At the beginning of last season, Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman walked up to me and asked, "What do you think?"
He was speaking about the brilliant job he and executive vice president John Paxson had done over the 2014 summer in putting together a roster that on paper was arguably the most complete in the NBA.
My response was honest and slightly inaccurate: "You've constructed the perfect team, but enjoy it now, because beginning next season the Cavs are going to be a problem."
The problem that the Cleveland Cavaliers were supposed to become this upcoming season happened early. The influx of talent they were supposed to add this summer actually started last midseason in the form of two pivotal trades that fetched Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov. The bonding that comes after playing together for a year came after LeBron James took an eight-game break in January. The continuity that wasn't supposed to happen until after losing to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals actually happened while beating the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Last season was supposed to be when the Bulls took advantage of all of the Cavs' hypothesized shortcomings. It was also the season when the window was supposed to be open for them because the Indiana Pacers were without Paul George, the Milwaukee Bucks were a young, inexperienced, nonthreatening, disarrayed afterthought, and the Detroit Pistons, at best, were a suspect and uncertain enigma that was more a danger to themselves than any other team they faced on the court.
Now those days are over. The inaccuracy of my response to Forman rests in what I never saw coming: The Cavs are no longer the only problem. And the Bulls are in serious trouble.
The pending results of the free-agency period that began last week will negatively affect and impact the Bulls probably more than any other so-called "elite" team in the NBA. When the season begins in late October, the Bulls should no longer be considered one of the favored teams to come out of the East, as they were last season. Change happened. Quickly. To the point that they might not even be one of the four teams predicted to get past the first round of the 2016 playoffs.
The Atlanta Hawks are the reigning No. 1 seed in the East and are not expected to fall off too from that post (regardless of their showing in the East finals), and the Raptors added DeMarre Carroll, but the Bulls have three other major-problem teams they might not be able to solve.
• The Bucks. With the combination of their coming-of-age play against the Bulls in last season's playoffs, the re-signing of star-in-the-making Khris Middleton, the return of their franchise player Jabari Parker and their major coup of adding Greg Monroe, Milwaukee will be the rightful favorites to live up to the lofty expectations the Bulls were supposed to live up to last season.
• The Cavs. After putting the basketball world into shock by taking two games from the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals with a team so broken by injuries it could have been auctioned off by Lamont Sanford, the Cavs locked up Kevin Love with a five-year deal and re-signed Iman Shumpert. They'll get Kyrie Irving back from injury, and they are reportedly looking to add Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford to the backcourt. The Cavs will be the front-runner of all front-runners to return to the NBA Finals. And the defending champ Warriors face a big challenge from the Spurs, who return Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili in addition to winning the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes and adding David West.
• The Heat. The re-signing of Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic and the drafting of Justise Winslow, who many believe is the steal of the draft, to go along with last season's emergence of Hassan Whiteside as one of the bright young talents in the league, quietly puts Miami in that feared spot of being the underdog, better-not-sleep-on team that could upset anyone in a playoff series. They've been elevated to "serious threat to any team in the East that has to face them come May" status.
The Bulls are in trouble. Understatement.
But there are other questions for the Bulls from having a first-year coach in Fred Hoiberg to the reports of a Derrick Rose-Butler "beef" (whether media created or real), to the health and aging of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, respectively. And then there is the hangover of having to live with what really happened to the Bulls in that Game 6 against the Cavs, Chicago's worst-ever loss at home in an elimination game. All of this does not help the basketball hurdles Chicago must overcome from other teams not only believing they are better than the Bulls, but also no longer looking at them as the same threat they were last season.
The East done changed. The contenders got real, and the Bulls are about to pay for it. As newly acquired Bucks backup point guard Grevis Vasquez said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "To me, the NBA right now is pretty much even. You can't see one team being so much better than another team, especially in the East. I feel like it's out there for us to grab it."
The epic problem for the Bulls is that Vasquez and his new team aren't the only ones going into next season in a legitimate and rightful position to feel that way.