from barren without him, racking up 45 regular-season wins in his absence. With Rose at the helm in the previous two seasons, though, Chicago paced the Eastern Conference with a blistering .757 winning percentage.
Whatever hard feelings were left over from the exhaustive will-he-or-won't-he debates this season will be forever forgotten the first time he explodes to the rim for a thunderous throwdown.
He sets the tone for this club on both ends of the floor and has the talent to turn a feel-good story into a championship tale.
The Bulls were dealt a series of knockout blows that would have crippled most teams in the league.
But the Bulls aren't like most teams in the league.
Chicago struggled to develop an offensive identity in Rose's absence, sputtering to the 24th spot on the league's offensive rating leaders. But the Bulls battled admirably to maintain relevance and then some, largely on the strength of their fifth-ranked defense.
Thibodeau will expect nothing less in terms of heart, effort and unwavering will even when the talent scales tip back in their favor.
A motivated, focused, full-strength Bulls team may well be the lone team capable of dethroning the NBA champs.
If Butler and Noah continue to add to their already impressive skill sets, Chicago's front office lands a few productive players over the offseason and Rose returns to MVP form, this power ranking may prove to be too low.