Just as a resourceful Chicago Bulls win in San Antonio can fill heads with visions of playoff victories in spring, a 29-point loss to the pathetic Sacramento Kings plunges you right back into the reality of what in the world Chicago needs to do to climb back into relevance.
And that, of course, brings us to the already-in-progress Carmelo Anthony discussion, among other possibilities. But the question on the table in this exercise isn't whether Melo is at this point seriously interested in the Bulls, but whether the Bulls should be interested in him. Whether the Bulls should go to great lengths to commit the money, players and/or draft picks to either trade for Anthony or try to sign him as a free agent. Whether Melo would do any more for the Bulls than he's done for the absolutely dreadful Knicks. Whether there's a potential fit, Anthony playing with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the Bulls' version of a Big Three, or whether we're talking about an ill-advised, chemistry-killing disaster that would undo years of very smart drafting, trading and salary-cap managing.
So, it's a legitimate, full-fledged dilemma stuffed with risk. Yet if Anthony waves goodbye to the Knicks and wants to come to Chicago, I would depart from the Bulls' traditional conservative approach to free agency and try to get him (easy for me to say). It's a delicate balance to strike. John Paxson and Gar Forman knew as they accumulated those assets there would come a time to actually use them. They can't simply add Anthony to the team as we know it, so a couple of players are going to have to be dealt. But big stars win in the NBA and moving role players to make room for an All-Star of Anthony's impact is the way to go, unless a star of similar magnitude becomes available out of thin air.
There are scouts in the NBA who believe Anthony will be the same player going forward he's been the past 11 years, which is to say a professional scorer who has never been committed to defense or the nuances of being a great teammate, which just happen to be the obsessions of the coach Anthony would be playing for in Chicago. But there are others who believe that while the above assessment is undeniable, the Bulls are in desperate need of what Anthony still does as well as anybody in the NBA not named Kevin Durant: score.
As one talent evaluator told me this week, "The fatal mistake the Knicks made is that they brought Carmelo to New York to be the guy who makes everybody else better, and that's not who he is. Carmelo is a guy who needs teammates, and he'd have those [in Chicago]. He scores. He doesn't make other teammates better ... though his scoring and his presence will make the game easier for others. It would take some weight off of Rose. When Rose plays against Miami they swarm and blitz him ... What Carmelo would give [the Bulls] is an alternative. What he could do is finish games."
It's a very persuasive argument, that Anthony can do the one thing the Bulls can't do even when Rose is healthy. In Sacramento Monday night they scored a measly 70 points against a Kings team that had lost seven straight and allows an average of 105 points per game, which is inexcusable even without Rose. So there's simply no arguing the Bulls are in desperate need of what Melo does. The Bulls aren't going to seriously contend -- even with Rose back -- unless they add a professional, in-his-prime scorer.
If the Bulls agree with that logic, only then does the issue become what exactly they should do about it. And it's complicated at the very least. Using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer (freeing up $16.8 million) and letting Kirk Hinrich walk into free agency doesn't clear enough salary-cap space to sign a max free agent, which is what Anthony will be if he decides to leave the Knicks. But the Bulls would probably be willing to move a piece or two to create more room, though that piece might have to be Taj Gibson, who in a perfect world would replace a departing Boozer, who we now know isn't happy about sitting on the bench during fourth quarters.
One Eastern Conference scout said, "Boozer, no matter how bad a rap he gets in Chicago, is still a guy opposing defenses have to contend with. ... He helps you command the paint, which not everybody can do." While undoubtedly true, thing is, now that Gibson has improved so much offensively and the Bulls can run actual plays for him in a way they didn't before, there's a new reality that is resulting in a new pecking order at power forward. But nobody's going to argue Gibson isn't expendable if losing him helps get Anthony.
