It's too early to predict that Derrick Rose will return for the Chicago Bulls during the 2013-14 season (I mean, what if he's only at 107 percent health?), but there are plenty of other subjects that are ripe for prognostication.
There will almost certainly be some serious roster turnover in the Windy City, as virtually all of the team's postseason backcourt rotation is primed to hit the free-agent market. Plus, the Bulls are going to have to sort out their financial situation—possibly via a big trade or the use of the amnesty provision.
Beyond that, there are some players, like Jimmy Butler, who look ready to go all "next level" on us.
After one of the gutsiest seasons in recent memory, the Bulls will be looking to recover, rebuild and recharge. Some of the faces will undoubtedly change, but the indomitable heart of the team will remain intact.
Which is really all that matters.
Look out! It's the luxury tax and it's headed right for us!
I hate to toss out the biggest, most franchise-altering prediction right off the bat, but it's necessary. Everything else the Bulls do as they head into the 2013-14 season depends on their ability to clear up their bloated payroll.
The Bulls paid the luxury tax this season, a remarkable feat for the team's notoriously frugal ownership. With a projected payroll of around $73 million next season, they're in line to do it again. But here's the problem: That $73 million is owed to just eight players.
No matter how short Tom Thibodeau's rotations tend to be, seven more warm bodies are going to be necessary to fill out the roster. And the money to pay those guys—even if they're all on minimum salaries —is going to have to come from somewhere.
Which brings us back to the prediction that something big is going to have to happen in order for the Bulls to gain some financial breathing room.
Maybe Carlos Boozer will finally be amnestied, which would erase more than $15 million from the books next year and another $16 million the year after that. Or perhaps one of Chicago's other highly paid veterans could be the subject of a trade.
Look, the Bulls' current payroll situation in untenable. They can't address their needs—perimeter shooting and a backup center, to name two—without shedding at least one big contract. It's hard to predict how that'll happen, but there's really no other way for the team to improve the roster and avoid a second luxury-tax hit.
We'll take the three guys who comprised Chicago's postseason guard rotation one at a time, but barring the kind of massive move discussed in the last slide, Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson are all going to be playing on different teams next season.
Hamilton has a team option for next year that the Bulls would be crazy to pick up. Despite a nice cameo in Chicago's Game 5 loss, the 35-year-old guard was nothing short of a massive disappointment this past season. He averaged just 9.8 points per game on 43 percent shooting. Plus his diminished lateral quickness made him a big liability on D, which doesn't really fly in Thibodeau's system.
Hours after the Bulls were eliminated, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported that the Bulls would buy out the final year of Hamilton's contract for $1 million, saving $5 million off of their cap figure next year.
Robinson made himself a whole bunch of money this postseason by proving he was capable of scoring in bunches and even carrying a team. He's still wildly inconsistent and something of a defensive liability, but his 23-point fourth quarter in Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets probably priced him right out of a return to the Bulls.
He'll be in line for a multi-year deal on the free-agent market that the Bulls simply won't be able to match.
Belinelli has bounced around nearly as much as Robinson over the past couple of seasons, and now that he's also a free agent, he'll be shipping out of Chicago as well.
With season averages of just 9.6 points and two assists, the former first-round draft pick isn't going to command a huge salary as an unrestricted free agent, but the fact that he'll get more than the league minimum basically means Chicago can't afford him.
Obviously, the return of the Bulls' offensive prowess depends on the health of Derrick Rose. But doesn't everything?
It's so easy to forget that Chicago averaged 107.4 points per 100 possessions during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, a figure that would have ranked just ahead of the Golden State Warriors' offensive rating this season.
That's a top-10 offense, folks.
And even though the Bulls can't spend big in free agency without clearing up some space by moving (or amnestying) Boozer, there are plenty of minimum-salary shooters out there to fill in minutes in place of guys like Belinelli, Robinson and even Daequan Cook.
Paired with a defense that should retain stalwart stoppers Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, that sort of offensive production is going to make the Bulls a far more dangerous—and more importantly, balanced—team.
A few things make this prediction likely to come true.
First, Chicago figures to get better, regardless of whether it decides to suffer another season of the luxury tax or makes big moves to acquire some better role players. In any scenario, a healthy combination of Rose, Noah, Deng and Butler is a fantastic core.
Whether they retain Boozer or swap him out for replacements, the return of Rose instantly improves the Bulls. And remember, this team finished the 2011-12 season with the best record in the East.
The other factor here is that the Heat are likely to be coming off of a second consecutive title, which means they'll be in full-on "coast" mode for the vast majority of the regular season. With nothing to prove and the looming free agency of LeBron James as a distraction, perhaps Miami will relax enough to slip behind the Bulls in the standings.
(Note: Please don't remind me of this prediction when the Heat win 75 games next year).
Jimmy Butler actually made something of a leap this past season, but be prepared for him to take another humongous stride forward next year.
The signs of his in-season improvement were undeniable: He raised his scoring average in each of the last three months of the season while also lifting his field-goal percentage. In April, he averaged 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 48 percent shooting.
Oh, and he also hit 56 percent of his threes in that same span.
Plus, Butler proved that increased minutes didn't hinder his productivity, as his terrific April came with a per-game average of over 42 minutes.
At just 23 years old, Butler has a ton of room to grow. He's also got the kind of shutdown defensive skills and tireless work ethic that Thibodeau favors. So it seems inevitable that he'll nail down the starting job at shooting guard for the entirety of the 2013-14 season.
If that happens, expect him to turn into one of the league's very best two-way wings.
More than any single factor besides Rose's return, the likelihood that Butler will raise his game provides Bulls fans with the biggest reason for optimism.
Throughout a playoff run that was riddled with injury, illness and a few lapses in composure that may have been caused by some unfavorable whistles, Thibodeau stuck to one of his favorite phrases: "We've got enough to get the job done."
That sentiment is a perfect encapsulation of the coach's no-excuses brand of leadership.
Rose is out? "We've got enough to win."
Noah can hardly walk? "We've got enough to win."
Deng was the subject of a medical experiment gone awry? "We've got enough to..."
You get the idea.
Whatever happens with the Bulls' roster, Thibodeau will believe in his heart that his team is good enough to get the job done. And as we saw during an improbable playoff run, that belief can count for an awful lot.