They’re loath to admit it now, but Bulls fans used to want LeBron James on their team. Back in summer 2010, the Chicago Bulls were one of James’ select few suitors for his free-agency sitdowns. Many considered the possibilities, how he’d mentor Derrick Rose and compete with Michael Jordan’s legacy; they fantasized wildly, as happens when it seems the best player of his generation could play for your team. In one dizzying scenario, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would join James in Chicago, launching a dynasty to last a thousand All-Star Games.
Then came unopposable reports that James was leaning toward Miami, followed by The Decision and the crushing feeling that the Bulls had come so close -- that now there was no point in competing, not with this super team loitering in the East.
But something beautiful happened: Rose matured into an MVP candidate; Tom Thibodeau barked his way toward becoming one of the league’s best coaches; Luol Deng and Joakim Noah became defensive and emotional anchors. Even consolation signee Carlos Boozer hit a shot here and there. Though the Bulls eventually lost to the Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, there was real faith that the groundwork was laid for a defining rivalry -- Heatles against the Bench Mob, South Beach glamour against Midwestern realism, ego-soaked King James with his prancing and chalk-clapping against D-Rose, the only “honest superstar” in the league.
We know what happened next. Rose blew out his knee the next season, and now it’s been almost four years since he played the Heat in a meaningful game. Much has changed: Noah is entering his 30s, Deng is a casualty of cap-space rejiggering, and every year there are rumors that Thibodeau is fed up with the front office and would bolt for New York. Without Rose, the Bulls are good for a playoff berth and two must-see home games against the Heat per season. What once seemed like an open window is now the glimmer at the end of a cave toward which they can only struggle.
Now, as 2014 free agency officially begins, Carmelo Anthony is set to meet the Bulls before any other team, and depending on which reports you believe, there’s a fair-to-excellent chance he’ll suit up in red and white next season. Bulls fans have rooted against Anthony and the smarmy, loathable Knicks for years, but they’d sign him without a second’s pause. They want Anthony, just as they once wanted James.
But the Bulls haven't gone as all-in with Anthony as they did with the James/Wade/Bosh trifecta in 2010. They have less cap space, and they haven’t shown any sign they’ll try to create much more before they know what’s going on. General manager Gar Forman wouldn’t admit it, but the Bulls lucked out in 2010: They had no way of knowing how good Rose would be, how Thibodeau would prove capable of lifting any player off the trash heap -- Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin -- and turning him into a real contributor. The Bulls are angling for Anthony, but they’re also planning for a world in which the only exciting news is that Derrick Rose is (maybe) back to being exciting.
This is a realer possibility than Chicago fans would like to admit, especially with the Knicks and Phil Jackson offering so much money. Despite a rabid fan base and large market, the Bulls have been famously unsuccessful at attracting marquee free agents. They failed to get James, and before him, they failed to get Tracy McGrady. There’s a sense that the cold and the specter of Jordan can't be that bad -- that for whatever reason, the Bulls have consistently put everything in place but been unable to go the extra step. They're a classic “what if?” franchise, as the Jordan experience left them with a negative balance in the karma bank. Jay Williams’ motorcycle accident, Eddy Curry’s heart palpitations, Rose’s ACL, summer 2010 -- something has always gone wrong.
Thankfully, Derrick Rose joined the Bulls in wooing Anthony. He'd previously insisted he wouldn't, instead talking like it was only as easy as wanting to play with the Bulls. As many messy superstar courtships have shown us, playing in a league filled with brands and power-minded agents isn’t so simple. Anthony could easily want something sexier than the Bulls, who are only the best team with the most obvious need for his talents. He might fall for the undying dream of the Knicks, for all their perpetual malaise. He might hungrily grasp the chance to play with LeBron and Dwight Howard on the Houston Rockets after a career full of Feltons and J.R.s. He might just want to play with a superstar whose health is guaranteed, as it’s still unsure how good Rose will be on a healed leg.
For the Bulls, Anthony represents an exit strategy, a way to brush aside the disappointments of the past few years and immediately leap back into contention. Where LeBron was a blank slate onto which the Bulls could scribble any limitless possibility, Anthony’s proposed role is much clearer. We know that even with a completely rejuvenated Rose, these Bulls as built will likely struggle to score. We know there are only so many defensive grinds they can win against the top teams. They’d need Anthony to act as a pressure valve, unburdening Rose on off nights and saving us from Joakim Noah jumpers. In plainest terms, he’d be someone to take the ball in tense moments and score. The Bulls need a weapon; Anthony needs a defense and a coach he actually respects. If only it were that simple.
All the power, though, is in his hands. The Bulls are stuck waiting to see if Anthony will spurn them like LeBron did, leaving them a hypothetical dynasty like the Ralph Sampson Rockets and Chris Webber Kings, to be dreamily memorialized in oral histories a decade from now. Or maybe he’ll sign and immediately contend for the NBA championship whose absence has made him this generation’s foremost underachieving superstar.
All we know is that chances like these won't keep coming around for the Bulls -- and that once more, the fans could be left wondering what might've been.
Jeremy Gordon is a staff writer for Pitchfork, and contributes to the Wall Street Journal and Pacific Standard. He lives in Brooklyn. Follow him, @jeremypgordon.