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updated: 5/3/2014 7:43 PM

Which path should Bulls take?

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  • New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) shoots over Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson (22) in the second half of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Anthony scored 30 points as the Knicks defeated the Bulls 83-78.

      New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) shoots over Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson (22) in the second half of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Anthony scored 30 points as the Knicks defeated the Bulls 83-78.
    Associated Press

  • New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, left, passes the ball past Chicago Bulls' D.J. Augustin during the first half of the NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 13, 2014 in New York. The Knicks defeated the Bulls 100-89.

      New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, left, passes the ball past Chicago Bulls' D.J. Augustin during the first half of the NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 13, 2014 in New York. The Knicks defeated the Bulls 100-89.
    Associated Press

 
 

The Bulls aren't going to let coach Tom Thibodeau escape to Los Angeles. He's too important to the off-season plan.

When Carmelo Anthony considers his future, Thibodeau and Joakim Noah will represent a winning, hardworking atmosphere Anthony can believe in. If Derrick Rose ever resembles his old self again, that's a bonus.

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New Knicks president Phil Jackson and probable coach Steve Kerr are good guys with a history of success, but they represent a great unknown for Anthony. Staying in New York means putting faith in the ex-Bulls brothers to turn things around quickly, and unless Jackson can work miracles, the Knicks won't have cap space until 2015.

Here's the reality of the Bulls' summer: Whatever happens is essentially out of their hands.

They can recruit, move salaries out of the way, send Benny the Bull to the airport -- this is Anthony's call to make; one that could determine whether or not he'll win an NBA championship in his prime.

So when Bulls general manager Gar Forman said this week he doesn't know which direction things could go this summer, he wasn't kidding. Here's a look at three paths the Bulls could follow:

Option 1: 'Melo in

By joining the Bulls this summer, Anthony could finish an intriguing lineup, featuring two elite scorers (Anthony and Rose) and three strong defenders (Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler).

As mentioned here weeks ago, the Bulls plan to make keeping Gibson a pillar of their Anthony plan, and that makes sense. Title contenders usually don't have gaping holes in the power forward spot.

If the salary cap makes the jump to $63 million and the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer and they unload Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell and both first-round draft picks, they could offer Anthony a starting salary of around $16 million. But it may not even come to that.

Anthony made $21.5 million from the Knicks last season and New York could go as high as a five-year, $130 million offer this summer. That would mean a $29 million salary in 2018-19, when Anthony is 34.

Jackson has already gone public with his reluctance to max out 'Melo, stating he hopes Anthony is serious about a previous comment that winning means more than money. Jackson argued that taking less will increase the Knicks' chances of building a winner around him.

The Bulls can't compete with a maximum offer from New York, although they could give Anthony a deal averaging more than $20 million per season if they traded Gibson for future draft picks.

More likely, they'll focus on that $16 million option and the key is Anthony telling the Knicks he's going to leave.

Once the Knicks figure he's as good as gone, they might be willing to do a sign-and-trade. Why? Instead of losing Anthony for nothing, the Bulls could send those first-round picks to New York, throw in the non-guaranteed contracts of Ronnie Brewer, Mike James and Lou Amundson, and include Dunleavy and Snell if the Knicks want them. Now Anthony can get a higher salary from the Bulls.

Before the latest collective bargaining agreement came into effect, the Knicks could have signed Anthony to a five-year deal at 7.5 percent raises and shipped him to the Bulls. Under the current rules, sign-and-trades can be only for four years at smaller raises (4.5 percent), same as the Bulls could offer if they signed him outright.

What about depth? Under this scenario, the Bulls could use an exception for teams that fall below the cap. It's worth $2.7 million and maybe that's enough to bring back Augustin or Hinrich. Either one could offer both depth and insurance at point guard in case of another Rose injury.

Late-season addition Greg Smith is in the Bulls' plan for next year. The 6-foot-10 power forward missed most of this season with a knee injury, but averaged 6 points and 4.6 rebounds for Houston in 2012-13.

Here's the final piece of the Anthony plan: The Bulls would ask Nikola Mirotic to wait a year and then hope to sign him using the midlevel exception in 2015, worth roughly $5.46 million.

If everything works spectacularly well, the Bulls could have that starting lineup of Rose, Anthony, Butler, Noah and Gibson, with Augustin, Mirotic and Smith filling out the top eight by 2015-16.

Option 2: 'Melo out

This one starts with another unknown: How much will it take to pull Mirotic to the USA this summer? He has a sizable buyout in his Real Madrid contract.

First, here's an update: In 29 EuroLeague games, the 6-foot-10 Mirotic averaged 12.2 points and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 53.7 percent overall and 46.3 percent from 3-point range. Real Madrid (24-5) will face cross-Spain rival Barcelona on May 16 in a EuroLeague semifinal in Milan.

An educated guess is it will take around $7 million to sign Mirotic. His buyout will decrease with time, which is why they might be able to get him for less next year.

In this scenario, the Bulls amnesty Boozer, sign Mirotic and keep the two first-round draft picks (Nos. 14 and 19). If they could find a taker for Dunleavy, they could have around $6 million of cap room to spend on other free agents.

Do they take a chance on Indiana's Lance Stephenson? Take a chance on Chicago native Evan Turner? Take a chance on Thibodeau's virtual godson Austin Rivers?

This isn't 2010. The free-agent class doesn't jump out as spectacular, but there might be some value-priced role players out there.

Here's a brief sample of younger 2014 free agents: Shaun Livingston, Thabo Sefolosha, Trevor Ariza, Jerryd Bayless, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour, Spencer Hawes, Devin Harris, Dejuan Blair, Rodney Stuckey, Steve Blake, Danny Granger, Glen Davis, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Michael Beasley, Jeff Adrien, Cole Aldrich, E'Twaun Moore.

D.J. Augustin probably returns in this scenario. Some inside depth and 3-point shooting would be on the wish list.

Option 3: Stay put

It is tough to imagine a scenario where Boozer plays for the Bulls at a $16.8 million salary next year, but here's one: By (barely) avoiding the luxury tax, the Bulls could use the full midlevel ($5.3 million) and the biannual exceptions ($2.1 million).

Mirotic is widely viewed as a stretch four and the Bulls wouldn't need three power forwards. So this path makes sense only if Mirotic decides not to sign this summer, for whatever reason.

The playoffs showed how the Bulls need to make changes. So if Anthony doesn't sign, expect the Bulls to make Mirotic a priority.

What about Kevin Love, who may be on his way out of Minnesota? He doesn't make as much sense for the Bulls, because they already have a competent power forward in Gibson, and giving Love a big contract would make it tougher to find that second perimeter scorer they need.

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