It wasn't long ago that the Chicago Bulls were poised to be the challengers to the big, bad Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. It was a natural rivalry full of star power. The Bulls had one of the game's most devastating young players in homegrown MVP Derrick Rose, flanked by a terrific two-way wing in Luol Deng and rising stud at center in Joakim Noah. They had a mastermind head coach in Tom Thibodeau, a defensive guru who played a key role in Boston's championship run under Doc Rivers. But that was three years ago -- before Rose had two catastrophic knee operations and sat out the entire 2013 playoffs, and before Deng was traded.
There comes a time in the NBA when you need to move on. Start over. Cut your losses. And for the Bulls, that time has come. After its second premature postseason defeat in a row (last year's team beat Brooklyn in the first round), the payroll remains bloated with Carlos Boozer's albatross of a deal (he will make $16.8 million next season), and with Rose, who will make more than $60 million over the next three years. While Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf still has his amnesty clause available, he has appeared hesitant to invoke it and send Boozer somewhere else.
Very few coaches, if any, could have kept a team afloat as Thibodeau has without Rose. But there's still a strong chance he will not be retained. While Thibodeau has another two years on his deal, both he and the players may be in need of a change. And plenty of other franchises would be interested in Thibodeau, who remains one of the most respected coaches in the league.
Perhaps the most challenging question for Chicago's front office is whether or not to keep Rose. Are his health concerns too serious? Coming back from a torn ACL is certainly doable, but for a player like Rose -- who relies so greatly on his explosion, torque and powerful leaping ability -- there's good reason to think he will never again be the dynamic talent he once was. Is this roster good enough to survive if Rose proves to be a different kind of player once he returns?
Here's one way to think about it: There are two immovable players. One of them is Noah. The other is third-year man Jimmy Butler, who will likely get a contract extension this summer. Both are superb defensive weapons -- Noah is an elite big man passer, and was just named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year -- and both have yet to play their best basketball, since Butler is just 24 and Noah is 29. Chicago can even trade Rose for young assets or draft picks. Both of the next two drafts appear loaded with star talent. Rose will be 26 when the 2014-15 season begins, and even if he doesn't come back playing at the height of his powers, he should still command a high pick.
Another viable option is to pursue New York Knicks free agent Carmelo Anthony. While it would take some creative financial moves -- perhaps shedding Boozer's contract -- it is certainly possible, especially with Rose as a selling point to be Melo's point guard of the future. The salary cap is expected to increase by $5 million next season, bringing it to a total $63 million (and the luxury tax to $77 million), which will provide more flexibility. Anthony's presence would instantly change Chicago's long-term fate. It's extremely difficult to acquire a superstar in his prime, and to have two, along with Noah and sound ancillary components Butler and Taj Gibson, would be lethal.
The NBA is not a league that rewards teams for being stuck in the middle. It's best to be either a front-runner or in total rebuilding mode. Since the former isn't an option right now and we don't know whether signing Anthony is actually feasible, rebuilding might be the best way to go. It worked for once-lowly Washington (drafted John Wall and Bradley Beal), Golden State (drafted Stephen Curry) and even Portland (drafted Damian Lillard). Chicago has two first-round picks currently projected at Nos. 16 and 19. The Bulls have been able to remain afloat despite Rose's injuries, but now is the time to decide where this franchise is going to go in the next several years.
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