No plan or strategy can rightfully answer the problem that now faces the Chicago Bulls.
It's the type of problem that requires franchise-altering decision-making and maneuvering.
Now that Derrick Rose is out for the season, again, the Bulls have to evaluate their current roster for the 2013-14 season. But more importantly, they have to measure the risk and reward of competing without an irreplaceable player and what affect it could have on the team going forward.
The Bulls need to decide whether their current ceiling is high enough to justify missing out on opportunities for the future.
Chicago Bulls, last 3 seasons (via @ESPNStatsInfo) • With Derrick Rose: 37-13 (.740 win pct.) • Without Rose: 64-46 (.582 win pct.)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 25, 2013
If they think they can make a deep postseason run, now and later, then they should keep this core intact.
But assuming the Bulls are self-aware enough to accept that they're not title contenders without Rose, the next option is turning the steering wheel about 180 degrees.
Even without some of its core pieces, this team is simply too tough and experienced to tank. But the right moves could make for a more promising bounce-back transition.
The Ideal Play
Whether you believe in this team or not, it's unwise to bet on a miracle and miss on a chance to improve the future. And a miracle is what it would likely take for the Bulls without Rose to make a run through the season and playoffs.
The Bulls have to think future here, and they've already made it clear that Luol Deng isn't a part of it.
Deng will be a free agent following the season. He'll be a free agent because Chicago chose to pass on offering him an extension. Odds are the Bulls wanted Deng and a healthy Rose together for one last final run. But now that Rose is no longer in play, Deng's value to the Bulls has diminished.
This is why the Bulls will be praying his value hasn't diminished across the league.
Since he's not in Chicago's future plans and can't currently lead it to a title, the Bulls will want to trade Deng before they lose him in free agency.
The ideal play here would be to try and land a respectable first-round pick. This upcoming NBA draft is projected to offer one of the deepest pools of talent in recent memory. And by trading Deng for a first-rounder, the Bulls would likely lower their win total for the season, improve their own draft position and get another team's pick on top.
Then again, trading Deng soon might help get them a better draft pick. Bulls will get Charlotte's pick next yr if it's not in top 10.— Mike McGraw (@McGrawDHBulls) November 25, 2013
However, dealing Deng isn't as easy as it sounds. Most teams interested in trading for him would likely want assurance he'd re-sign. No team would offer much of a deal if there was a possibility Deng would leave as a free agent in the summer.
And if they just wanted to rent him for the rest of the season, chances are they're not going to offer first-round value.
Still, renting Deng for a year isn't as crazy as it sounds. Even if he does leave after the season, his expiring contract comes off the books, leaving that team with some extra cap flexibility moving forward.
It's going to be tough to find a willing partner, but for the Bulls, whose present upside has suddenly been capped, trading Deng for a 2014 first-round pick seems like the ideal move to make.
If the Bulls can't find a way to trade for a first-round pick, then they should target the next best thing—former first-round picks with untapped talent.
This is a move the Orlando Magic pulled off at the deadline last February, when they dealt impending free agent J.J. Redick and got back Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb. These aren't guys capable of increasing your current win total; rather, they're cheap building blocks with worthwhile potential.
The Milwaukee Bucks wanted Redick for a second-half run and were willing to risk two unproven players in order to do so.
For the Bulls, trading Deng would also likely have to be a deadline move, when teams have a better understanding of their identities. By February, a team like the Washington Wizards might feel they're one player away from being strong playoff contenders. In that case, a Luol Deng for Otto Porter-Trevor Ariza package could make sense.
The Bulls might also want to contact a team like the Phoenix Suns and target a flurry of mid-level prospects like Alex Len, Markieff Morris, Archie Goodwin and Miles Plumlee.
Plan B should revolve around swapping Deng for inexpensive prospects with upside and room to go grow.
What should the Bulls do?
Operation: Leave it be
The Bulls could just play out the year, keep Deng and fight for a spot in the playoffs. Chances are they'd get there given the mediocrity of the East.
A core of Deng, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah is probably good enough to grab a top-six seed.
But is competing for a title at half-strength worth passing on the chance to build for the future? There realistically isn't any way to justify the idea that the Bulls could beat the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in a best-of-seven series without Rose, something they'd have to do just to reach the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.
Even without Rose and Deng, this is still a competitive, well-coached group. Their bad is better than most teams' good in the East.
But they do have to know when to cut their losses and start thinking ahead. And that time is now. The Bulls aren't making any real noise in 2013-14, and with Deng likely gone in free agency and a cloud of uncertainty now hovering over Rose, major moves need to be made.