Bulls

Westerlund: LeBron’s Message Frames Bulls’ Potential Conundrum

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LeBron James. (Getty Images)

LeBron James. (Getty Images)

Cody Westerlund headshot very small Cody Westerlund
A sports editor for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com, ...
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By Cody Westerlund-

(CBS) When we learned Tuesday morning that LeBron James was opting out of the final two years of his contract with the Miami Heat to become an unrestricted free agent beginning July 1, the news reverberated near and far from Biscayne Bay.

This was a power play – a logical and expected one – from the game’s most powerful figure. A message was sent, indirectly but-oh-so clearly from James to Heat management, as well as to fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The roster needs upgraded, or I’ll go somewhere else to chase championships.

Indirectly, James was also sending a message to the rest of the league, one that’s resonating in front offices that are positioning themselves to build a title contender.

As wild as the next three weeks could be, next season will dawn with James’ team – wherever it be located – as the presumptive title favorite. For as targeted and dissected as he is in the spotlight, James is every bit as shrewd and wise, and he has a keen sense of NBA history. He’s chasing ghosts of greats as much as he’s competing against today’s mere mortals, and he’ll only leave himself in the best of positions.

James may not have the championship belt today, but he does have that kind of power.

As always but perhaps even more than ever before, the NBA is a star-driven league. Since 1980, only one team has won a championship without at least two future Hall of Famers and/or all-NBA players in that given season in their core – the 2004 Pistons. In the last decade, acquiring a Big Three has become all the rage, and this line of thought is still what drives those with realistic hopes of dethroning the Spurs next season.

It’s why the Warriors are chasing Kevin Love while trying to hang onto Klay Thompson. It’s why the Rockets dream of pairing free agent Carmelo Anthony or even James with Dwight Howard and James Harden. It’s why the Clippers remain in the rumor mill for acquiring James and pairing him with good friend Chris Paul and alongside Blake Griffin. It’s why the Cavaliers’ slim hope of luring James back home would require trading for another star, pronto.

For the Bulls, this has all led to another summer of reckoning. The blue-collar, outwork-your-foe approach has run its course, as has the initial championship window behind the promise of Derrick Rose.

James’ subtle message and history both tell us Chicago needs a second star, which in the eyes of fans makes this summer’s mantra “Melo, K-Love (or LeBron) or bust.”

This, of course, is where the fun and conundrum lies.

As Love trade talks have stalled between the Warriors and Wolves over the former’s reluctance to include dynamic shooting guard Thompson in a deal, a top-10 NBA player remains on the block. If – and this is still a big if – Minnesota truly intends on acquiring immediate help in return for Love and Golden State remains intent on keeping Thompson, Chicago can put together an appealing package of immediate help and future promise with some combination of Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Spanish League star Nikola Mirotic and the No. 16 and No. 19 picks. Carlos Boozer and his expiring contract could be included for salary matching purposes as well.

If the Wolves know they’re losing Love to free agency in summer 2015 – and little in Minnesota seems to appeal to him at this point – they can likely reap their biggest reward come Thursday night, when the NBA Draft is held. Teams willing to pay the most for Love are doing so either to help attract another star in free agency (Cavs) or because they have present-day championship aspirations and also want to build around him long term (Rockets, Warriors, Bulls), in which case they’ll want the full season to convince him to sign an extension, if he doesn’t agree to one beforehand.

On Minnesota’s end, Thursday is an opportunity to capitalize on a draft class that’s as deep as any in decades.

Where chaos could reign is if Wolves president-coach Flip Saunders picks up the phone Thursday evening and asks suitors to submit their final and best offer for Love. Because if Saunders isn’t bluffing, the future of multiple franchises could be altered in as little as 10 or 15 minutes.

In Chicago, the question is, how would the Bulls respond? Because in a league in which the draft precedes free agency, a Love-vs.-Anthony moment of truth could arrive.

Plan A for Chicago this summer is to acquire Anthony, according to multiple reports. For basketball reasons, it’s because Anthony is still a supreme individual shot creator in a way that the bigger Love isn’t. That matters greatly on a Bulls team that is largely devoid of players with above-average ball skills.

