It's only natural. Watching what, so far, looks like it could be an epic NBA Finals between the Thunder and Heat, the Bulls' front office should be thinking about ways to improve their team.
Even approaching a season with lowered expectations, if the Bulls want to compete in the ongoing NBA arms race, they have to think about adding additional firepower. The only problem is, with little financial flexibility this summer, the only way to do that is, as team general manager Gar Forman told Bulls.com recently, to "take a step back."
Now, Forman meant in the short-term, with Derrick Rose likely to miss the majority of next season and fellow All-Star Luol Deng also likely to start the season on the shelf. But the truth is, in order for the Bulls to be able to truly return to contending status in the 2013-14 season--realistically, there isn't a title coming next June--some upgrades need to be made.
Miami and Oklahoma City have the horses--two top-five NBA players on each side in league MVP LeBron James and scoring champ Kevin Durant, another pair of top-20 players, at minimum, in All-Star guards Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade, not to mention an underrated All-Star in Chris Bosh for the Heat and two of the league's best up-and-coming youngsters in the Thunder's Serge Ibaka and James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year--and as much as the blue-collar Bulls are respected for the unselfish, defensive-oriented style of play, that's not the case in Chicago.
Even if Rose is back on the court ahead of schedule, which could be a possibility, and returns to form as one of the game's elite talents, the Bulls just don't have the individual scoring and athleticism needed to match the two juggernauts in the Finals, both of whom look to be formidable obstacles for any team trying to advance to the championship round in the near future.
Despite the Bulls' conference-finals defeat at the hands of the Heat last season, it appeared that a few tweaks were all that was needed to up the ante for a squad with such remarkable chemistry, a transcendent superstar and the defensive values of past title teams. After Rose's devastating injury and the first-round loss to Philadelphia, there was reason for optimism, especially with a streaking San Antonio group in the wayy of youthful Oklahoma City and Miami struggling with both Indiana and Boston.
Suddenly, things have changed, as the Thunder's talent overwhelmed the Spurs and the Heat--mostly James, to be honest, though Bosh's return from an abdominal injury certainly helped the cause--rose to the occasion and have come as close to reaching its potential in the nearly two years since "The Decision." In a copy-cat league, "Big Threes" are all the rage, whether teams form potent trios through free agency like the Heat or by drafting well, like the Thunder.
The Bulls don't currently have it and with their balance, they don;t necessarily need it, though their depth will surely take a hit this summer, as "Bench Mob" stalwarts Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson could be relocating come July. However, it's clear that minor upgrades to plug holes like outside shooting alone won't be enough to get back to being one of the league's upper-echelon teams when Rose is fully healthy and the time to start making changes might be now.
From the perspective of a fan or even a jaded journalist who enjoys quality basketball, it would be hard to see the Bulls break up their cohesive core, but with little money to spend in free agency, four eight-figure contracts and contract extensions looming for Omer Asik this summer and Taj Gibson the next, there's little choice but to make a trade in order to make a leap forward. While some certainly wouldn't shed a tear if the much-maligned Carlos Boozer was sent packing this summer, either through trade or amnesty, neither option is likely to happen, as the appetite for his contract around the league isn't strong and after all, without Rose and Deng to start the season, Boozer's scoring will be one of the team's offensive focal points when the Bulls' season begins.
Instead, two players central to the Bulls' identity as a selfless, hard-working bunch are team's biggest assets: Deng and Joakim Noah. Both have been speculated about in various reports that have the Bulls aiming to get a perimeter-playing lottery pick, whether it's North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, who claimed he met with the team during the league's pre-draft combine in Chicago recently, or the likes of Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, Syracuse's Dion Waiters or Duke's Austin Rivers, the son of the Celtics head coach, while hopefully getting back a veteran point guard in return.
Now, this isn't to advocate trading either Deng or Noah, as Deng made his debut as both an All-Star and a member of the league's All-Defensive Team this season, while the unique Noah is one of the top players at his position in the league. But with the way the Bulls are hamstrung by hefty contracts, the question becomes whether or not either player is central to winning a title.
Examining the lottery teams in the upcoming NBA Draft, there are plenty of teams--from Charlotte, who picks second, all the way down to Phoenix, near the bottom of the lottery at No. 13 overall, though not all of those teams have a player available sufficiently capable of filling the Bulls' short-term point-guard needs--who could use either veteran more than an untested rookie, even in what's considered a deep class. Without knowing how much each team covets Deng or Noah, a chance to get into the top five or six selections could make sense, as top prospects like the aforementioned Barnes, a small forward, or Connecticut center Andre Drummond, could be considered worthy long-term positional replacements for either of the duo.
