The Chicago Bulls are still right where they've always been the last few years. Chicago is a great team, but not an elite one.
Who gets the blame for why the Bulls haven't reached the Finals over the last few years?
Is it on Tom Thibodeau for running his players into the ground and making them play big minutes? Or the front office for continually letting go of good depth off the bench?
You can point fingers wherever you'd like, but the truth of it is that for Chicago to compete for titles going forward, it needs another star.
So what's the best way for the Bulls to go about landing that star? Let's take a look at the path that needs to be followed for that to happen.
Identifying the Star
It's not as easy as trying to sign or trade for anyone who is considered an elite talent. That's how the Bulls got stuck with Carlos Boozer in the first place, who was never really a good fit and more of a panic move after LeBron went to Miami.
If the Bulls are going to take the necessary steps to be in the position to sign a star, it better be someone worth the maneuvering who makes sense with the rest of the roster.
Given Chicago's problems scoring consistently over the years, trying to land a player like New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony would certainly make some sense.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports indicates that's something Chicago is exploring:
New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is leaning toward leaving in pursuit of immediate championship contention, and awaits the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign him in free agency, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
As re-signing with the Knicks continues to fade as his priority, Chicago and Houston have emerged as the clear frontrunners to acquire Anthony, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Chicago and Houston front-office executives are working diligently on contingencies to clear the space to sign Anthony outright – or engage sign-and-trade scenarios with New York, sources said.
Anthony and Noah would be a dream pairing in the frontcourt, as Noah could protect Anthony defensively and also make smart passes from the high post. Anthony is at his best when he's playing the 4, and he'd presumably spend most of his time there thanks to having such an anchor at the 5.
While Rose and Anthony may not be a perfect fit, having two players with that kind of slashing ability off the bounce would certainly put a ton of pressure on defenses. The Bulls would need shooting to surround Anthony, but Mike Dunleavy is a great start on that front, and Jimmy Butler should evolve into a better spot-up shooter over time.
Another logical option for the Bulls is to go after the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Love, another power forward who can really stretch the floor and be a load on the block.
Here's Jackie MacMullan for ESPNBoston.com:
The Timberwolves privately maintain they already have fielded better offers from other teams, among them the Chicago Bulls, who can offer draft picks and some combination of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson along with Carlos Boozer, whose bloated $16.8 million contract expires next summer and represents the kind of cap space rebuilding teams crave.
Here's the good news for Chicago. Technically, it can pursue both a trade candidate like Love and a free agent like Anthony before having to make any real roster decisions. That's because the deadline for the Bulls to amnesty is July 16, which will give them plenty of time to either use Boozer's expiring deal as trade bait or clear his salary off the books.
But remember, there will be other decisions for the Bulls to make as well.
Clearing Cap Space
If the Bulls want to be a player in this year's free agency and sign a veteran max-level player, amnestying Boozer alone won't be quite enough alone. Here's Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Anthony, 30, has been intrigued with the chance to join the Bulls for several months, but Houston has gathered significant momentum as a preferred destination for him, league sources said.
For Chicago to make its bid for Anthony, it will need to amnesty the contract of Carlos Boozer and unload forward Taj Gibson and at least one more player. The Bulls could enjoy an easier path to the NBA Finals than Houston, which competes in the much stronger Western Conference. Anthony has an affinity for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, but ultimately Anthony must also weigh in his decision the future health of guard Derrick Rose.
By amnestying Boozer, the Bulls would have $46.8 million in salary committed to seven players. Factoring in three minimum roster slot holds and Chicago's two first-round draft pick holds, that should add about another $4.4 million, bringing Chicago's salary number to roughly $51.2 million.
With a projected salary cap of $65 million, the offer of right around $12.8 million a year probably wouldn't be enough to lure a player like Anthony. He can re-sign for an extra year and make around $120 million over five seasons in New York, so he'd be leaving a ton of money on the table.
The Bulls could fairly easily get in the neighborhood of that offer (albeit with one less year and less total money) by trading Taj Gibson's salary of $8 million for future draft picks to a team under the cap.
However, paying Boozer $16.8 million to go away and dumping a very good two-way forward in Gibson for draft picks may not be ideal. Without an absolute guarantee that Anthony would sign, it would also be awfully risky.
What might be a better option for Chicago both financially and in terms of keeping current assets is to negotiate either a straight trade for someone on contract that's willing to re-sign next year like Kevin Love, or working a sign-and-trade with a player who is going to become a free agent.
Trading for a Star
Now that we've established that trading seems to be the most realistic and preferred option for Chicago, particularly since it's dealing with players of such high caliber, let's take a look at some hypothetical scenarios that could make sense.