For economical reasons, prioritizing Anthony could potentially lead to greater roster depth. By acquiring Anthony in a sign-and-trade (as opposed to using outright cap space), the Bulls could retain their non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.3 million, which could be used to bring Mirotic to Chicago or sign a quality wing player.

Retaining Gibson – whom coach Tom Thibodeau adores – would also be more likely in the Anthony chase, as the Knicks don’t want to take on long-term salary in a sign-and-trade (Gibson’s under contract through 2017 for about $25.5 million total). Also, if Anthony agrees to take a pay cut to the $17 million range using outright cap space and the Bulls can move other pieces (Butler, Mike Dunleavy), that’s a second path to keep Gibson.

To chase Love could mean parting ways with Gibson and Mirotic.

Yet for a Bulls franchise still scarred by hitting a three-hop single instead of a homer in the 2010 free-agent market, both Love and Anthony would represent hope and a rebirth of sorts, away from the ugliness that was last year’s basketball. Could John Paxson and Gar Forman pass on Love if the opportunity presents itself? It’s a loaded question, as they understand the dynamics of today’s NBA and how fragile the championship window is given Rose’s injury history.

And while front offices shouldn’t act with emotion, the men in them are human. They also remember what it was like to be scorned in 2010.

Hovering over every decision the Bulls make will be how much money matters to Anthony. For all the positive Carmelo/Chicago signals to date, to chase Anthony would putting faith into an unknown. No one, perhaps even Anthony at this point, knows whether he can leave $30 or so million on the table at age 30.

These are all the most difficult of decisions for the Bulls, but these are the decisions championship franchises must make. There’s no way around them so long as LeBron James is around and chasing championships elsewhere.

Reading into the Bulls’ draft night

What the Bulls do on Thursday night will give us a few clues to their offseason plans, so let’s break down some of the possible scenarios. Currently, they hold the No. 16 and No. 19 picks in the first round and the No. 49 pick in the second round.

If the Bulls trade their two first-round picks to move up and acquire a lottery pick …

… it would be a nod toward Anthony remaining the priority while also realizing the need for more quality depth in 2014-‘15. In this case, Chicago would likely be moving up to target a shooter who can play on the wing, such as Michigan’s Nik Stauskas or Michigan State’s Gary Harris. The Bulls have seriously evaluated both those players, who aren’t projected as top-eight talents but figure to be gone before the Bulls draft at No. 16. The would save a little money (probably about $400,000) to put toward Anthony.

If the Bulls exit Thursday’s draft without a first-round pick to join next season’s roster (or a star to show from trading said picks) …

… it’s a nod toward being all-in on Anthony and trying to clear every last bit of cap space possible for him because they’re concerned over how much money he will command. This theoretical would play out by Chicago using some combination of trading picks away for future picks and/or drafting a player to stash overseas, such as Croatian forward Dario Saric. Having zero first-round rookie-scale contracts instead of two would save Chicago nearly $1.7 million for 2014-’15. Trading for a future pick would come at the cost of bypassing some real talent in this deep draft, though. The No. 16 pick is more valuable, for example, in this year’s draft than the No. 16 pick in next year’s.

If the Bulls trade one or both of their picks to acquire Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo …

… it would be a sign that Chicago has a win-now mentality, as the Tribune’s K.C. Johnson reported over the weekend. Afflalo has some playmaking skills and is an upgrade over Jimmy Butler at shooting guard, so he’d be a quality fit in Chicago for next season. Furthermore, his acquisition wouldn’t prevent the Bulls from acquiring Anthony; it’d just mean they’d almost certainly have to move Gibson to give Anthony a competitive offer. If this is done, the Bulls are sending a sign that they’re the place for Anthony to win titles, while also hedging their bet by acquiring another creator in chase they don’t land a star. There’s always the outside chance Afflalo could be a trade chip to send to Minnesota too.

If the Bulls package their picks and other assets to acquire Kevin Love …

… Chicago fans can rejoice over acquiring a star to pair with Rose and Joakim Noah while the front office ponders how to find ample depth to succeed in a league in which the champion Spurs overwhelmed everyone by going 10 deep.

If the Bulls draft two first-rounders intending that they join next season’s roster …

… you should ask, “What the hell happened?” It means nothing the Bulls hoped to do came to fruition, as report after report indicates Chicago has shopped its No. 16 and No. 19 picks all across the league.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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