- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The atmosphere somehow just felt lighter at the Berto Center on Thursday. As did the Bulls' payroll.
By ridding the team of perpetual pouter Tyrus Thomas and unloading the contract of John Salmons and creating $20 million of cap room to play with this summer, Bulls general manager Gar Forman said the trades with Charlotte and Milwaukee, respectively, set up the Bulls for the future.
And indeed, the big picture looks a lot more promising for Chicago than it did yesterday. But there is still the matter of the proverbial elephant in the room -- in this case the one with black hair parted in the middle who answers to the name "Vinny."
Forman said in a news conference announcing the trades that he doesn't know why speculation persists that Del Negro's job as Bulls coach is in question and that it's not a story. He also lauded Del Negro for the job he did in leading the team to an impressive playoff showing last year, and for the improvement the club has made over the last month of this season.
But Del Negro's status will continue to be in question and yes, a potential distraction, as long as Bulls management allows it to be. And that's exactly what Forman did later on ESPN 1000's "The Afternoon Saloon," when pressed on whether Del Negro will be back next season.
"Again, nobody can predict anything into the future," Forman said. "We're concentrating on today and what we've got going on with our team today. We're all constantly being evaluated, myself included, and I wish we could all predict the future. We can't, but we are encouraged as far as where this team is headed right now."
This is not what a coach with one year still left on his contract would want to hear, nor what he should hear unless the powers-that-be are already making plans to redecorate his Berto Center office. Starting with his nameplate.
Obviously, Forman and team president John Paxson are in a tough position. And you have to laud them for not flat-out lying and giving Del Negro the coveted vote of confidence if that is not to be. But just because Forman says it is not a story that the head-coaching position of the Bulls is in flux does not make it so.
Everything the Bulls do or do not do from now until the summer potentially impacts the free agent or agents they are hoping to attract. It was the reason Forman said the front office kept the Bulls' "nucleus" of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng intact. And Thursday was definitely a very productive day in that regard.
Certainly, Thomas' departure could haunt the Bulls someday. At 23, he has time to grow up, learn the game and become the player so many of us thought he could be. But for now, the trade's a wash at worst. With the addition of Hakim Warrick, the Bulls haven't hurt themselves in their current playoff run as Warrick is athletic, a good enough shooter and more importantly, has an expiring contract, as does the other player in the trade, Joe Alexander.
All Thomas ever brought the Bulls was potential, the occasional exciting play and heartburn.
After saying that bringing the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft to Chicago should not be deemed a Bulls failure, Forman backtracked a bit on "The Afternoon Saloon."
"You may be right," he said. "But the thing with Tyrus is that first of all, we drafted him at such a young age. He was really like a high school guy when he came out. And he has such great athleticism that there was always this potential label on him.
"If you look at his career here the last four years, he did make strides each and every year. Maybe they weren't as great strides as he wanted or we wanted or the fans wanted, but I did think he was making some strides and getting better and I still believe Tyrus' best days are ahead of him."
The Bulls have to hope not at this point, particularly if Thomas and Salmons help their new teams at their old team's expense. Given his effect on the Bulls' playoff run last year, you can certainly imagine a scenario in which Salmons, in particular, could help Milwaukee leapfrog over the Bulls on the way to the postseason. But as it stands, the loss of his approximately $6 million in 2010-11 salary would appear to more than offset the loss of his inconsistent jumper.
"It was important that we remain in the playoff hunt," Forman said. "We wanted our team to remain competitive and we want to try to get to the playoffs and get as high a seed as we can possibly get and we feel we did that. Our starters are intact and we feel we've added some depth and some versatility with Hakim Warrick, Flip Murray and Acie Law is a guy we liked coming out of the draft a few years ago and hasn't gotten a lot of opportunity."
In the Thomas trade that brought Murray and Law, the Bulls also get a "protected" first-round draft pick pending league approval, which essentially means not a lottery pick.
All in all, a slam dunk for the firm of Paxson-Forman.
Only one notably loose end remains.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Questions remain about Vinny Del Negro's future in Chicago.