Here's Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times explaining what might be on the table:
According to several NBA sources Sunday, the Bulls have been actively looking to improve the starting lineup at almost any cost, with Derrick Rose the only untouchable player — and not by choice.
'They are looking to exhaust as many assets as it will take,' one source said of general manager Gar Forman and head of basketball operations John Paxson.
That's a good frame of mind to be in when trying to acquire a star. Other teams will be vying for Love, Anthony and whoever else becomes available, so this is no time to be stingy.
When it comes to Boozer, it's probably a mistake to value him as dead weight and an amnesty candidate. Boozer has value on the court still, even if he's severely overpaid. More importantly, his expiring contract represents cap relief for a team in the unenviable position of dealing a superstar player.
Trading Boozer alongside Gibson can actually allow for the Bulls to take on contracts that a team may view as undesirable, since those two combined add up to nearly $25 million in salary alone.
New York has two contracts in J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton it may want to dump, as both players are on salary beyond the 2015 offseason. Minnesota has a few shaky mid-range deals as well, with Chase Budinger being the biggest example.
By taking a team's bad salary by leveraging Boozer's expiring deal, the Bulls can afford to retain more assets and not sell the farm by dealing Jimmy Butler and a ton of future draft picks, for example.
In addition to holding the 16th and 19th picks in this year's draft, Chicago also has a first-round pick via Sacramento that should materialize in the next few years. While Chicago's own picks will be devalued if it's acquiring a big star, there's hope for not having to do a Brooklyn Nets-type deal with the devil and sell the entire future of the team.
Following that train of thought, here are two deals that might work for both sides:
Minnesota receives: Carlos Boozer (one year/$16.8 million), Taj Gibson (three years/$25.5 million), Tony Snell (three years/$5.3 million), the 16th pick in the 2014 draft, a 2015 first-round pick via Sacramento (top-10 protected through 2017) and a 2016 first-round pick.
Chicago receives: Kevin Love (two years*/$32.4 million), Chase Budinger (two years*/$10 million) and Corey Brewer (two years/$9.6 million).
*Denotes player option on last season
A productive player in his prime, three first-round picks, a former first-round prospect and cap relief seems like a pretty good haul for Love, especially since it can't be expected that Minnesota will receive full value.
By hanging on to Jimmy Butler and the rights to prized prospect Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls could sport a top six of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Love, Noah and Mirotic next year, which on paper certainly seems good enough to compete for a title. That's assuming Mirotic would come over and sign into the MLE, since the Bulls would be over the cap after this deal.
While Anthony would probably yield less of a deal for New York since the prospect of him leaving elsewhere for nothing is very real, here's a proposed deal if Anthony tells New York outright he won't re-sign with it regardless and forces a sign-and-trade.
New York receives: Carlos Boozer (one year/$16.8 million), Jimmy Butler (one year/$2 million), 2015 and 2017 first-round picks.
Chicago receives: Carmelo Anthony (on a newly signed max four-year deal), J.R. Smith (two years*/$12.3 million) and Raymond Felton (two years*/$7.74 million)
*Denotes player option
As you can see here, the Bulls get off a little easier because of Anthony's free-agent status and get to keep Gibson, as the Knicks might not have much interest in him if they're looking to maximize 2015 cap room. Although they'll have to pay Butler in restricted free agency in 2015, perhaps there would be the hope that they could match on him after recruiting a few big stars to New York.
With that in mind, trading Gibson down the line for the Bulls wouldn't be out of the question, unless Tom Thibodeau was comfortable playing Anthony at the 3 for most of the game. Spacing could be an issue, but those are familiar problems for the Bulls.
Smith would actually come in handy for the Bulls, as they could use a great three-point shooter and shot creator, particularly in the second unit. Smith would get to start on this roster, barring a Gibson or Mirotic trade for more wing help.
Both of these scenarios are contingent on using Boozer as cap relief for the teams dealing stars, which might be more appealing to New York than it is to Minnesota given their locations and current cap situations.
The big contracts given to Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and the likely extension coming to Ricky Rubio might make Minnesota more open to receiving current talent like Butler or Mirotic in an effort to compete for the playoffs.
The point isn't necessarily the nuts and bolts of a potential deal here though, but instead the point that Chicago does have desirable assets to play with. No matter what a team wants, the Bulls should be able to provide it. Noah should be considered the only untouchable player on the roster.
Whether it's Anthony, Love or an unexpected star who becomes available via trade this offseason, Chicago has the tools to acquire an additional superstar and finally get over the hump in the Eastern Conference.