Bulls fans, keep free-agent dreams in check

No matter where Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Love end up, a Bulls run starts and ends with a healthy Derrick Rose. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

CHICAGO -- Melo! LeBron! Love!

It’s the summer of exclamation marks and bold-faced names. Get silly and get angry, basketball fans.

That means you, Bulls fans.

LeBron James officially opted out of the last year of his contract Tuesday, an eventuality that still stirred the imagination of millions of NBA fans and, most importantly, a half-dozen general managers and owners.

It’s déjà vu all over again. It's tough to believe "The Decision” summer was four years ago. That’s one MVP award, one max deal, one NBA rule and two knee surgeries ago for Derrick Rose.

This time around, James doesn’t need a TV show. Miami would have to royally screw up for him to bail. Cross James off your list, Bulls fans. Be proactive.

If LeBron is the white whale, Carmelo Anthony is the big shark. Can the Bulls reel him in? It’s possible, but it feels to me like Anthony stays in New York with big promises of contention from Phil Jackson. Prepare your angry tweets calling Anthony greedy.

I’m betting Kevin Love stays in Minnesota and is dangled during the season for future picks and young players.

So where does that leave the Bulls? Don’t say basketball hell. Don’t even say limbo. No need to get dramatic.

This isn’t heaven. It’s Chicago, where free-agent dreams go to die. But it’s actually not a terrible place to be.

The most likely outcome for the Bulls this summer?

They sign Nick “Swaggy P” Young and Lance Stephenson, while swinging a deal for J.R. Smith. That would change the ol’ paradigm, wouldn’t it?

Just kidding. That’s my dream as a columnist. But despite their differences, I don’t think Gar Forman and John Paxson want to see Tom Thibodeau spontaneously combust.

Seriously, I think the Bulls whiff on the big names but still amnesty Carlos Boozer. They bring over Nikola Mirotic from Spain, swing a trade for Magic guard Arron Afflalo (as has been reported) and sign a backup center/power forward. To be fair, I haven't run the numbers on those deals, but they seem doable.

The key to the Bulls challenging anyone is a healthy Rose. That might not augur one’s hopes for a run to the Finals, but it’s the one true thing you’ll hear in the coming weeks. It’s all about Rose.

Any talk about how the Bulls keep coming short in the postseason under Tom Thibodeau has to mention that Rose has only had one crack at Miami during its four-year run to the Finals.

Would a healthy Rose have changed the story? We’ll never know. It’s a shame, really. For all the grumbling about Rose’s situation, he too was robbed of competing against the best in the prime of his career for three straight postseasons.

It’s easy to forget how good Rose was a few years ago.

Although it would be a league-changer to acquire Anthony or Love to pair with whatever would remain of the Bulls' core, it’s not a season-ender if they don’t get them.

It’s a little cliché to bring up the San Antonio Spurs right around now. After all, the Bulls don’t have that level of continuity, nor do they have an old-but-effective Tim Duncan, the best post man of his generation.

But with great coaching, a blended roster of dependable veterans (some old, some not) and young star Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs beat Miami quite easily.

The idea that you need a Super Friends lineup to make the Finals isn’t wrong -- the Heat did it four years in a row -- but it’s not the only answer in a multiple-choice league.

A healthy Rose is an MVP candidate. Joakim Noah is an MVP candidate on a team without Rose. Taj Gibson is an All-Star-caliber player. Jimmy Butler is a strong defender. That’s a good core. Add to that group Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy. I’m not sold on any draft picks being on this team, but we’ll see what happens Thursday. Even if there are no trades, I’d guess the Bulls draft and stash a foreign player.

Mirotic would be a versatile scorer, though likely not a dominating one, and Afflalo a dependable option at shooting guard with Butler playing more small forward. A key is bringing in another big man to keep a three-man rotation with Noah and Gibson. The Bulls added injured center Greg Smith late this past season, but they can’t rely on Noah playing the position by himself again.

Wizards big man Marcin Gortat, if I had to pick a free-agent center, would be a great fit, in theory, but it seems like he has found a home in Washington.

Yes, that’s where we are: dreaming of Gortat in a Carmelo world.

It’s not basketball hell. It’s Chicago.