"We have a big summer in front of us. We may have the opportunity to have some flexibility and to address some needs. We'll look into that. I think we'll be able to add to our team this summer. You don't know what direction it could go. When I say we could have flexibility, that's dependent on some different ways that we could go. At this point, it's not definite that we would have a large amount of flexibility. But that's one of the roads we can take. There's so many moving parts that can happen. It will obviously be an active summer for us." -- Bulls general manager Gar Forman on Wednesday
On the front of the credential to the last Chicago Bulls game of the season was Taj Gibson. So appropriate because in the end it was Gibson limping off the court with a sprained ankle that proved to be the end of their season.
Now, where do the Bulls begin?
There have been offseasons for the Bulls that held us captive over the past few summers, but none like the one that will begin July 1 at the start of free agency.
So many options, so many opportunities, so many holes to fill. So much can go wrong.
The Carmelo Anthony talk is already getting louder by the hour although the noise of the possibility of Tom Thibodeau leaving to take the Los Angeles Lakers coaching job (note: never gonna happen) has drowned that out for the moment. The demand for the Bulls to go after an elite player this summer will continue to swell until the player at the center of the tempest realizes that the opportunity to play for Phil Jackson far outweighs the chance to play with Derrick Rose.
Truth told, the Bulls are not the type of organization (and never really have been) to play the begging, "Oh, please come play for us" game with max-level players. Yes, Carmelo might under Thibs become the player many believed he would one day become. But that more than likely won't happen in a Bulls uniform. Which means the Bulls -- if they are seriously thinking of going after Melo this offseason -- need to make their Plan B more important than their Plan A.
And the Bulls have more Plan Bs at their disposal this offseason than at any time in recent memory.
Above mid-level players who could turn into All-Stars under Thibs: Players such as the Lakers' Nick Young, who could honestly be the Bulls' Nate Robinson 2.0. Nate had the best year of his life under Thibs; think of what Thibs could do with a player like Young. Depending on the aftermath of the Indiana Pacers' implosion, the Player Formerly Known As "Born Ready" (Lance Stephenson) could slide into a Bulls uni and transform into a player he will never be allowed to become in Indiana. There's a perfect "insurance policy" player in a player like the Mavericks' Devin Harris, who could be just as important as any player the Bulls go after. Not only is he good enough to run the team and score from the point guard position in case Rose goes down again, he's the perfect replacement just in case Kirk Hinrich has seen his last days in the city.
If Taj can play the 3 ...: Can anyone say Zach Randolph? The Memphis Grizzlies star has a player option and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Want the low-post problem answered? Want the scoring problem answered? Want an All-Star player who won't conflict or get in the way of Rose or Joakim Noah doing their things? Want to avoid spending Carmelo money and get an All-Star in return? Want to stop Nene and Marcin Gortat from getting back-to-back-to-back offensive rebounds and tap-outs at the end of games? Want to make trading Luol Deng make sense?
The Salary-cap flex: Without Carlos Boozer's contract included, there's about $13 million this summer to play with and make something happen. That's not a massive amount of money, but it can turn out to be smart money if the Bulls are Maxwell with it. The amnesty of Boozer seems inevitable. If not that, then a trade. One call to the Lakers for Pau Gasol or one call to the Knicks for Amar'e Stoudemire could at least calm the fire of fan revolt for at least one year when the existence of that contract could officially be taken off the books.
"And with the No. 16 and 19 picks ...": This could easily be reduced to one pick if packaged along with the possible trade of Boozer. But in case that doesn't come to fruition, two of the five following names should become familiar to all Bulls season-ticket holders, cable subscribers and fans who repeat Stacy King verbologies in public: Shabazz Napier, T.J. Warren, Kyle Anderson, Clint Capela and K.J. McDaniels. All have the ability to be immediate answers to at least two of the Bulls' problems. And none of them will turn out to be the next Marquis Teague.
Eight men in: The Bulls have eight players under contract going into next season. Not saying that all eight will be back, but of those eight there are probably only six that they know aren't going anywhere. Hinrich and D.J. Augustin are both free agents. After gambling on letting Nate go this time last year, it's pretty safe to say that they are going to try to bring D.J. back. Kirk is probably gone, which leaves the Bulls with three roster spots open for bench play. What Forman and executive vice president John Paxson decide to do filling those three spots could be the subtle difference between the Bulls getting past a team like the Washington Wizards next year or not making the playoffs at all.
Then there's Niko: Nikola Mirotic is the mystery that just keeps giving. He's like the fine girlfriend your best friend claims to have but you never see. Even if the next Euro prodigy and Bulls 2011 draft pick decides to leave Real Madrid to come to play in the shadow of Michael Jordan's statue and Toni Kukoc's legacy, there is no promise (at all!) that the skill set he'll bring to the NBA will transfer to what the Bulls will need from him in the playoffs. At least not in his rookie and second seasons. Yes, Nikola is an option worth mentioning in the summer of 2014 conversation. But to be what the Bulls need to get them over the hump in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, he won't be that. Not right away.
The possibility that they give up on Rose: Someone had to say it. Look there's a chance -- a very small one -- that the Bulls as a franchise have come to the conclusion that they can't continue to go "all-in" on Rose. They've done it twice and both times (by what seem to have been acts of God) they got robbed, as did Rose. Giving that plan a third opportunity from a franchise standpoint would almost be suicidal. But if the Bulls are watching the Toronto Raptors' soon-to-be free agent Kyle Lowry play during these playoffs, they have to be thinking ... I'm not going to say it, but IJS (I'm just sayin').
Will he stay or will he go? That seems to be the newest worry surrounding Thibodeau after Thursday's report from ESPNLosAngeles.com that the Lakers plan to ask the Bulls permission to interview the coach. The Bulls aren't that foolish to allow an interview with Thibs this summer. And Thibs -- as contentious as the relationship between him and the front office might be -- isn't that stupid to seek interest in joining the Lakers' dysfunction.
So now, just days removed from a season-ending exit amid talk of Thibodeau "wearing the team down," the Bulls enter this offseason with situations they've never had before.
Both good and bad.
What happens when a team's season ends like the Bulls -- when they run into a team that, as Joakim Noah said, "had no holes" and is young enough to be there as a threat for at least the next three or four years -- beating the defending champs (as has been their mission the last three summers) takes a back seat to finding ways to beat the team that just beat you. Teams start building in the offseason to beat that team, not the one sitting atop the mountain, hoisting trophies and having parades. Focus changes, although the goal remains the same.
Forman asked during his exit news conference, "Now how do we get to the next level?"
The answer is simple, my man: You're about to show us this summer.