After an interesting season that saw the Chicago Bulls seemingly wave the white flag with the trade of Luol Deng, turn into a powerhouse as a result, then falter in the playoffs, there seems to be little assurances as to what the future holds.
But there is one thing that may guide everything else the Bulls do going forward, and that's the search for another big star.
It's unfortunate to say, but Chicago just can't rely on former league MVP Derrick Rose to be healthy and performing at that level again. It's also not a guarantee that Tom Thibodeau will want to stay on as coach, given the turmoil in that relationship over the years. Joakim Noah is spectacular, no doubt, but his injuries always seem to come at the worst time.
Basically, it's not hard to envision how this could go wrong for Chicago. Without good health or Thibodeau, you can forget about the Bulls being a serious contender.
That being said, the potential to win a title is most certainly there, especially if another star player is added this offseason. This may be Chicago's best chance to make a run at both another big-name player and a title, and that opportunity shouldn't be passed up.
So how can the Bulls land a marquee player like Carmelo Anthony this offseason? Let's take a look at the different routes.
There's some good news on this front. Whereas signing Carmelo Anthony outright always seemed like a difficult process that would involve the amnestying of Carlos Boozer in addition to the trade of a key piece like Taj Gibson, that may no longer be the case.
The big reason for that is the league salary cap is being projected to increase by $5 million compared to this year's number, according to Marc Stein and Larry Coon at ESPN.com.
That will give Chicago some badly needed space under the cap to better contend with the New York Knicks, who can offer one extra year and $30 million more than any other team.
With a little bit of extra cap room to work with, the Bulls could give Anthony a deal starting around $16 million a year with annual increases by simply amnestying Boozer and clearing that space. That would certainly be a pretty big pay cut, as Anthony's option he'll decline to become a free agent would have paid him $23.3 million for this next season.
Is it possible Anthony leaves so much money on the table? Maybe. Here's what he told ESPN's Sage Steele and Tim Legler, as transcribed by ESPN New York:
'I'm going to make money. I have money. I'm good if I want to retire right now,' Anthony said in an interview with Sage Steele and Tim Legler on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
He expanded on that in an interview with other media in New Orleans.
'As far as the money, it don't really matter to me. If I go somewhere else, I get paid. If I stay in New York, I get paid. As far as the money goes, it's not my concern.
'My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level.'
The Bulls could easily create more room by trading a player like Mike Dunleavy ($3.3 million) to make the numbers closer. Point is, Anthony signing outright is actually pretty realistic now. Here's Marc Stein on ESPN.com:
The whispers out of Chicago for the past month have been increasingly hopeful when it comes to the Bulls' chances of swiping Melo away from the Knicks. No one is saying so for public consumption, but quiet optimism about their chances is palpable.
Melo's repeated public claims in recent weeks that he's prepared to prioritize winning over top dollar was the first bit of encouragement. The subsequent news that the 2014-15 salary cap is projected to be nearly $5 million higher than it was this season only added to the sentiment.
If free agency ends up not being an option, however, there are other avenues to pursue.
Although it may seem a little more unlikely, the Bulls could work a sign-and-trade deal with Anthony. The Knicks would almost certainly only do that if they were fully convinced Anthony wasn't returning to New York, and if Chicago could provide significant value in return.
This should be a busy offseason that includes lots of careful planning, as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reports here:
The Chicago Bulls’ season ended on Wednesday with a first-round loss to the Washington Wizards, and according to sources, the club is expected to make a run this summer at Anthony, whose presence in the Bulls lineup combined with the return of Derrick Rose would turn Chicago into a contender again.
'It will obviously be an active summer for us,' Bulls GM Gar Forman told reporters on Wednesday.
While it would seemingly make sense for the Bulls to amnesty Boozer and clear that cap room, remember that Chicago's ownership will still have to pay Boozer his $16.8 million owed to get his money off the books. That's not an insubstantial amount of cash.
With that in mind, the Bulls may use Boozer's expiring deal as a trade chip to come close to matching salaries with Anthony in a trade. Here's Marc Stein on ESPN.com:
But here's the thing: 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.
The Bulls do have a few appealing assets to offer New York. Chicago has its own and the Charlotte Bobcats' pick in this year's draft, which are certainly valuable pieces. The Bulls also have Sacramento's future first-round pick (1-10 protected through 2017) to offer up from the Deng trade.
It's also possible that Chicago would be willing to deal Taj Gibson, both to clear cap space and perhaps minutes for touted young prospect Nikola Mirotic, who may come over this offseason or next. Marc Stein on ESPN.com has more:
Given the sizable buyout required to free Mirotic from his Spanish obligations -- and with Chicago able to kick in only $600,000 toward that buyout that wouldn't count against the salary cap -- it's conceivable Chicago might even ask its talented frontcourt prospect to stay abroad for a fourth successive season since he was drafted.
It's hard to see how the Bulls could manufacture the needed financial flexibility to add a high-dollar free agent and Mirotic. The good news is 2011's No. 23 overall pick said earlier this month in an interview with Spain's Canal Plus that he's fine with playing one more season in Madrid, which he calls 'home for me.'
It seems more likely that Mirotic will stay overseas another year, and the Bulls will retain Gibson to take over as starting power forward, a role he's shown plenty capable of filling over the years.
But while there's some potential for addition by subtraction by amnestying Boozer, the Bulls will need to do more to contest the Miami Heat next season.
This free-agency period has the potential to have a few key stars in it, including Miami's Big Three, but it seems more likely that Anthony will be the clear headliner. With the potential to create cap space or offer up assets to acquire him in a trade, the Bulls should go all-in on acquiring another star to pair with Rose, Noah and Thibodeau. The window to compete is now.