While we all wait for the Tom Thibodeau drama to play out over the course of the next few weeks, the Bulls front office also has to assess whether the current roster is capable of challenging for a championship next season.
On the positive side, Derrick Rose showed flashes of his old form during the Bulls' playoff run, displaying the speed and explosiveness that made him the league's youngest MVP in 2011. Finishing the season healthy will allow him to have a full summer to work on his game and hopefully avoid the inconsistency that plagued him throughout the 2014-15 campaign.
Jimmy Butler emerged as an All-Star in his fourth NBA season, averaging 20 points a game, while emerging as a go-to scoring option in the fourth quarter. Butler also showed his defensive skills are still among the best in the league with his impressive effort against LeBron James in the just-completed series against Cleveland. The Bulls are expected to be pro-active in re-signing Butler, possibly offering him a full five-year max contract before he hits the open market.
Pau Gasol had one of his best all-around seasons at the age of 34, making his first career All-Star start. And, even though he suffered a hamstring strain in the Cleveland series, the Bulls should feel comfortable he can be a productive force on the offensive end again next season.
Add in the potential of young players like Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell, plus the expected return of veterans Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich, and the Bulls should contend for one of the top four seeds in East.
But here's where it gets tough. What can the Bulls realistically expect to get out of Joakim Noah next season in the final year of his contract, and might they be better off to explore trade possibilities to avoid a potentially awkward situation when Noah hits free agency in the summer of 2016?
Noah admitted after the Bulls were eliminated that he has to play better next season. The 30-year-old center was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-NBA selection in 2013-14, but his play dropped off dramatically following knee surgery last spring. Noah averaged just 7.2 PPG on 44.5 percent shooting during the regular season, then dropped to just 5.8 PPG on 40.8 percent shooting in the playoffs. Also gone for most of the season were the multiple effort plays that made him such a fan favorite and the Bulls' inspirational leader.
The front office now has to decide if Noah can bounce back to his old form with a full offseason to continue rehab on his surgically repaired knee, or is it the time right to explore trading Noah for some younger assets?
Granted, the market for a 30-year-old center who will make $13.9 million next season may not be all that robust, but there is one team to keep an eye on. Oklahoma City recently hired Noah's college coach, Billy Donovan, to replace Scott Brooks for the all-in 2015-16 season. With Kevin Durant's impending free agency hanging over the franchise, GM Sam Presti must do whatever he can to challenge for the title next season.
So, why not reunite Donovan with the guy who helped him win a pair of NCAA championships at Florida? If he's healthy, Noah might be able to provide some of the leadership and intangible qualities Oklahoma City has been missing over the last few seasons since making the Finals in 2012.
What could the Bulls ask for in return? Well, the easiest deal would involve soon to be 23-year-old center Enes Kanter, who's very good offensively, but poor on the defensive end. Kanter is a restricted free agent who will be looking for a starting salary upwards of $10 million a season. Given that OKC already has two other young big men in Steven Adams and Mitch McGary, the Thunder might be willing to give up Kanter in a Noah deal.
The Bulls would probably have to sweeten the package by including a first round draft pick and maybe take back a smaller salary for a back-up wing player like Anthony Morrow or Jeremy Lamb to make the cap math work, but it's certainly a deal that could be made if Kanter is receptive to a future in Chicago.
Sure, the Bulls could roll the dice on Noah for one more season, let him walk as a free agent and use the resulting cap room to possibly enter the bidding war for max-caliber players when the new TV money arrives to increase the salary cap by close to $20 million in 2016. But we've seen how well that's worked in the past, (see James, L., Wade, D., Bosh, C. & Anthony, C.).
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Adding a young player like Kanter would leave the Bulls in good shape at center when Gasol retires, creating a possible frontline of Kanter, Mirotic and McDermott to go along with one of the league's best backcourts in Rose and Butler.
Of course, Noah is very tight with Donovan and may have already confided to his former college coach that his knee problems will continue for as long as he continues to play basketball. But if Jo is dedicated to making a strong comeback in 2015-16, a fresh start with a pair of superstars in Durant and Russell Westbrook might not sound like a bad option.
Any potential Noah trade could fall apart for numerous reasons, (health, salary, lack of team control beyond next season), but a phone call to Oklahoma City sounds like a reasonable option for the Bulls' front office as they look ahead to what promises to be another eventful summer.