Another big issue: The Bulls are itching to get Nikola Mirotic under contract. He's only the best player in Europe for the second straight year and very possibly better than any of the much-hyped college freshmen bound for this June's draft. The Bulls probably did their job a little too well as it pertains to scouting Mirotic, the 6-foot-10 forward they selected with the 24th pick in the draft three years ago.
Once upon a time, perhaps 15 months ago, the Bulls figured he could be had for the midlevel exception. But now that Mirotic has become a polished scorer and extraordinary deep shooter (he's shooting 54 percent from 3-point range), he's going to likely command $7 million or more per season, making it almost impossible for the Bulls to add both Mirotic and a max free agent like Anthony this summer. Mirotic now has all the leverage, especially since enough of the best players in Europe over the past 15 years have played well enough to be not much of a risk. He's gotten as good as he's going to get playing there, and the sooner he comes to the NBA, the sooner he'll get to that break-the-bank second contract, which surely must be incentive.
Mirotic certainly isn't the Bulls' only asset, which is another reason a team with considerable salary commitment has uncommon flexibility. The Bulls, remember, have not only their own first-round pick but also Charlotte's conditional pick, which is top-10 protected this spring and top-eight protected next spring. If the Bulls are lucky this season and the Bobcats finish, say, 11th or 12th, that pick could be more valuable in this talent-rich draft than a top-six pick many years.
So, between young players and draft picks, the Bulls could make a move or multiple moves to free up room to add Anthony, if he's interested. In fact, Anthony's leverage could come into play, depending on his goals as he enters the back end of the prime of his career. Melo is about to turn 30. Even once Amare Stoudemire's huge salary comes off the Knicks' books, it's going to be difficult for New York, which has more than $90 million in salary next season, to pay Anthony more than $20 million a year and improve the team enough to make it a serious contender.
If Anthony tells the Knicks he won't re-sign, there simply aren't that many teams that could add him to a roster that would immediately contend. That would put the Bulls in play as much as any team, given that it's a forgone conclusion that Anthony, if he left the Knicks, would absolutely go to another major market to play for a team where he has a chance to win right away. What else is left for him at this point? To score a bunch of points for a bad team while his peers (LeBron, Chris Bosh, D-Wade) polish their championship rings? I'm not about to make the case that Anthony is going to change his basketball philosophy and become an economical scorer and dedicated defender, but somewhere in the midst of all that playoff failure and Olympic camaraderie must be a player who knows his career needs a little redirection.
And if Anthony, as many believe, stays right where he is in New York, where would that leave the Bulls? Probably with Mirotic in the lineup and perhaps another free agent who figures to cost about half as much as Anthony. (So forget about LeBron or Bosh.) It's not a particularly deep free-agent class that's on deck. Danny Granger and Rudy Gay have a certain appeal, but neither can be the best or second-best player on a real contender.
It will be interesting to see how much Luol Deng will command on the open market. Cleveland hardly seems like a permanent home, given how dysfunctional the Cavaliers have become. (Wouldn't it be a scream if Deng decides the system that fits him best -- he's not just a show-up-and-score-20-player -- is the one he's been in the last three-plus seasons?)
But there is one really intriguing name among the unrestricted free agents: Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. He's just 23 years old and appears to have made the complete journey from young knucklehead to tenacious, two-way quasi-star who could further drive up his market price this spring in the playoffs if the Pacers reach the NBA Finals. And perhaps that will lead somebody, maybe a bad team with lots of money, to spend, to overpay, pricing him out of the Bulls' reach. But Stephenson does seem perfectly suited in many ways to play for Thibs, to play alongside Rose, to the temperament of the locker room as it currently exists.
This Western road swing, like the rest of the season, is probably going to bring more of these weirdly nonsensical results, like beating the Spurs and getting trashed by the Kings, and there's very little the Bulls as currently configured are going to be able to do about it. They'll probably flirt with .500 right through the trade deadline, through this largely unsatisfying season.
And then Paxson and Forman, who've spent years amassing all these resources, will have to figure out what in the world to do with them.