Until Derrick Rose's torn ACL killed the basketball dreams of our fair city, everything seemed to be working out well enough for the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls went from being the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs two seasons in a row to earning the East's top seed in consecutive years, a frenzied rise to the top precipitated by one brilliant coaching hire and a well-constructed roster by the team's two-headed GM conglomerate of Gar Forman and John Paxson.
There was a time in the organization's recent history where this type of ascent to the league's elite looked highly improbable. Winning the draft lottery with a 1.7 percent chance has a way of drastically changing a franchise's fortunes. But in an alternative universe where the Bulls don't hit on that impossibly unlikely top pick in 2008 to secure their superstar in Rose, there's a good chance the present day Bulls would be noted for their front office's unwillingness to take a gamble more than anything else.
The Bulls have always liked to play it safe. This is a franchise that has been tied to just about every superstar in the NBA over the last 10 years. Seriously: can you think of a single elite player who hasn't been rumored to go to Chicago, save for the latest crop? First there was Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, then Pau Gasol and Amare Stoudemire, followed infamously by the team's short-lived front-runner status for summer of 2010 free agents LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Last season, while the Bulls were working their way towards securing homecourt advantage throughout the entire playoffs, rumors about Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard hung over the franchise like a brooding storm cloud.
Sure, the James-Wade courting was likely doomed from the beginning, as the formation of the Miami Heat now appears as if it was in the works for years. Miami collusion aside, each of these trades fell apart for one reason or another. Mostly, the Bulls didn't pull the trigger because they never wanted to part with their young homegrown talent.
It seems like eons ago now, but the Bulls' core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni and Luol Deng was once considerably touted. It could have fetched a perennial All-Star, but the front office was always too cautious to pull the trigger, for better or for worse. There was also the persistent issue of the luxury tax, a fine owner Jerry Reinsdorf never felt comfortable incurring despite the fact that Chicago has sold out nearly every damn game since the dawn of the '90s, on top of the gobs of merchandise moved thanks mostly to Michael Jordan.
That's why the most recent rumors surrounding the Bulls register as a bit of a shock. Multiple outlets reported Chicago is interested in trading up into the lottery this weekend, with Luol Deng's name being floated as trade bait.
While we're still a long way from something actually coming to fruition, there is rarely NBA fire without smoke. The fact that the Bulls are even considering moving Deng -- the team's lynchpin and Thibodeau's favorite son -- is decidedly out of character. I like their intentions.
Last week, I wrote that the Bulls should ditch their conservative pathos and start thinking progressively. This team won the most regular season games in the NBA over the last two years thanks to a simple formula: Derrick Rose + defense + depth. Now Rose is gone until at least the second half of next season, and expecting him to carry such a significant percentage of the offense seems foolish. The depth may not be around for long either, as a set of expiring contracts has the future of the self-appointed "Bench Mob" in jeopardy.
The thought here is that last year was the Bulls' best chance. When this team is ready to compete for a championship again, it won't be with the same roster that brought us so much excitement over the last few seasons.
Deng and center Joakim Noah are the two trade candidates here, and neither is ideal. Deng's decision to play in the Olympics and delay wrist surgery should have the small forward out until January. His value is probably lower right now than it would normally be. Noah is the team's defensive anchor and emotional leader. It's hard to find a young center as good as Noah. Trading either would certainly qualify as a drastic move.
Still, there's no discounting how team-friendly the rookie scale is. Deng makes $13.3 million next season and $14.2 million in 2013-2014. Noah makes between $11.1 million and $13.4 million until 2015-2016. A rookie lottery pick is going to earn around $3 million for four seasons.
It's important that the Bulls get the right piece if they pull the trigger on such a risky move, as they can't afford to blow this opportunity. The Bulls met with North Carolina small forward Harrison Barnes, and are also rumored to like Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb, Syracuse’s Dion Waiters and Duke’s Austin Rivers. It's highly unlikely all four pan out.
The next edition of the Bulls will feature Rose and Nikola Mirotic. While Noah figures to stick around, who knows. Everything else is up in the air. The Bulls can create cap flexibility by amnestying underwhelming power forward Carlos Boozer and trading another one of their high priced starters. It won't be an easy move to make, but sometimes holding onto your own pieces for too long is even worse than an unpopular trade. While we all love playing armchair GM, Paxson and Forman are in an unenviable situation right now. Caution and luck worked out in the Bulls' favor last time, but the team shouldn't be banking on it again.