It's not something anyone - the coaches, players, owner, fans - will want to admit, but it's true: the 2009-2010 season is largely irrelevant for the Bulls. This became official the day the Bulls got rid of Ben Gordon without compensation.
See, there were two ways the Bulls could have made themselves into contenders.
Option A: Resign Gordon and attempt to fleece a financially strapped team of a star player for 50 cents on the dollar. If you need an example, look no further than San Antonio's trade for Richard Jefferson. This plan would have brought the Bulls well into the luxury tax and would have required a huge financial commitment from owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Option B: Let Gordon walk, save money for the future, and go after one of the superstar free agents in the in the class of 2010.
The Bulls chose Option B.
It's the riskier strategy, to be sure. But it's also the one with the highest ceiling. 'Go Big or Go Home' may sound like an X-Games mantra, but it's also the path the Bulls have chosen to turn themselves into a member of the NBA's elite.
In case you need a refresher, here are some of the players that will be free agents in 2010.
Make no mistake, the Bulls will be going after one of those first four guys.
I did the math for you: assuming they decline their team option on Tyrus Thomas (and they have to if they want to have enough dough) and John Salmons decides not to opt out of his contract, the Bulls will have $37.5 million committed after this season. The salary cap this year is set at $57.7 million. It's expected to drop some for the second consecutive season after 2009-2010, but it shouldn't drop much. Basically, the Bulls are going to have about $18-20 million in cap space. If they have it their way, $16-$17 million will go to one of the first four players listed above.
I think we can cross LeBron's name off our wish list. Sure, James-to-the-Bulls does make some sense - Chicago is one of the country's three biggest markets, who wouldn't want to play with Derrick Rose?, ect. - but it just seems so unlikely. The options for James are limited: he'll either stay with the Cavs or hop to New York to play for Mike D'Antoni's Knicks. Maybe Jay-Z's Nets have a chance. Maybe a sleeper team like the Mavericks have a chance. But it's probably Cleveland or New York for LeBron. So don't take No. 23 out of the United Center rafters just yet.
So Wade, Amare, or Bosh. All three of these players qualify as legitimate stars. The Bulls need to get one of them.
Wade is the best bunch. Along with LeBron, Kobe, and Chris Paul, he's one of the four best players in the NBA. He is currently 27 years old. And, oh hey, he's from Chicago. He loves this city and spends lots of time here. An all-Chicago backcourt of Wade and Derrick Rose would be unbelievable.
Amare Stoudemire has been at the center of Bulls trade rumors before. He is the most successful person ever to recover from microfracture surgery. He is arguably the most skilled offfensive big man in the NBA. He doesn't play much defense. A Rose-Stoudemire pick-and-roll is the stuff dreams are made of. He turns 27 years old in November.
Chris Bosh is perhaps the best fit for the Bulls. He's a well-rounded 6'10 power forward. Bosh is a better rebounded and defender than Stoudemire. Bosh is probably just as good on offensive, too. He doesn't turn 26 years old until March, meaning he's the youngest of the three.
So that's it for the Bulls. Get one of those guys or bust. If it pays off, the Bulls will have two legit superstars. You know what happens when you have two legit superstars? You challenge for NBA championships.
So if this were a video game, we would just simulate the 2009-2010 season and get to the juicy stuff, right?
Well, not so fast. Just because I wrote up top that this coming season is largely irrelevant doesn't mean it's wholly irrelevant. Do you think Dwyane Wade will really want to come to a bad team just because he went to high school in Oak Lawn?
The Bulls need to at least tread water this year. They can't win 35 games. They need to make the playoffs, preferably as one of the top five seeds.
Without Gordon, this will be difficult, though certainly not impossible. Remember that the Bulls will have a full season of John Salmons and Brad Miller. Remember that Luol Deng is coming back. Remember that Derrick Rose will absolutely get better.
The stakes are high. The pressure is intense. It may even be a little uncomfortable to talk about. The Bulls need to sign either Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, or Amare Stoudemire as a free agent after the 2009-2010 season. If they do that, they should be title contenders for a long time.
And if they don't? Let's not even think about that.