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Bulls Fri Mar 07 2014

Carmelo is the Bulls' Only Chance at Contending

Bulls_200.pngThe Bulls have been on a roll lately, inexplicably notching 10 wins in their last 12 attempts following the trade of former All-Star Luol Deng. Most of the opponents have come from the lowly Eastern Conference, but there are some quality wins against Atlanta (twice), Golden State, and Dallas mixed in as well. Don't let the streak fool you into thinking the Bulls are a contender though.

One of those losses came in a throttling by the LeBron James-less Heat, and it's doubtful the run continues when the Grizzlies, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder and the hated Pacers (twice) all make their way to the United Center in March. A team that struggles to score as much as the Bulls do can't survive on backdoor passes from Joakim Noah in a tough stretch of regular season games, let alone a seven-game series. High-end talent thrives in the playoffs, and the Bulls don't have enough of it.

Next year would be more of the same if they choose to keep the current band together. Derrick Rose, coming off two season-ending knee injuries in back-to-back seasons, will likely need more help than ever, and the Bulls are already over the salary cap (projected to be $62.1 million) with just seven guaranteed contracts on the books. They wouldn't even have the mid-level exception to tinker with, and despite Nikola Mirotic's juicy skill set, he's no sure come over or be successful in the NBA.

If the Bulls want a shot at the Larry O'Brien trophy in the next half-decade, they need another star player. That means they have to join Joakim Noah in pitching Carmelo Anthony this summer. It's the only path to the finals. Don't believe me? I'll prove it to you.

No other viable free agents move the needle

The 2014 free agent class is a complete mystery at this point. The four best players (James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh) all have 'early termination options' which means they can choose to be free agents if they want to be, or they can play another year at their max salary. Even if any of Miami's Big Three decides to become a free agent, none of them would consider coming to Chicago because the Bulls wouldn't have the scratch to pay them, and Pat Riley isn't going to help a potentially lethal opponent get stronger via a sign-and-trade.

You might counter by saying that Miami losing any of those three would weaken them enough for the Bulls to get to the Finals, but that still leaves a fully loaded Pacers team clearly ahead in talent. What if Lance Stephenson leaves? He's not. Larry Bird isn't going to let that kind of talent escape, especially if they take out Miami in the conference finals this year. What about Dirk? Nope, it's Dallas or retirement for him. Greg Monroe, Tim Duncan, and Eric Bledsoe are all staying put too, and that takes us down the list to Luol Deng. Been there, done that.

Waiting around for 2015 free agents is a major gamble (especially with the Lakers having the entire cap to play with), and the Bulls would still have to play the sign-and-trade game to get a max player. Trading for a guy like Kevin Love is a possibility too, but the Lakers would still be looming in the summer, and despite his great play, he's never taken his team to the playoffs.

The Bulls won't draft high enough to get a needle mover

And nobody in the top seven is trading down either.

The Bulls need another scorer

Riding Rose during the season for points works against most teams, but every title worthy team has a lock down wing defender that would guard Rose in the 4th quarter, completely stifling the Bulls' offense. We've seen Miami (James) and Indiana (Paul George) do this already, and the top teams out West can do the same (Oklahoma City has Thabo Sefolosha and San Antonio has Kawhi Leonard). Their length bothers the 6'3" Rose, and since the offense goes entirely through him, scoring points resembles a root canal without Novocaine.

Insert Anthony, who would unquestionably draw those larger defenders. If you stick a smaller guy on him, he unleashes his deadly post game. And in contrast, bigger guys would entice drive-bys that open up the rest of the floor, or his much improved three-pointer.

Some would scream that Carmelo is a ball stopper and wouldn't fit with a guy like Rose who needs the ball. Oh, you mean like the three guys in Miami who all need the ball? Or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC? You don't see those teams complaining about having two guys that can score at will, do you? The best teams can beat a defense on a multitude of levels. The Bulls, even with a healthy Rose, have proven they cannot.

He wouldn't ruin the Bulls' defense

The Bulls play pretty fantastic defense even in the rotations that involve Carlos Boozer (he ranks fairly high in basketball-reference.com's defensive rating, and has been vastly improved on that end since his first year in Chicago. He gets dinged because the team has been loaded with defensive stalwarts Omer Asik and Taj Gibson behind him. Booting Boozer off the team and adding Anthony wouldn't hurt the defense; it would likely make it more lethal.

Losing Boozer's rebounding ability (he has to go in any Anthony scenario) would also be mitigated by the fact Anthony is the best non-power forward/center boarder in the league. He's the only one that appears in the top-25 of the NBA's new rebounding opportunity category that uses the Sport VU tracking data compiled in all the arenas.

If there's one thing Tom Thibodeau can do, it's design and execute a defense. It takes total dedication to the scheme and solid execution by all defenders, and it's not difficult to run as long as Anthony is willing to learn and work the system. If he comes to Chicago, he knows what he'd be getting into.

The Bulls' defense wouldn't be ruined, but it would be weakened (maybe severely) without Gibson. The Bulls haven't been without multiple elite defenders down low in many years, and any fall in points allowed would have to be doubly gained on offense. Where is Gibson going, you ask? That's the rub.

Adding Anthony would cost Taj Gibson, and that's OK

Editor's Note: The numbers in this section are estimates based on the projected salary cap next year, along with Bulls' draft positions.

The Knicks can offer Anthony more than anybody: five years, $129 million. It would also solidify his fate of not winning a title in New York. The team has traded away a number of future first round picks, and has other financial obligations that would prevent any significant signings via free agency for a few years. He would have to be traded during the life of a contract to a different team with another star. Sound familiar?

For the Bulls to get him, step one would be amnestying Carlos Boozer and his $16.8 million deal. It requires the team to still pay him, but his contract would be wiped from the books. That, along with renouncing the rights to everyone not named Mirotic, and signing both first round picks they'll have (Charlotte's first rounder is coming this year because they won't finish bottom-10), would leave the Bulls with about $10 million to offer Anthony in the first year, and $42 million total over the four year maximum length. If you think Anthony would take an $85-plus million pay cut to play for a championship, you're padded room crazy.

Sure, the Bulls could find someone to take Mike Dunleavy off their hands, but there goes a valuable shooter on a cheap contract, and it only gets Anthony to the vicinity of $55.5 million total. The same 'padded room crazy' applies if you think he's taking that.

The only alternative is sending a pricy player in a sign-and-trade. The only non-Rose/Noah player that fits that definition on the Bulls after Boozer's deal is deleted from the spreadsheet is Gibson's $8 million. Him, plus a first round pick for Carmelo at a starting salary just shy of $18 million for a total of around $77 million over four years would get him thinking, but it's still drastically less than the Knicks can offer, and a far cry from the $95-plus million any other team with max cap space could give him.

The likelihood of Anthony leaving that kind of money on the table isn't very good, but the rumors flying around claim it's a possibility. Especially for a guy that's already pocketed $135 million in salary through his career.

What if that all happens?

Then your starting lineup next year is Rose, Jimmy Butler, Anthony, a first round rookie or free agent PF, and Noah. Dunleavy, Tony Snell, and the other first round pick serve as the backups. If Mirotic comes over, he'll cost the entire mid-level exception. If he doesn't, the Bulls could split it to help fill out their bench. It's thin, but three All-Stars, a pair of which amongst the best scorers in the NBA has the chance to get to the finals, and win it.

If it doesn't work, then you can't fault the front office for trying. It's their only way out.

 

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