The Chicago Bulls steer into the 2014 offseason short on fuel but high on hope.
A season-ending 75-69 loss to the Washington Wizards Tuesday night carries an immediate sense of disappointment, but this group proved once again that it responds to adversity as well as any team in the NBA, via The Associated Press:
For the Bulls, a season that unfolded in ways they never envisioned is finally over. They expected to challenge Miami for supremacy in the Eastern Conference with Derrick Rose back after sitting out last season, only to lose their star to another season-ending knee injury. As if that wasn't enough, they traded away one of their top remaining players in Luol Deng yet somehow squeezed out 48 victories. No team in the East won more games after New Year's Eve, either.
Derrick Rose's torn meniscus in November pushed this group's back against the ropes. A punchless offense left Tom Thibodeau's team wobbling, and a success-starved Wizards group landed enough targeted blows to suck the air out of the Windy City.
The sting of that loss will linger inside the locker room for a little while, but it was nothing more than a necessary evil. Chicago's offensive limitations (D.J. Augustin led the team in scoring during the regular season) were too great to overcome and now stand as the primary focus of a pivotal summer for finding both health and help.
Significant Roster Addition(s)
This team is built to win with defense, but the offense simply wasn't producing at a workable rate. Chicago's lone win this postseason required each of forward Mike Dunleavy's playoff career-high 35 points, highlighting the blind dart-tossing tactics this team relied on for its point production.
"He'd never had a night like this in his natural-born life," ESPN Chicago's Michael Wilbon wrote. "You go to Las Vegas on Dunleavy getting 35 in a road playoff game. His playoff career high was 17."
The Bulls need major help at that end of the floor, and even getting a (fingers-crossed) healthy former MVP back can only do so much. Chicago needs to set its sights outside the organization, with two primary targets at its focal point.
First and foremost, the Bulls have toss their hat (and wallet, keys, jewelry—whatever it takes) to get a ticket in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes:
Anthony is as complete a scorer as you'll find outside the top two rungs of the MVP ladder (Kevin Durant, LeBron James). He's a quantity and quality contributor, having just wrapped a year that saw him pour in 27.4 points on .452/.402/.848 shooting and finish with a player efficiency rating above 24 (24.4) for the second consecutive season.
Melo, who plans to opt out of the final year of his contract, has reportedly been on Chicago's radar for some time. Bulls center Joakim Noah, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, started his recruitment of Anthony at All-Star weekend.
Sacrifices would need to be made on both sides for this relationship to start.
The Bulls would have to amnesty Carlos Boozer (or ship him out, if anyone's willing to trade) and swing a few more cap-friendly deals to get in the neighborhood of Anthony's likely salary desire. The 2012-13 scoring champ would also have to settle for something far less than the New York Knicks can offer (five years, nearly $130 million), but he has indicated a willingness to take a pay cut for a shot at title contention.
"As far as the money goes, it’s not my concern," Anthony said in February, via Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. "My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career."
Anthony fought hard to get to the Big Apple, and walking away now wouldn't be easy. Still, the 29-year-old can hear his clock ticking and may want an inside track to the podium the Knicks simply can't offer.
The Bulls and Houston Rockets are both potential landing spots, sources told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "He'll give New York every option," one source said. "But he has options – and he's going to explore them all."
Going all-in on Anthony doesn't come without some risks, of course, as the Daily Herald's Mike McGraw explained:
Signing Anthony also would mean trading Taj Gibson to open enough cap space, using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer and most likely trading the rights to Nikola Mirotic. In this scenario, the Bulls' roster would include Rose, Anthony, Noah, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell and whatever players they can snag at a low price.
It's possible this could be a championship lineup. The problem with committing so much money to three players is if it doesn't work, the team is handcuffed. High salaries are tough to unload, which makes moving on to Plan B a difficult chore.
If the Bulls aren't ready for that type of gamble, then they'll focus their summer energy on importing 2011 draft pick and Spanish ACB League MVP Nikola Mirotic. The 6'10" forward can score from anywhere on the floor.
Chicago has waited three years to collect on its first-round investment, but by all accounts he's worth the wait:
No longer bound by the rookie-scale contracts, Mirotic could be after a sizable chunk of the salary space left behind by Boozer's potential amnesty. That, along with an expensive buyout from Real Madrid, makes his Chicago arrival far from a certainty.
"It's still too early," Bulls executive vice president John Paxson said in February, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "We still have things we have to do. He still has a significant buyout with Real Madrid. So there's still some things we have to [get through]."
Chicago could pursue a second-tier scorer (Lance Stephenson, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza or perhaps even former Bull Luol Deng), but none would move the needle more than Anthony. Mirotic could be a difference-making talent without a difference-making price tag.
Bulking Up the Backcourt
Barring a Boozer amnesty, the Bulls have seven players under contract for next season. They might kick the tires on a couple of their guys with expiring contracts (Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin), but the need for an offensive face-lift might leave them bringing back only the players with current financial commitments.
|Chicago's Financial Books for 2014-15|
Note: Richard Hamilton was waived with the stretch provision in June 2013, so he's no longer on the team but will be on the books through 2015-16.
