Why Chicago Bulls Are in the Driver's Seat Entering 2014 NBA Free Agency

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2014

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 30: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks in a game against the Golden State Warriors on March 30, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Chicago Bulls have made many strides on account of their defensive identity alone, but the time has come to give head coach Tom Thibodeau some talent with which to work. A healthy Derrick Rose will go a long way toward that end, but so would a premier free-agent acquisition or two.

The Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley cites "several NBA sources" claiming, "the Bulls have been actively looking to improve the starting lineup at almost any cost, with Derrick Rose the only untouchable player."

Per Cowley: "'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."

The first task for Chicago is amnestying Carlos Boozer, thereby removing his $16.8 million cap hit. The organization would still be responsible for paying Boozer what he's owed, but that amount would no longer count against the salary cap, thus freeing up enough money for the organization to pursue a top-shelf free agent.

The 32-year-old Boozer averaged 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds this season, but he has consistently failed to live up to his contract. Due to defensive shortcomings, Thibodeau has opted to go with Taj Gibson in the fourth quarters of games—leaving Boozer an average of just 28.2 minutes of action.

Amnestying Boozer may not be enough to land the kind of talent Chicago's eyeing.

Cowley notes:

Carmelo Anthony is still Plan A as the Bulls and the rest of the NBA await to see if the Knicks forward will opt out of his contract. But the Bulls are more active in their pursuit of Kevin Love than initially rumored. Also, don’t rule out LeBron James coming into play again if the four-time MVP opts out of his deal.

Anthony ranks first for the Bulls largely because it appears he will actually be available before long. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski recently broke down the situation:

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.

Anthony's meeting with Knicks officials on Friday night had little impact on his state of mind, league sources said, because there remain too many uncertainties about how quickly president Phil Jackson can reshape the team into a championship contender.

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.

Amnestying Boozer alone wouldn't be enough to hand Anthony the lucrative long-term deal he'd likely demand. Per Wojanrowski, "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."

Gibson is owed $8 million next season and has two more years remaining on his contract after that.

The Bulls could also look to acquire Anthony via sign-and-trade, perhaps packing Boozer's expiring deal along with Gibson and/or swingman Jimmy Butler. That scenario would obviate the need to amnesty Boozer, but there's no telling how the New York Knicks would respond to such a proposal.

In theory, New York would prefer to get something in return for Anthony if it's bound to lose him either way.

Chicago actually has some attractive assets, so a deal would seemingly make sense. 

"Bulls GM John Paxson is very close with Jackson, his former coach, and it is conceivable that the two could negotiate a deal involving Anthony," according to The New York Daily News' Frank Isola. "The Knicks could take back a package featuring Carlos Boozer’s expiring contract plus a first-round draft pick."

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 16: Carlos Boozer #5 of the Chicago Bulls on the sideline during the game against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Time Warner Cable Arena on April 16, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
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That said, the Bulls will have competition.

As Wojnarowski points out, the Houston Rockets are also eager to acquire Anthony in a bid to surround stars James Harden and Dwight Howard with even more talent. Much like Chicago, the Rockets have a number of assets to make a sign-and-trade arrangement work. They could build a package including some combination of small forward Chandler Parsons, center Omer Asik and/or point guard Jeremy Lin.

At the moment, there's really no way to tell which destination Anthony would prefer. Both have their merits.

But you'd have to figure 'Melo's skill set would blend a little more naturally with what the Bulls already have in place—namely Derrick Rose and his ability to distribute the ball. If Anthony can thrive with someone like Raymond Felton running the point, his potential playing alongside an All-Star floor general is off the charts.

Though Harden is exceptionally good with the ball in his hands, he's more of a scorer than a facilitator. That could create some tensions, given that Anthony is similarly focused on looking for his shot. 

The Bulls also have the ability to surround Anthony with young talent. So long as Butler isn't included in any moves, the defensively minded swingman reasons to be among that talent. 

Chicago also has two first-round picks in this summer's draft. That should translate into additional assets, either directly or via trade. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix reports that, "Chicago has been aggressively shopping its two first-round picks, according to league sources, with an eye on either moving up for a shot at a better player or flipping them for a veteran scorer."

Assuming one or both of those picks isn't used in a sign-and-trade for Anthony, they could be used to surround Anthony with either good young talent or—via trade—another vet.

The other key factor is reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. Noah's ability to vacate the paint and occupy the high post is important because it would give Anthony the opportunity to operate in the interior.

You can't say the same about the dynamic between Anthony and Howard in Houston.

Of course, there's really no telling what factors will play into Anthony's decision. Presumably, he'd pursue the better on-court dynamic, but other things certainly play into chemistry. One variable that should play into Chicago's favor is Thibodeau.

Anthony had some nice things to say about Thibs and his system back in April, which means he's essentially on the same page as everyone who knows anything about the game. Thibodeau is one of the league's finest coaches, one who always manages to squeeze the most out of his team—particularly on the defensive end.

Frankly, Anthony could probably use the accountability. If there's an untapped dimension to his game, it's on the defensive end. Should he rise to the level of legitimate MVP consideration, it could take someone like Thibodeau to elicit the effort and technique.

It could take someone like Thibodeau to help Anthony realize his full potential. More than any other variable lurking in Anthony's deliberation, perhaps that's the one that should be most salient. 

Whether Chicago cashes in on its pursuit of Anthony, it's worth remembering that this franchise will have options regardless. It has young talent, assets and a franchise cornerstone. Before long, those virtues should translate into another star—and maybe a return to title contention.