The Bulls' $30-million free-agent plan was tantalizing.
With a couple of phone conversations next July 1, they might have been able to land two top-line free agents and conceivably hosted a new conference featuring Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh seated at the same table.
Bulls game day
Bulls vs. Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center, 6 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: WMVP 1000-AM
Update: Not many teams lose all five starters in a matter of weeks. But the Wizards traded away Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, while Gilbert Arenas remains on suspension for storing unloaded guns in his locker. Washington (19-34) has won two of its last three games, though. The new lineup features athletic swingmen Josh Howard (ex-Dallas) and Al Thornton (ex-Clippers), along with holdovers Randy Foye, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. The Bulls have won eight of their last 10 road games and have a four-game win streak on the line.
Next: Wednesday vs. Indiana Pacers at the United Center, 7 p.m.
That plan didn't work out, though, because the Bulls hung on to Kirk Hinrich at the trade deadline. I believe general manager Gar Forman when he said Thursday the Bulls did not want to trade Hinrich. Of course they didn't want to, but I suspect they would have if the Lakers agreed to give back expiring contracts, or if a Tracy McGrady deal with Houston and Sacramento worked out.
Now the Bulls head into the summer with $20 million of cap space to spend. In some ways, this scenario is better for fans because the Bulls, 19-9 since Dec. 26, should finish the season well above .500 and be primed for a competitive playoff series.
One NBA scout walked into the arena this weekend shaking his head at the Bulls' envious position - $20 million in cap space and a winning nucleus already in place. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Hinrich are all locked in beyond next season.
So what is the $20 million plan? Well, it's still possible to pursue a pair of top-level free agents, and much of the focus figures to stay on Johnson and Bosh. But the Bulls will need some help to get it done.
Specifically, they need a trade. By the summer, there are no expiring contracts, so creating more cap room is unlikely.
Here's how it could happen, though:
Let's say on July 1, Johnson tells the Hawks he's leaving. That's when the Bulls call and ask Atlanta, "Instead of losing him for nothing, why not take back Hinrich in a sign and trade?"
Would the Hawks agree to this? Tough to say and then again, who knows if Atlanta will even make an all-out pitch to give Johnson a huge salary when they're paying Jamal Crawford $10 million next season to play the same position?
Anyway, if the Bulls could execute that type of trade, they'd have the money to turn around and pursue Bosh, Carlos Boozer or David Lee.
The same thing would be true if Toronto agreed to take Deng or Hinrich back in a sign-and-trade for Bosh.
It might even help the Bulls' cause that Miami and New York have loads of cap room available. Bosh could tell the Raptors, "Trade me to the Bulls or I'll sign with the Heat and you'll get nothing in return."
Miami has enough money to re-sign Dwyane Wade, add a maximum-contract free agent and have a little left over for spare parts. New York could sign two top-level players or ink one and re-sign Lee. Neither of those teams can match the supporting cast the Bulls already have in place.
Another factor working in the Bulls' favor, which is sort of a sad truth about the NBA, is the large market teams tend to win.
Toronto may be a great city, but does Bosh honestly see the Raptors playing in the Finals someday?
As long as two top-level free agents have the desire to join the Bulls, there's a chance it could happen. Wade and LeBron James seem less likely to jump, but both might strongly consider Chicago.
If no team wants to do a sign-and-trade that would help the Bulls create a behemoth, the outlook is still bright. They do need an elite two guard and an inside scoring presence to challenge for a championship, most likely.
Trading for Minnesota's Al Jefferson seemed to be a possibility, but the Bulls had to be alarmed at how ordinary Jefferson looked on Friday, producing 10 points, 5 rebounds and missing layups left and right in a loss to the Bulls. He hasn't been the same since having knee surgery last year and may not be worth the risk.
One enormous bright spot to the Bulls' season, though, has been the play of rookie power forward Taj Gibson, the No. 26 pick of last year's draft. Newcomer Hakim Warrick has looked good and shouldn't cost much to keep around. Brad Miller, still just 33, might play another year or two at a lower salary.
The Bulls could try a lineup of Rose, Johnson, Deng, Gibson and Noah, with Hinrich, Warrick, Miller and maybe another lower-cost free agent in reserve.
Could that team reach the Finals? Probably not, but the Bulls would be closer than they are now.