The Chicago Bulls have been waiting for a second superstar to pair with oft-injured but supremely talented point guard Derrick Rose. Minnesota Timberwolves big man Kevin Love has been itching for his chance to join a ready-made contender like the one residing in the Windy City.
The fit looks perfect on paper and could potentially find itself on something far more tangible.
Fed up with individually brilliant (career 19.2 points and 12.2 rebounds) but ultimately empty seasons (Minnesota has failed to make a playoff run at any point in Love's six-year career), the 25-year-old has reportedly voiced his desire to flee the Gopher State. Love, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports wrote, is "anxious to exercise his early termination option (ETO) in the summer of 2015 and leave as a free agent, league sources said."
Love's planning reportedly goes beyond the simple desire to leave 'Sota. He's also handpicked a few desired destinations, including Chicago.
"Sources say Love has stressed to the Timberwolves that he's desperate to get to a winning situation and that the constant losing has worn on him," ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne wrote.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor told Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press that dealing Love isn't part of the team's "plan" for now, but the franchise's options seem limited. The steady scorer and rugged rebounder can opt out of his current deal next summer, leaving the franchise facing the prospect of losing its star player and getting nothing in return.
Minnesota might be avoiding reality, but it's going to set in at some point. It did for the Denver Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony), the Utah Jazz (Deron Williams), the then-New Orleans Hornets (Chris Paul) and the Orlando Magic (Dwight Howard). The Wolves' fate will be no different.
Love's future isn't a matter of if or even when. It's simply a question of where the quintessential stretch 4 decides to take his talents, and Chicago seems to be near (or at) the top of his wish list.
Assuming Love gets his way—elite talents do rule the roost in this superstar league—what might that mean for the future of his next franchise? Would adding Love to a nucleus already featuring Rose and Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah push Chicago the top of the Eastern Conference's food chain?
The Bulls will need to clear several hurdles to climb that high up the power rankings, but with Love easing that ascent, a path to that level of prominence clearly exists.
Price Must Be Right
The business side of the basketball world plays by an unusual set of rules.
Minnesota should be able to demand nothing short of a king's ransom in exchange for its franchise face. After all, it's the merchant with the good every shopper wants.
Yet the NBA doesn't work that way. Rather, it's the Bulls—not the Wolves—who will be dealing from a position of strength.
Love, the ESPN scribes reported, has leaked a list of acceptable employers. Teams with a clear path to championship contention (namely, the Bulls and the Golden State Warriors) are said to be "among the potential trade destinations that intrigue Love."
That tidbit of information is crucial. It gives him, and by extension the Bulls, a certain amount of leverage in these negotiations. While Minnesota can ultimately decide where to send Love, his willingness (or refusal) to commit to a long-term contract extension will greatly impact what Minnesota can receive.
The Bulls will use the knowledge of being on Love's short list to limit the damage done in a potential deal. Clearly, players of Love's caliber don't come cheap, but Chicago can not gut its roster to go get him.
With Love apparently on board with the idea of joining the Bulls already, they shouldn't have to.
Chicago has draft considerations to sweeten any potential offer. The Bulls hold the Nos. 16 and 19 picks in this year's draft, the former coming over from the Charlotte Hornets. Chicago is also set to collect the Sacramento Kings' first-round pick in 2015, which carries top-10 protection through 2017.
Armed with that arsenal and the leverage afforded by Love, the Bulls should be able form a package that scratches enough of Minnesota's itches without raiding Chicago's cupboards. Bleacher Report's Dan Favale formed such an offer: forwards Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic along with both of Chicago's 2014 first-rounders.
That's a preferable path to the one offered by ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell that would have the Bulls' package likely to "include [Carlos] Boozer's expiring deal, Jimmy Butler, a first-round pick or two and the rights to Nikola Mirotic."
Butler is still struggling to find offensive consistency (he averaged 13.1 points on 39.7 percent shooting), but the 24-year-old still projects as an intriguing perimeter partner for Rose, thanks to his athleticism and top-shelf defense. By keeping Butler instead of Gibson—a fine talent in his own right, but one who is four years Butler's senior and also could be squeezed for minutes behind a Love-Noah frontcourt—Chicago would have four of its five starters for next season set in stone.
If the Bulls deem rookie Tony Snell ready for the opening lineup (he averaged 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 12 starts this season), they would then only need to retool a second team that already needed tinkering. Despite Gibson's stellar season (13.0 points, 6.8 rebounds), Chicago's reserves still finished 21st in bench scoring (29.7 points per game), via HoopsStats.com.
Given coach Tom Thibodeau's propensity to ride his starters as much as possible, the Bulls would be scouring for nothing more than part-time players. If Boozer isn't shipped out in a trade, his expiring $16.8 million salary could be wiped off the books under the amnesty clause, giving Chicago a bit of spending money to fill those empty roster slots.
A Rose-Love-Noah trio would give Chicago a three-headed monster as fierce as any outside of the Miami Heat (assuming things don't sour in South Beach over the offseason). With up-and-comers like Snell and Butler slotted in alongside them, this core would have both proven commodities and high-ceiling prospects.
Name a starting five in the Eastern Conference that would clearly be better than Chicago's projected lineup. It isn't easy, is it?
