As discouraged as the Bulls might feel about their health woes in these playoffs, a postseason in which their Eastern Conference rivals have also had injury concerns, they should also feel optimistic.
Who knows what this summer's free agency and even before that, the annual draft-day trading frenzy, could bring, but when examining the rest of the upper echelon of the East--conference finalists Miami and Boston, semifinal losers Philadelphia and Indiana, and the star-studded Knicks--the Bulls are in good shape.
That may come off as odd, especially after the Bulls lost in the first round to an eighth seed, Derrick Rose is scheduled to be out for eight months to a year, Luol Deng may miss the beginning of next season and valuable reserves like C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer appear to be future casualties of the NBA's salary cap, to be replaced by less expensive and possibly less-talented players, but look on the bright side for a second:
Even with all of those issues, things are less problematic in Chicago than a lot of those aforementioned places, at least in the long-term.
Both the Pacers and 76ers are young teams that showed they have potential, but are at least one impact player, preferably a go-to scorer, away from being true contenders. Each team is likely to be active in looking for potential trades--despite being their respective franchise's marquee player, don't be surprised if small forwards Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala are on the block--and while they could be players in free agency, a middling class isn't the immediate solution to their issues.
The same goes for the Knicks, who still have yet to figure out the Carmelo Anthony-Amar'e Stoudemire dilemma, not to mention whether Jeremy Lin is the permanent answer to their point-guard problem, if he even returns to New York.
As far as the two teams still playing, the Celtics look to be in line for a rebuilt roster with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett hitting free agency this summer--the latter is rumored to be considering retirement--and multiple holes to plug on an aging squad either way, while the Heat, even if they make another run to the Finals and Chris Bosh gets healthy, simply can't and won't, as long as team president Pat Riley is in charge, continue with the same roster, built almost solely upon the duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade playing at a near-flawless level throughout the playoffs.
Sure, Miami could find some takers, at a reduced rate, to chase a ring, even if they'd make more money in another city, and there's always the possibility Bosh or Wade gets dealt--though talk of Wade's imminent demise has slowed since his postseason career-worst Game 3 performance against Indiana in the second round; trading Bosh would still leave a void inside and no executive worth his salt would trade James, the current league MVP--top Celtics executive Danny Ainge could pull a rabbit out of his hat, the Pacers or Sixers could somehow swing a deal that puts them over the top and the Knicks, one team apparently unafraid of the repercussions of the punitive luxury tax, could simply throw more money at their problems, but the odds of all of those things happening simultaneously are slim.
Meanwhile, the Bulls will enter next season with low expectations, but with some shrewd offseason judgment in both the upcoming draft and free agency, Deng's return to the lineup, Tom Thibodeau coaching--it would be in everybody's best interest if his contract extension was sorted out sooner than later, as general manager Gar Forman's announcement that the organization would pick up his option for next season didn't simply make it go away--the squad to somewhere between a fifth and eighth seed in the playoffs and Rose's eventual comeback would set the stage for, if not an outright postseason run, at least throwing a scare into a so-called contender.
Even if the some of the above doesn't occur, the determination of the players currently under contract and the preparation of the coaching staff will ensure that next season won't be as disastrous as some believe, setting the stage for the 2013-14 season, in which title contention is again a realistic goal, assuming that Rose is fully healthy.
It's worth mentioning that the free-agent class in the summer of 2013 is extremely deep, perhaps rivaling the group from the "Summer of LeBron," and while the Bulls will have to make a tough decision with their own free agent in Taj Gibson by then, they'll also be able to add a significant piece and dangle assets like the rights to their protected first-round pick acquired in the 2010 Tyrus Thomas deal with Charlotte and 2011 first-round pick Nikola Mirotic--though the organization remains high on the young forward, who won the "Rising Star" award for the Spanish ACB League's top young player, for the second consecutive season--as well as having a team option for Hamilton and even potentially amnestying a player, such as Boozer, since it would make more sense leading up to a season in which a title was a realistic goal.
Regardless, whatever direction the Bulls choose, the crux of the matter is that while the team obviously won't be at a contending level going into next season, they won't be as awful as some believe and they'll have several options moving forward, as well as a roster with many current players, barring trades, entering their prime years, something that makes the current outlook a lot less gloomy.
Unless just the right pieces fall into place or the Magic simply gift Dwight Howard to a conference rival, can the same truly be said for many of their peers?