- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- A long time ago, the Chicago Bulls celebrated reaching the apex of their season plan at Grant Park in June.
This year, in a radically different world, one where teams trade for expiring contracts and cap space rather than raw talent and immediate impact, the Bulls' front office reached its goal for the 2009-10 season in late February.
I don't know if they popped champagne in the upstairs inner sanctum of the suburban Berto Center, drenching PR associate Shaun Hickombottom's rakish attire, or if general manager Gar Forman hoisted the team phone like the Larry O'Brien Trophy and broke it down like a Luvabull.
I wasn't there. But what I do know is the Bulls' organization realized its preseason dreams on a sunny winter day, with its team one game over .500 and tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference.
"We had a set of goals we wanted to accomplish going into the trade deadline," Forman said at a news conference that had almost nothing to do with the four players and one draft pick the Bulls obtained in two moves over the last 24 hours. "And we feel we accomplished those goals and took a big step to where we want to get."
With a host of All-Stars and franchise players -- headed by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- expected to be on the open market, the Bulls will be more flexible this summer than a vamping, poolside social climber at the East Bank Club. If you want to take that analogy further, the Bulls are the wealthy divorced guy and there are a lot of young single options on their pool deck.
The Bulls will have to vie with other suitors, mostly the free agents' current teams and the New York Knicks, who will have, depending on where the cap is set, about $30 million to offer free agents, or about $10 million more than the Bulls.
Then again, the Bulls have Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng as a supporting cast. This isn't a show-me-the-money cast of free agents. Most, if not all, are concerned about winning first and that makes the Bulls legitimate players this year, as opposed to the Jerry Krause pipe dream of 2000. All three of the aforementioned free agents played with Rose in the All-Star Game this past weekend. Don't think they didn't pay attention to the quiet 21-year-old.
"We feel our nucleus will make us attractive to free agents," Forman said.
Do I think the Bulls' promise will uproot James from his lifetime home in Ohio? No. Do I think Wade will flee sunny Miami for his hometown? It's less of a reach, but still no. I got the sense from following around Wade for a story last summer that as long as Miami is dedicated to winning, he'll stay there.
But it's not as if the Bulls traded away anyone important for a chance. Not to mention there will be a host of other players available to mix and match with the Bulls' core. And given that financial uncertainty abounds in the NBA, there will be plenty of backup options.
In a league where the average team is losing money like one of its profligate millionaires in Las Vegas, the dictum is "Go Cheap or Go Home." That made it harder to unload players this year, which makes the Bulls' dumping of Salmons all the more impressive.
"You could feel the effect of the cap going down this year," Forman said. "It was not, for a lack of a better word, a sellers' market. It was a buyers' market, because there were a lot of teams looking to cut costs, cut salary, going into the summer."
The Bulls were so focused on positioning themselves to offer a maximum contract to one of the elite players on the open market this summer that they had no problem trading two potential difference-makers to teams they're currently competing against for a potential playoff berth.
Last year, the Bulls added two players -- Salmons and Brad Miller -- who quickly joined the rotation and turned a sub-.500 team into a playoff team that almost upset the defending champions.
This year, the goal wasn't to improve the team in a conservative way. It was to stay afloat. "Grab a buoy, Vinny!" they're saying. Del Negro should be pleased, as two playoff appearances will look good on his CV when he's looking for a new gig either this summer or down the road.
To replace Salmons and Thomas, the Bulls got back Hakim Warrick from Milwaukee in the Salmons deal and Ronald "Flip" Murray for Thomas from Charlotte. They also got two end-of-the-bench guys and a future draft pick.
Salmons had a $5.8 million player option for next season, one he almost surely would've exercised, given the perilous fiscal situation of many NBA teams.
The team made its intentions about Thomas quite clear this fall when it didn't offer him the standard extension, or even last summer when it drafted Gibson. Forget his pique of anger at Del Negro, the Bulls had no intention of signing him to even a qualifying offer of $6.3 million.
"His cap hold is so large," Forman said of Thomas, "that in trying to attract free agents this summer, the likelihood was that he wouldn't have been able to remain with us."
If you're reading Bulls news at all, you know they have been positioning themselves for a run at the ballyhooed 2010 free-agent class, and weren't gunning for this year. But it wasn't as if they were throwing in the towel on the season, a la the 2002-03 Cavaliers.
"Obviously, we want to be competitive," Forman said. "Our goal coming into the season was to continue to improve on what we did a year ago. Also, our goal was ... to create the flexibility that we've really created."
And Forman's right. It's interesting to remember how we got here in the first place. In 2006, James, Wade and Bosh all signed three-year deals rather than the five-year ones they were allotted. This meant they could make more money this summer under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement and keep their current teams aspiring to make them happy.
That summer, the Bulls were still a work in progress, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Heat. A year later they signed Kirk Hinrich to a very, very generous contract, beat the Heat in the playoffs, and a season later, with prospective money tainting Scott Skiles' team-first vibe, set high expectations aflame, costing Skiles his job and John Paxson his sanity. After dogging it under Jim Boylan the rest of that season and earning a spot in the lottery, the Bulls undeservedly were gifted with the No. 1 pick and the chance to pick Rose.
You could say the Bulls were fortunate that Ben Gordon and Luol Deng turned down the Bulls' generous contract offers in 2007, and that their uncertainty helped wreck the team chemistry that season, because without that swan dive, they never would've been able to draft Rose, a true franchise player, nor would they be in position to get Wade or Bosh -- or even the ultimate long shot, King James himself.
I'd sacrifice a season and a very good coach like Skiles for a great player like Rose any day. I'd sacrifice a first-round playoff win for a shot at D-Wade. So would the Bulls.
While the Bulls lucked into their position, they've played it pretty smart recently. They let Gordon go in the summer and drafted a Thomas replacement (or heck, improvement) in Gibson. And they managed to pawn off Salmons on a team in Milwaukee that doesn't have a prayer at landing a big-name player in free agency.
Unless he's planning on buying The American Club in Kohler, Wis., as his house, it's safe to say James isn't gunning for the Bucks. Salmons is as big a fish as they're going to land.
I'm also pleased the Bulls resisted any idea of trading the expensive, but valuable, Hinrich. His value can't be defined by his woeful 38 percent shooting, as painful as it is when he shoots, but rather the stability he provides in the backcourt. His teammates respect him and he gives the Bulls another ball handler so they don't wear out Rose now.
With Murray and Warrick fitting in with the nucleus, the Bulls can compete in the first round of the playoffs. As Forman said, the Bulls owe it to their fans and themselves to compete for that easily obtainable playoff spot.
"Our goal was to keep the nucleus together," Forman said. "Because we still believe that we could be a playoff team. We want to be a playoff team and we know our fans want us to be a playoff team."
The playoffs don't start until April, but the Bulls won big Thursday. What they won will be decided this summer. Until then, come for Flip Murray, stay for Rose, and dream big.