Whereas last season's Bulls thrived during Derrick Rose's absence, this year's team appears to have buckled under the weight of his loss. Playing well without a superstar is a significant challenge, and doing so after the team's supplementary shot creators (Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli) were let go is almost impossible. Thus we find Chicago at a sunless 14-18, on pace for nine fewer wins than their 2012-13 total. The Bulls are still virtual playoff locks due to the sullen landscape of the Eastern Conference, but there's little to be gained from a postseason berth. This is a team that, despite its inevitable best efforts, cannot make good on its contending promise nor find much ground for moral victory under the circumstances.
It makes sense, then, that the future of this win-now roster would be called into question. Rose remains the face of the franchise and Tom Thibodeau its captain, but Chicago allowed itself to vault over the luxury tax line this season and maintains some massive contracts on its books. The exploration of trades is only sensible, and it should surprise no one to hear that All-Star forward Luol Deng -- a fixture in the rumor mill -- is reportedly being discussed as a potential chip. One report in particular (from Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News) insists that the Bulls intend to deal Deng this season as a precursor to the eventual departure of Carlos Boozer:
The Bulls’ game-plan for the immediate future is coming into focus. League sources with knowledge of Chicago’s plans say that they’ll definitely be looking to deal Luol Deng before the Feb. 20 trading deadline. Deng is a free agent this summer and the Bulls don’t want to pay him anything close to top dollar. The second part of their house-cleaning: They intend on using their amnesty move this coming summer to part ways with Carlos Boozer. Boozer is scheduled to make $16.8 million next season. As we reported earlier, Derrick Rose has caught wind of the plans and is none too thrilled about being part of a rebuilding project. Tom Thibodeau won’t be very happy with it, either ...
Whether or not this report accurately indicates a change in the Bulls' thinking is almost beside the point. The reality is that these are the choices that Chicago must entertain with Rose sidelined for the year, provided that that the franchise continues to operate within its well-established financial limits. Deng is the first item on the docket, as his impending free agency requires that some decision regarding his future be made soon. That decision could be to stand pat; the Bulls will retain Deng's Bird rights when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer, and thus have the ability to structure more attractive offers for Deng than any other team. Doing so, though, might not be in the best interests of a franchise that has a rare chance to reset after a course-altering injury.
Any Deng-related decision, though, will be tied to the franchise's resolution of Carlos Boozer's current circumstances. As it stands, Boozer is a decent player -- a competitive rebounder, a respectable shot creator, and a positive teammate -- on a heinous contract. Such a cost was worth stomaching so long as the Bulls were title-competitive, but Rose's season-ending injury alters Boozer's worth. Chicago could keep Boozer at $16.8 million for next season if they think their current core could succeed next year. Even if that turns out to be the case, Boozer has outlived his usefulness to the Bulls at his current price point; the amnesty clause is no longer some bit of armchair GM gimmickry, but a sensible device to remove an obstruction to the team's progress.
Deng is far more cost-effective, and the Bulls would surely love to keep him around. The complicating factor is the free agent market itself, which could set a contractual baseline for Deng's services that would prevent Chicago from more fully refreshing its roster. If Deng can be traded for helpful assets with minimal cost beyond this season, all the better. If he can't, the smart long-term play seems to involve letting Deng walk and amnestying Boozer -- parallel moves that would clear out impact-level cap room for a team that already has Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler on the books with more quality pieces arriving. Nikola Mirotic is the most intriguing among them, though the Bulls will also have the ability to do with their own 2014 first round pick, an eventual first rounder from the Bobcats (top-10 protected in 2014), and rookie guard Tony Snell as they please. That's a launchpad package for Chicago to get back in the contending mix, but even getting to that point requires a leap of faith, smart cap management, and an amnesty payout to Boozer with no basketball to show for it.
That last requirement would run counter to all we know about how the Bulls -- and owner Jerry Reinsdorf -- do business, but it could well offer the most seamless transition from one phase of the team's life to the next.