Sizing Up the Competition
Until proven otherwise, the two-time defending champion Heat remain the team to beat out East. Assuming Miami's reign is ended before the NBA Finals, the bipolar Indiana Pacers would assume that top spot.
Both clubs have found proven winning strategies.
The two conference bullies posted a combined 110-54 record this season (.671 winning percentage). Miami paved its path with an incendiary offense (109.0 points per 100 possessions, second-best in the NBA). Indiana started the season by posting historically significant marks on the defensive end, and even a late-year swoon couldn't force it out of the top spot on that side of the floor (96.7 points per 100 possessions).
There is, however, no guarantee that either team's dominance will repeat itself for the 2014-15 campaign.
Both face pressing personnel decisions.
Even if the Heat retain their Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (all three can opt out of their current contracts at season's end), they'll still need to build something of substance around them. Miami's only guaranteed contract on the books for next season is held by Norris Cole, an underwhelming reserve point guard (6.4 points on 41.4 percent shooting, 3.0 assists).
Even at $77 million, the increased tax threshold offers no easy answers, when factoring in that by bypassing their June 30 early-termination deadlines, the combined salaries for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are $61 million for 2014-15.
Beyond that, Udonis Haslem has a player option for $4.6 million, Norris Cole is due $2 million and Chris Andersen has an option for $1.5 million.
By that math, $69 million is accounted for by six players. By rule, teams must account for 13 salary slots. Filling in with minimum salaries, the Heat could barely stay below the tax.
Indiana won't have nearly as many roster spots to fill. The Pacers have eight guaranteed contracts tied up for next season, a group headlined by starters Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill.
Notably absent from that list, though, is versatile swingman Lance Stephenson. The 23-year-old finished second in the Most Improved Player award voting after posting career marks in scoring (13.8), rebounds (7.2), assists (4.6) and field-goal percentage (49.1).
It was a perfectly timed breakout campaign, as "Born Ready" is now set to enter unrestricted free agency. While an executive warned Sean Deveney of Sporting News that off-court concerns could cut into Stephenson's value, he could still command a deal too rich for Indiana's blood ($7 million annual salary or higher).
For a team already short on creators, losing someone as skilled as Stephenson could be a massive blow. Indiana doesn't have a wide margin for error on the offensive end as it is (22nd in offensive efficiency), and that gap could shrink without Stephenson.
If Miami retains its Big Three, it could still take a plug-and-play approach to filling its roster. Still, this is a group that struggled without Mike Miller's contributions this season, and it could face even more subtractions over the summer.
There are only more question marks facing teams as one moves further down the pecking order.
The Washington Wizards need to decide the futures of starters Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. The Brooklyn Nets admitted they left themselves a one-year championship window, casting a dark cloud of uncertainty over the franchise. The Toronto Raptors' most important player (Kyle Lowry) is now an unrestricted free agent. The Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks both seem several steps away from contention.
Despite landing the No. 1 pick for the third time in four years, it's tough to buy the Cleveland Cavaliers as a true conference threat. Not only does history suggest this franchise could flub the selection, Cleveland also has to decide if Kyrie Irving even deserves a max contract extension then hope he signs on the dotted line if it goes with the affirmative.
The Bulls, admittedly, face some daunting questions of their own. Still, those solutions could be far more favorable than the ones facing the rest of the conference.
Assessing Chicago's (Potential) Championship Credentials
Chicago needs a lot to go right to paint itself as a legitimate contender.
After missing most of the last two seasons, Rose must prove his body can survive an 82-game grind. More than that, he has to show that the damage done during consecutive knee injuries (first an ACL tear in his left knee, then a torn meniscus in his right) hasn't stripped him of his MVP form.
Rose's last healthy campaign was magnificent: 21.8 points, 7.9 assists. It also came to a screeching halt more than two years ago.
If Rose is right, having a big man with range like Love (career 36.2 three-point percentage) could do wonders for the (when healthy) explosive slasher. Love, even as a decoy, spreads the floor for what could be a potent pick-and-roll game for Rose and Noah. Love's defensive limitations could be masked by Noah, while the former's offensive prowess could push the latter out of a scoring role he isn't built to handle.
Chicago wouldn't be without its flaws, but one could say the same about any team. On paper, the Bulls' problems seem to rectify themselves with the other pieces in place.
Butler and Snell would need to develop into offensive weapons who demand some type of defensive attention—or the Bulls would have to bring in some wings who can. The bench would need some type of scoring punch, but perhaps a budget deal with D.J. Augustin might address some of that need.
Yes, there would be plenty of if's facing a Rose-Love-Noah-led squad: if Love plays Thibodeau-approved defense, if Rose returns to health, if Noah finds an offensive niche, if the youngsters develop into serviceable weapons.
If a championship is at stake, though—and with Love on board, it absolutely would be—then those are risks worth taking.
The last two Rose-less seasons have been all about survival. The 2014-15 campaign could be defined by something entirely different.
For a team that has fashioned itself as a contender even with all odds against it, having an elite standing to start the season would be a welcome break. Love's heart, hustle and insatiable appetite for success all mesh with Chicago's current infrastructure—his transcendent offensive talent looks like the missing link for this team to reclaim its spot atop the Eastern Conference.
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