That thing you're smelling is the NBA's Eastern Conference emitting lethal amounts of awful.
Chicago accidentally has the East's fifth-best record and is one game behind the Atlanta Hawks and potential home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. I say "accidentally," because this wasn't by design. Everything the Bulls have tried to do this season has gone up in flames.
Coming in they figured to be contenders led by a healthy Derrick Rose and top-ranked defense. Look how that turned out. After he went down (again), in came proponents of tanking. The Bulls clearly weren't going to contend, why not blow it up? Because they're the Tom Thibodeau-led Bulls. They don't tank.
"It's just ... that's not a real fan to me," center Joakim Noah said of those who wanted the Bulls to tank, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "You know what I'm saying? You want your team to lose? What is that? But it's all good."
The thing to note here: Noah's comments came after the Bulls traded two-time All-Star Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for no immediate return outside of financial relief. They were tanking. Maybe.
Although the front office clearly has rebuilding on the brain, Thibs' crew can't shake their "we have more than enough to win" mentality. Chicago is 8-4 since losing Deng, poised to nab a sixth consecutive playoff berth.
First- or second-round exoduses would be perfectly fine for some teams. Take the extra games and bow out gracefully. But the Bulls aren't "some" teams. They've committed to retooling their roster for future success and a run-of-the-mill finish this season impedes their ultimate goal of reassembling a contender around Rose.
"There's no tanking," Noah said following Deng's departure, via USA Today's Sean Highkin. "There's none of that."
If the Bulls wish to rebuild their roster properly, there will be.
The Draft Incentive
More moves are the way in Chicago. They have to be.
The Bulls aren't winning a championship this season, and they're armed with first-round draft picks. Tanking increases the value of their own selection.
|Bulls' Potential 2014 First-Rounder Picks|
|Charlotte Bobcats||Top 10|
|Sacramento Kings (via Cleveland)||Top 12|
In all likelihood, Sacramento's pick will stay with the Kings, but there is a good chance Charlotte's first-rounder becomes Chicago's this year. No matter, though, Chicago's own pick is of more interest anyway.
With this year's draft class being touted as the deepest since 2003 when inevitable superstars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Darko Milicic Dwyane Wade made the NBA jump, the Bulls don't want to miss out on a golden opportunity.
Dumping some of their current assets should, in theory, make them worse; getting worse increases their chances of landing a superstar via the draft this summer; and landing another superstar is crucial to their rebuild.
There are no promises with Rose. Not anymore. Maybe he comes back, stays healthy and proves himself a dependable championship cornerstone. Or maybe he injures himself again and the Bulls see another season regress into pointlessness without him.
The latter scenario should have the Bulls hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. Bringing in a viable No. 2—someone who isn't Jimmy Butler or the fragile Noah—eases much of the apprehension surrounding Chicago's future.
That next sidekick could be available in this year's draft. And the Bulls could grab him. And this could all work out.
If, and only if, the Bulls start parting with more of their assets, that is.
Dismantling more of Chicago's roster isn't about the draft alone.
Acquiring another superstar, one who is in his prime and not just exiting college, happens via free agency or trade. It can happen for the Bulls in free agency as soon as this summer, provided they're willing to do what it takes—blow more of this up.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck and Reese Waters sat down to discuss Chicago's options ahead of the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Beck reiterates the need for Chicago to blow it up, citing Rose, Noah, Butler and Taj Gibson as the team's only untouchables:
We're going to take this one step further: Gibson shouldn't be untouchable. Not if the Bulls wish to become legitimate players in free agency.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says the Bulls are threats to whisk Carmelo Anthony away from the New York Knicks because of their ability to "create a maximum contract slot" for him. That ability is often associated with amnestying Carlos Boozer, who is owed $16.8 million in 2014-15 and has spent the better part of his contract linked to his inevitable departure.
But bidding farewell to Boozer isn't enough.
|Bulls' 2014-15 Salary Commitments|
|Mike Dunleavy Jr||$3,326,235|
|Tornike Shengelia||1,115,243 (team option)|
|Erik Murphy||$816,482 (non-guaranteed)|
|Total with all options||$64,601,984|
|Total without options||$62,670,259|
|Via ShamSports and Spotrac.|
The Bulls could have over $64.6 million committed to nine different players next season. That's not including Nikola Mirotic, the sweet-shooting forward who is expected to make his NBA debut next year. It's also not including the cap hold on whatever first-rounders they select and however many minimum cap holds ($507,336) must be accounted for to ensure their roster hits the 12-player benchmark.
Best-case scenario has the Bulls looking at $65 million in salary commitments, well below the projected $75.7 million luxury-tax line, but markedly higher than the regular salary cap, which was set at just under $59 million for this past season. And that's best-case scenario. Chicago could owe more in player salary.
Let's roll with $65 million, just for argument's sake. Removing Boozer's $16.8 million salary leaves the Bulls with $48.2 million on their ledger. While that's below the cap, it's not enough to offer a max contract. More pacts must be dumped.
CBS Sports' Ken Berger named Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich as two players potentially on their way out, but they're still not enough. Hinrich comes off Chicago's books anyway this summer, and subtracting Dunleavy's $3.3 million—assuming the Bulls can net an expiring contract for him—leaves the team with $44.9 million in salary, short of max-contract space.
If Chicago actually wishes to pursue Anthony, it needs to create that space. Anthony would already be leaving more than $33 million on the table upon spurning New York, and it's unlikely he would accept even less than that to play alongside an injury-prone superstar like Rose.
Finding a taker—with an expiring deal—for Gibson and his $8 million salary puts the Bulls right there, with under $37 million on the books, giving them more than enough room to pry Anthony out of New York. Not even Anthony, necessarily, but maybe someone else.
LeBron James can become a free agent this summer, and while he's a categorical long shot, it doesn't hurt to have that flexibility—the kind that allows the Bulls to afford stars they desperately need.
Drastic Change On the Way?
Opening up a max-contract slot may not be the plan. Using draft picks to (hopefully) select future stars may not be the plan. Dangling said picks in a trade may not be the plan, either.
One of those scenarios is, and though they're all different, they all have one thing in common: the need for more trades.
Deng was just the beginning. His departure was a launching point. A sign.
A symbol that wasn't strong enough.
The Bulls are rebuilding, looking for more players to polish their jagged core. Playing for a mid-level playoff spot now won't get them the player they need. Amnestying Boozer won't get them the player they need.
Cleaning house, be it free-agency or draft-day driven, or both, will put them in position to get the player(s) they need and on the verge of emending a roster and vision that isn't yet finished.