This might seem blasphemous in some quarters, but what if neither Carmelo Anthony nor Kevin Love come to Chicago? It seems like a foregone conclusion to some observers that the All-Stars should want to play for the Bulls next season, but even if that’s what they desire, it’s not necessarily up to them.
In the case of Anthony, the superstar small forward can opt to play 41 home games of his own volition—if he opts out of the final year of his current contract and signs with the Bulls for far less than he would receive from New York, regardless of what moves to purge the roster of excess contracts are made. But that’s an unlikely scenario and no matter how much Anthony wants to win a title, it’s hard to envision him passing up on the extra money the Knicks could pay him ($129 million and change over five years, in comparison to a four-year deal for upwards of $95 million from anybody else) and at 30 years old, that extra season does matter.
Of course, he could always take Knicks president Phil Jackson’s advice and opt in for one more year in the Big Apple, see how things go with an organization that has yet to hire a coach after being spurned by Steve Kerr for the Warriors, and decide whether New York can attract another marquee player or two next summer, after getting some of its roster’s onerous contracts off the books.
What’s been expected, however, is that Anthony will test free agency this season and if he conveys to Jackson that he has no intentions of staying put, a sign-and-trade situation can be worked out, presumably to a short list of preferred destinations, of which it can be assumed that Chicago is one. While the Bulls certainly have a variety of assets to offer if and when that time comes—Carlos Boozer’s expiring contract, the rights to 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic, returnees like Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jimmy Butler, two upcoming first-round draft picks and the non-guaranteed deals of Ronnie Brewer, Mike James and Lou Amundson—even a novice executive like Jackson would have to think long and hard before dealing Anthony within the same conference, let alone to the franchise he won six championships coaching, just to make a departing player happy and ensure he gets his max contract.
Western Conference teams like the Rockets (a young, cheap small-forward replacement in Chandler Parsons, the expiring deals of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin) and Clippers (in the aftermath of their disappointing playoff defeat, the championship-minded Doc Rivers could make All-Star power forward Blake Griffin available, potentially pairing Anthony with his good friend Chris Paul) could offer the Knicks returns they view as more appealing.
Love could actually be a more feasible option for the Bulls, as parting with Gibson would be less painful because his former college rival plays the same position. If Minnesota was willing to take on the final year of Boozer’s contract, that would also be a plus, though amnestying him, as always, is an option.
But giving up draft picks, even having to swallow some of Minnesota’s bad contracts if necessary—J.J. Barea, for example, could actually flourish under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, similar to other diminutive scoring point guards, such as Nate Robinson, John Lucas III and most recently, D.J. Augustin—would be worth it if Love was willing to sign a long-term deal to play alongside summer workout partner Derrick Rose.
But as much as Love seemingly wants to relocate, the Timberwolves have even less of a need than the Knicks to so urgently want to trade their premier player. The double-double machine doesn’t hit free agency until the summer of 2015 and if franchise owner Glen Taylor was being genuine in his recent comments about not wanting to trade Love, one can see Minnesota—which, like New York, has yet to hire a coach—simply holding on to him, trying to improve next season and hoping that he changes his tune, a la fellow All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland.
If Love is ultimately dealt, it will probably take place on the night of the NBA Draft and although the Bulls do have a solid potential package to offer, they have plenty of competition, as would-be suitors like Houston, Golden State, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston could also make strong bids.
Thus, instead framing this summer like 2010, when there was a clear-cut sweepstakes for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and other superstars, or past years in which the Bulls didn’t land the top free agents in the market, for the time being, it makes sense to consider the organization’s other possible offseason strategies. After all, Derrick Rose will be back—yes, it’s his second comeback after a major injury, but even if Anthony or Love were to come to Chicago, the Bulls’ title hopes would hinge on the former league MVP being at full strength—to join a core of Gibson, Butler and All-Star center Joakim Noah, the latter of whom, along with Rose, is viewed as unavailable via trade.
Knowing Thibodeau, even if the Bulls draft talented rookies ready to contribute and Mirotic, widely regarded as one of the top players in Europe, decides to come over, the coach will still value proven NBA veterans over newcomers to the league.
A starting-caliber wing with playoff experience would make a lot of sense and though Paul Pierce’s name has been cited because of his Celtics connection to Thibodeau—if the future Hall of Famer leaves Brooklyn, a league source believes he would prefer to return to his hometown of Los Angeles, playing for Rivers, his head coach in Boston—Chicago-area native Shawn Marion, could be an option, as he’s said to be intrigued with playing in front of friends and family in the twilight of his career if the versatile, high-level defender doesn’t remain in Dallas.
[NBA DRAFT: History of the 16th, 19th picks]
A backup for Rose is another priority and while bringing back Augustin would be ideal, he will test the open market and seek out the best fit, in terms of his role, salary and long-term security, though his success in Chicago certainly gives the Bulls a built-in advantage. Similarly, but to an even higher degree, Kirk Hinrich reprising his duties, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the veteran closely examine exactly how he’d be utilized before making a decision.
The same goes for Noah’s understudy, as Nazr Mohammed would undoubtedly like to finish off his career in his hometown, but he also believes he has something left in the tank and wants an opportunity to demonstrate that. Greg Smith, acquired at the tail end of the regular season—the big man played well for Houston a year ago, backing up Asik—could be given a chance to show that he can do the job, as pickings are slim in a thin market for quality free-agent post players.
Perimeter shooting will obviously be another area to address and even if rookie Tony Snell continues to improve and a draft pick can also make a dent in Thibodeau’s rotation (recognizable college stars like Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, Kentucky’s James Young and Michigan State’s Gary Harris could be off the board by the time the Bulls pick at No. 16, but Duke’s Rodney Hood and D-League product P.J. Hairston are sharpshooters who could still be available), veteran free agents like Jodie Meeks, Anthony Morrow, C.J. Miles and Francisco Garcia are all reasonable targets to take some of the spot-up burden off the shoulders of Dunleavy.
None of the aforementioned names jump out like Anthony and Love, and with fans and media alike clamoring for the Bulls to acquire a superstar, bringing aboard lower-profile additions might not cut it in the public eye, particularly as there appears to be less anticipation for Rose’s return this time around. But what makes sense on paper and on social media doesn’t necessarily mean things are cut and dry, as Anthony (to a lesser degree, the Knicks) and the Timberwolves hold all the cards in the two respective situations.
If the Bulls somehow get one of the two stars, fantastic. But if they don’t, playing in an Eastern Conference with only one elite team and bringing back a group that improbably made the playoffs—assuming they stay healthy—it isn’t the end of the world, just not what a lot of people expect. That likely isn’t a popular sentiment and it’s understandable, especially after the last three seasons—Rose’s injury in the beginning of the 2012 playoffs, his absence the following campaign and his injury last November—but it’s one that has to be considered.