You could forgive those Chicago Bulls fans who've taken up residence in a fantasy land filled with "What If's" within the last few years. Between Derrick Rose's on-going battle with his own knees, Luol Deng's pre-trade deadline departure and the constant reshuffling of a once-proud "Bench Mob"—the latter two of which were cost-cutting measures more than anything—the Bulls have seen their hopes for a Larry O'Brien Trophy delivered by a hand other than Michael Jordan's dashed by circumstances of cosmic calamity.
You could certainly understand, then, the explosion of excitement from those same forlorn fans—who may or may not still be stuck in time—when word first surfaced from ESPN's Chris Broussard that Joakim Noah pitched Carmelo Anthony on coming to the Windy City during a conversation between the two at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
Even if Noah has since lampooned the reaction to Broussard's story by comparing it to high school gossip.
The thought of Anthony donning red-and-black duds in time for the 2014-15 NBA season is a tantalizing one for the Bulls, to say the least. They've searched high and low for a scoring specialist to pair with Rose ever since Ben Gordon skipped town to soak up the Detroit Pistons' cap space in 2009. And with Deng now long gone, the Bulls will head into the offseason with a hole at small forward worth filling.
Making that space big enough to fit a superstar of 'Melo's stature, though, would all but require that Chicago part ways with Carlos Boozer via the one-time amnesty provision in the collective bargaining agreement. Unfortunately for Bulls fantasts everywhere, Boozer's contract may not be nixed in time to pursue Anthony, "thanks" to the very same forces that have had Chicago operating more like a mom-and-pop shop than the metropolitan powerhouse that the team actually is.
Namely, notoriously thrifty owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Back in February, TNT's Craig Sager relayed during a Nets-Bulls broadcast that Boozer told him the team wouldn't "buy out the final year of his contract this summer unless they can land a superstar which is too good to pass up" (via Basketball Insiders' Joel Brigham).
Anthony may be just the sort of superstar to convince Reinsdorf to loosen his purse strings. The seven-time All-Star and six-time All-NBA performer is in the midst of arguably the finest statistical season of his decorated career. He's scoring 28.1 points per game—second only to Kevin Durant—while registering personal bests in three-point percentage (.420) and rebounds (8.4).
This, despite (or because of?) the fact that Anthony's New York Knicks have been racked with injuries and ineptitude all year.
In any case, Anthony is just the sort of scorer the Bulls could use to draw attention away from a healthy Rose and lift the team back into title contention in the Eastern Conference. Anthony's age (he turns 30 in May) comes as something of a deterrent, though given Chicago's win-now position, that probably wouldn't be enough to scare this team off.
The bigger obstacle, it seems, is Boozer's contract. The Bulls can wipe the final year of his deal off their cap sheet if they so choose, but they'll still have to pay him the $16.8 million he's owed without reaping any of his on-court benefits in return.
And yes, there are still some benefits to having Boozer around. His 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds, his ability to hit mid-range jumpers in the pick-and-pop and his underrated vision as a passer in the paint all come in handy from time to time for a club that ranks 27th in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
Of course, those contributions are hardly commensurate with Boozer's $15.3 million salary for this season, even less so when considering Taj Gibson's long-awaited growth into a viable replacement. Gibson's scoring nearly as much as Boozer (13.4 points) while taking fewer shots (11.1 to Boozer's 13.4) and playing nearly as many minutes a night (about 29). It's not at all surprising, then, that head coach Tom Thibodeau has taken to playing Gibson at power forward in crunch time and leaving Boozer on the bench of late.
In truth, the Bulls have reasons beyond budget not to budge on their reported stance against dumping Boozer.
For one, the pursuit of Anthony, should he opt for free agency this summer, would require far more on Chicago's part than just parting ways with one of their bigs. With Boozer off the books, the Bulls would still be on the hook for about $47 million in guaranteed salary for 2014-15.
Unless Anthony is willing to come to Chicago for a starting salary in the $13-14 million range, the Bulls would have to shuffle around some of their other assets to make it work. As Bulls.com's Sam Smith told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe, Chicago would likely have to renounce its rights to Rose's backups (i.e. Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin), leave European sensation Nikola Mirotic overseas, sell off the two first-round picks they'll probably have in this year's draft and part ways with Mike Dunleavy and/or Gibson.
Just because those Comanecian cap gymnastics probably put Anthony out of reach for now doesn't mean the Bulls couldn't find other ways to better themselves without Boozer's checks strangling their sheet. Between Gibson and Mirotic, Chicago should have more than enough reinforcements at power forward to get by without Boozer and his yelling.
Eating Boozer's salary could free up enough cap space for the Bulls to retain some of their own free agents and/or fill other holes in the roster. They could throw some dough at a wing, like Lance Stephenson or Gordon Hayward, with the ball-handling ability to ease the pressure on a recovering Rose and the youth to fit into Chicago's long-term plans. They could go for a more modestly priced, veteran option like Trevor Ariza, or break the bank on Rudy Gay if he opts out of the last year of his contract with the Sacramento Kings.
The point is, eliminating Boozer from the equation could open up a world of options for Bulls GM Gar Forman. He could use that cap space to attract free agents or absorb salary in a blockbuster trade for another star, using Chicago's picks as bait.
But Jerry Reinsdorf's desire to minimize costs and maximize profits at the expense of ultimate success could undercut Forman's ability to do any of that. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski put it best this past January, after Anthony's 62-point explosion against the Charlotte Bobcats:
No one can be sure of Rose's return to his MVP greatness, but everyone can be sure of one thing: The franchise's mandate isn't winning championships, but sidestepping luxury and repeater taxes to turn the fattest possible profits for the owner.
As the Bulls have let talented player upon talented player leave because of money – Omer Asik and Kyle Korver and Deng – they've shown themselves to be a big market franchise with small-market sensibilities.
It's one thing for the Bulls to hang onto Boozer as a means of preserving cap space for 2015, when the free agent pool could reach depths on part with the infamous summer of 2010. It's another, entirely, for Chicago to keep Carlos around simply to save money.
They can certainly afford to spend; according to Forbes, the Bulls are worth $1 billion and brought in $52 million of profit last year.
At this point, sad Bulls fans everywhere can only hope Reinsdorf reinvests some of that scratch in the team—and allows Forman to free up some spending leeway by bidding farewell to Boozer.
I've got your back, Chitown!