Dealing with any team drafting lower than Portland at No. 6 and it would likely come down to taking the best shooting guard on the Bulls' board, whether that's Lamb, Waiters or Rivers, as Barnes--his meeting with the Bulls certainly created a buzz, but it could be part of a trend, as the Kentucky small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist claimed he met with the Thunder, who also have a late first-round pick and wouldn't be in the mix for the top prospect; whether it's shrewd Thunder GM Sam Presti just trying to get an audience with a player who fits their culture and could be on the free-agent market in a couple of seasons or gauging whether a deal needs to be made to get value out of Harden or Ibaka before one potentially walks as a free agent remains to be seen--and Drummond likely wouldn't be available, though these things can be fluid leading up to the draft, as evidenced by Ohio State power forward Jared Sullinger's recent medical "red flag," something that has historically caused prospects to slip on draft night, due to lingering back issues. Regardless, any of those names are projected to make more of an immediate impact than Will Barton, Doron Lamb, John Jenkins or anyone else the Bulls would take with the 29th overall pick, even if that rookie was thrown in the fire.
But is it worth it? For a struggling lottery team, yes, as Deng's professionalism, versatility and winning ways would overshadow both his contract and the chance that he doesn't start the regular season on time if he has wrist surgery after the Olympics, while Noah's infectious energy, passion and ability as a mobile seven-footer is capable of helping any franchise.
There are pros and cons to both players, things Bulls fans have learned to accept, but for other teams, whether it's Deng coming off the books after the 2013-14 season or Noah locked into four more years of his deal, it's more about the value they bring and the foundation they provide moving forward. That's why, if the Bulls are seriously considering a swap, they must maximize what's received in return--two trades that have been speculated upon are Noah and the 29th pick to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and the fifth pick (an unlikely scenario, even if Evans, the former Rookie of the Year), and Deng and the 29th pick to Toronto for veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who has one more year left on his contract, and the eighth pick--and minimize the loss of one of their core players.
Though it would take away from the Bulls' strong frontcourt rotation, Noah would be easier to part with, as the Bulls are expected to match any offer for Asik--who is reportedly coveted by several teams, including Boston and Cleveland--and Asik, at least as a defender, is regarded as one of the league's more underrated young big men. Deng, on the other hand, has no natural replacement and as much hand-wringing has been done over finding a temporary fill-in for Rose, the Bulls must find a starting-caliber forward to begin the season with their other All-Star potentially on the shelf, assuming he remains in Chicago, although keeping the fact that his contract is up in 2014 in mind, a decision to cut ties prematurely could make sense from strictly a business standpoint alone.
Standing pat and waiting for Rose to get healthy and plotting moves for the summer of 2013's loaded free-agent class is also an option, but it's got to be hard for the Bulls to resist the temptation to tinker when watching these magnificently-played Finals and seeing all of the top-tier studs on the court. The stakes are raised now, as the organization's singular focus can't just be beating the Heat; any contending team must also think about having enough weapons to also take down the Thunder, as the youth of that team pencils them for multiple Finals appearances.
Rose, when healthy, is obviously in that realm of elite players, while Deng and Noah are probably a level below and the rest of the current roster under contract, including the likely-to-return Asik and Gibson, a high priority the following summer, are solid complementary pieces. But without the present flexibility to bring in talent and a season approaching in which challenging for a championship doesn't seem feasible, a deep draft featuring teams with high picks looking for established veteran talent could be the best way to plan for the future, acquire some room to maneuver financially and bring in some scoring punch, especially with names like Evans--pie-in-the-sky theory or not, the young guard is the type of talent the Bulls should aim for if trading one of their big pieces, as he can create for himself, provide some assistance at point guard and with one year left on his rookie deal, basically have an extended tryout to see if he buys into the Bulls' defensive-oriented scheme before hitting free agency--available.
When it comes down to it, an evaluation of whether to be patient and stay the course, believing that Chicago is a more attractive free-agent destination in 2013 than it was in 2010, or jump-starting the process now, without fully blowing it up, is what will determine the Bulls' level of activity leading up to the draft and then, free agency. But it's clear that with the high level Miami and Oklahoma City are playing at--James finally entering that other stratosphere when it matters most, while Durant continues to raise the bar--the Bulls need more horses.