By Mike McGraw
Less than three weeks ago, the Bulls had aspirations of winning a championship.
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The outlook for the future already has taken a complete U-turn, with some asking whether the team should tank next season.
Actually, "tank" isn't the right word for this situation.
More like the Bulls might as well recognize they're not going anywhere with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng both coming off surgeries, so why not position themselves for a decent draft pick?
In reality, there's no need to give up on next year. It's a reasonable expectation that Rose and Deng will be back on the floor by midseason and the team could be operating at full strength heading into the playoffs.
So if there's a chance to grab the No. 8 playoff seed, they should go for it. Homecourt advantage for the entire playoffs did them no good the past two years. Maybe it's time for a different approach anyway.
But the Bulls are in a tough spot. The original plan was to decide this summer if the current roster was capable of challenging for a title.
If so, the Bulls have the ability to bring back everyone. If not, there's room to reduce the payroll by backing out of nonguaranteed deals for Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer.
Thanks to Rose's injury, this group never got a chance to mount a second championship challenge. So now what?
Besides Rose and Deng, the Bulls have Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler under contract. Add restricted free-agent center Omer Asik at roughly $4 million and the payroll is around $67 million.
An exact figure isn't possible now, because Rose's salary for next season depends on where the cap is set in July.
Last year the luxury tax threshold was $70.3 million. That number figures to rise, but the Bulls would pretty much have to finish the roster with minimum-salary players to avoid the paying luxury tax completely.
During an appearance on WSCR 670-AM radio Wednesday, Bulls general manager Gar Forman suggested that paying the tax next year is a realistic possibility.
"I'm confident that we will go into the tax if it makes basketball sense, as far as our long-term vision with this team," he said. "I don't think we'll go into the tax for a short-term plug-in. … There's a long window of opportunity to have success with this team."
In other words, the Bulls aren't going to make a play for free agent Steve Nash to be Rose's fill-in. But they will need a couple of wing players and a starting-caliber point guard. Someone who can replace Hamilton as the be bRose's fill-in. But they will need a couple of wing players and a starting-caliber point guard. Someone who can replace Hamilton as the starter at two guard is needed sooner or later.
Brewer almost certainly won't be back, because the team believes Butler is ready to take over the role of defensive stopper.
Watson was a huge disappointment in the playoffs, shooting 24 percent from the field in the six-game loss to Philadelphia. But quality point guards aren't easy to find -- just ask the Heat and the Knicks -- so it's possible the Bulls will end up deciding Watson is the best option.
They'll consider sticking with the other two point guards who finished out the season, John Lucas III and Mike James. They might try someone such as Curtis Stinson, who played well for their D-League affiliate. Former Bull Acie Law just helped Olympiakos win the Euroleague title last weekend.
Among the reasonably priced free agents, ex-Bull Kirk Hinrich might make the most sense, especially if the chance to move back to his old suburban home results in a discounted price.
At the wing spots, Korver is one of the NBA's best long-range shooters, but do the Bulls think he's worth the $5 million it would cost to keep him around? He couldn't get going against the Sixers and played very little late in the series.
If the Pistons use the amnesty clause on Ben Gordon, as many suspect, another former Bulls guard could join the candidate pool.
Trades aren't a great option when the goal is to lower the payroll. But Orlando's Dwight Howard will almost certainly be on the block this summer and New York might even consider moving Carmelo Anthony. Trading Deng or Noah for multiple players would be another way to revamp the roster.
The low-salary options are endless. Signing guys who will help the Bulls get into the playoffs next season and support Rose in the supposed next championship quest … that will take some creativity.