Boozer's amnesty may not be a forgone conclusion, as ESPN's Marc Stein explained:
You continue to hear rumbles that Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is adamantly against the idea of setting Boozer free via amnesty, even though the 32-year-old is finally poised to enter the final year of his contract, valued in 2014-15 at $16.8 million.
Sources briefed on Chicago's thinking say the Bulls are going to do everything they can to try to find a trading partner for Boozer before seriously considering the amnesty option.
Chicago, like always, desperately needs to add depth.
Thibodeau's notoriously tight rotations saw Butler log 218 and Noah 210 of a possible 245 playoff minutes. Noah, by the way, later revealed a problem with his left knee that Thibodeau said "has bothered him for a while," via Friedell. "Probably the whole second half of the year." He actually increased an already heavy workload after the All-Star break (37.3 minutes, up from 34.0).
Noah may lose his primary backup, Nazr Mohammed. Bulls.com's Sam Smith wrote there's "a good chance he'll retire." Greg Smith, a late-season addition, "is expected to be back for next season," Sam Smith adds.
Between Noah, Smith, Gibson and Boozer/Boozer's replacement, the frontcourt should be set or close to it. The perimeter remains littered with question marks, though, and several could be answered on draft night June 26.
The Bulls own a pair of first-round picks, theirs (No. 19) and the Charlotte Bobcats' (No. 16). By scanning through mock drafts done by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, NBADraft.net, DraftExpress.com and HoopsHype.com, it seems Chicago will invest those selections into finding a backup for Rose and adding depth on the wing.
|Chicago's Projected First-Round Picks|
|Site||16th Pick||Pos., Team||19th Pick||Pos., Team|
|B/R||Rodney Hood||SF, Duke||Elfrid Payton||PG, La.-Lafayette|
|CBS Sports||Dario Saric||SF, Croatia||Tyler Ennis||PG, Syracuse|
|NBADraft.net||Tyler Ennis||PG, Syracuse||T.J. Warren||SF, NC State|
|DraftExpress||T.J. Warren||SF, NC State||Jerami Grant||SF, Syracuse|
|HoopsHype||Tyler Ennis||PG, Syracuse||Jerami Grant||SF, Syracuse|
Chicago could go the veteran route and slot either Augustin or Hinrich behind Rose, but the latter's repeat trips to the training table could lead the front office toward an option with upside.
Syracuse's Tyler Ennis seems to be a consensus target for the Bulls, but Wasserman doesn't have him lasting that long. Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton wouldn't be a bad choice, though. He already sounds like one of Thibodeau's guys.
"He averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 boards and 5.9 assists, and he was named the Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year," Wasserman wrote. "Payton has excellent physical tools at 6'3" with explosive athleticism he uses to get to the rack and break down defenses."
Explosive, athletic and a defensive pest? Yeah, I'd say Thibodeau could work with that.
Along with a point guard, the Bulls need someone to help balance the scoring load on the perimeter.
This isn't just about giving Rose some help, it's also about lighting a fire under Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell. The young wings shot a combined 36.4 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from deep during the playoffs. Both finished the regular season under 40 percent from the field (Butler 39.7 and Snell 38.4) and below 33 percent from outside (Butler 28.3 and Snell 32.0).
As the only players in Thibodeau's rotation under the age of 25, both Butler and Snell have to find some consistency over the offseason regardless who gets added around them. This team needs some cheap, young, productive help, and these two players are the only in-house options for now.
Surviving and (Finally) Advancing
Chicago's resiliency has been something to behold over the last two seasons. So many times this group looked destined to drown, yet it found a way to keep swimming through the treacherous waves.
No team could withstand the loss of a top-shelf talent like Rose. Chicago's ability to keep fighting without its knockout artist has strengthened its jaw for the future bouts that the former MVP will (hopefully) lead:
If Rose even approaches his pre-injury level, he'll be the biggest offseason acquisition (provided the King keeps his castle in South Beach). Rose can't, however, be the only piece Chicago adds to its puzzle.
This team needs more help than one player can provide. The front office has to figure out whether that assistance should come from Rose and another star or Rose with a collection of complementary pieces.
Between Noah, Rose and the unknown addition(s), the Bulls should have a core built to compete for the crown next season. That wide-open window must dictate the franchise's offseason strategy.
"The Bulls are at a point where they can’t covet future assets over the present," Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta wrote. "They must be willing to decide that now is the time and do what it takes to win a title. They've wisely collected assets, but if they aren't willing to use them, they’re just hoarding them."
The Bulls have been in recovery mode for two years. Now is their chance to attack.
With a summer to refill the fuel tanks and add a few reserve ones to the emergency supply, Chicago could show the hoops world its aggression is even more impressive than its survival skills.