No Carmelo? Bulls respond with Plan P

CHICAGO -- The best-laid schemes of Bulls and men often go astray, especially when it comes to the Kobes, LeBrons and Carmelos of the world.

A day after LeBron James surprised many by returning to Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony shocked exactly no one by spurning Chicago and negotiating to stay in New York.

If I had a dollar for every time the Bulls came up second in a chance to land a great NBA player, I’d have enough to self-publish my book, “The 50 Greatest Deals the Bulls Almost Made.”

I’m guessing that John Paxson, Gar Forman and the gang won’t read that in hardcover, paperback or Kindle. They lived it.

Here’s what the Bulls get for finishing second for Anthony: Pau Gasol, who tweeted that he was joining the Bulls on Saturday afternoon, likely Nikola Mirotic, probably Kirk Hinrich, again, and a swingman to be named sooner rather than later.

Good thing the Bulls saved all that cash on the Luol Deng exile last year. They can use it to pay Carlos Boozer's salary after he’s amnestied. No sign and trade for you, Mr. Reinsdorf!

Expectations for the Bulls? Well, it’s been title or bust since the 2010-11 Bulls won the No. 1 seed.

Four years after the Bulls went from 8-seed to championship contender behind Tom Thibodeau and the remaining core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the Bulls find themselves still contending, but with no clear prediction on how they match up with other contenders, let alone the Western Conference.

Anthony would have provided some clarity. His addition would have made the Bulls clear favorites in the East, as James tries to meld with his new young team and the Washington Wizards try to build off last season. (I’m not high on Indiana or Miami.)

With James’ move home, the East is wide open. The Bulls join Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and sure, the Knicks, as the frontrunners to get mopped up by a Western Conference team.

I like the Bulls’ chances, provided, of course, Rose stays healthy. Anthony would've been the perfect addition for an offensively challenged team, but Rose with a team full of “floor spacers” isn’t bad. Now they just need one other guy who can create his own shot late in games.

Rose is due for some good fortune, right? Ever since he’s got his money, Rose has dealt with bad knees and worse press, but I have a sneaking suspicion his return will be almost as electrifying as James’ in Ohio.

Gasol isn’t a bad consolation prize, given the Bulls are looking for an immediate title shot, and he’s not getting Carlos Boozer money.

The 7-foot power forward-center is a sweet-passing, scoring big man. He averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds last season, averaging 31.4 minutes in 60 games. The 34-year-old is a step up from 2010’s consolation prize Boozer, the previous backup plan in a free-agent frenzied summer. After all, he won't get swatted at the rim quite so much.

Gasol can certainly score. He’s won two titles and will be an easy fit in a laidback, professional locker room. Defensively, he’s no Gibson or Noah, but he’ll still be better than Boozer, who gets credit for always talking on defense after his guy beat him.

The Bulls play a team defense anyway, five guys on a string, and Gasol should be just fine working with Gibson and Noah, though Thibodeau is going to have to -- (gulp) -- watch his minutes.

But it’s a nice frontcourt trio as Thibs can split up the bulk of 96 minutes between them. While I'd like to see Gibson graduate to the starting lineup, I could see Gasol starting at power forward and shifting to center when Noah goes out and Gibson comes in. Or vice versa. That’s a good option.

It’s expected the Bulls will soon sign Mirotic, the 6-foot-10 forward from Real Madrid they drafted in 2011. He’s been dubbed the best player in Europe, which is subjective at best. Mirotic can score, but expectations should be tempered.

By adding two tall scorers (provided Mirotic signs), the Bulls become a matchup problem. At this writing, I don’t know the fate of trade bait/3-point shooter Mike Dunleavy. If he’s traded, the Bulls have rookie Doug McDermott and second-year man Tony Snell to help with long-range shooting. McDermott was a clever scorer in college, but this isn’t the “new” Big East.

The Bulls could be deep and dangerous, if everything goes right. And we know how that works around here.

The organizational dream of emulating the San Antonio Spurs is just that, a dream. But their win over Miami gave credence to the idea that “Big Three”-style teams can’t always beat well-rounded teams that have continuity among its stars.

I’m confident this is another 55-plus win team with a healthy Rose and the expected roster around him. Is that enough to go from contender to favorite?

While everyone likes to pretend the Bulls’ last playoff failures mean something, they don’t. The Bulls have only had one crack at the playoffs with Rose and Thibodeau. Just one.

With their second shot in mind, Gasol makes the Bulls better than they were yesterday. Will it be good enough to make them matter in June? I guess they’ll have to play the games.