Ball Don't Lie - NBA

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Chicago Bulls.

Another inspired postseason jaunt, getting hot at the right time, sneaking in the backdoor of the playoff bracket, giving it all they had against Goliath. Those Bulls, those plucky Bulls, they're incorrigible!

And they're out in the first round, for the second year in a row. And this is a .500 team, even after getting to play in the East for most of the season, and it doesn't boast the finest roster known to man. Twenty-seventh on offense, 11th on defense. Not the best recipe for success. In fact, considering the 27th and 11th designation, it's almost a miracle the Bulls made it to .500, again.

That said, on July 1, it's over. Most of these guys are out of here, because as it was with the Miami Heat, 2009-10 didn't count to the Chicago Bulls.

In order of salaries from highest to lowest, Luol Deng(notes), Kirk Hinrich(notes), Derrick Rose(notes), Joakim Noah(notes), James Johnson(notes) and Taj Gibson(notes). The team has the ability to guarantee Chris Richard's(notes) contract for just over $850,000, and it might have to. And the team will have just enough, after bringing in the 17th pick in the draft (Chicago has to switch draft slots with Milwaukee), to sign what Jerry Krause once called a "full-boat free agent."

Krause was obviously streets ahead of the current lingo, as we're still calling them max-contract guys, but the Bulls can sign a star. Or trade for one, while retaining a bit or bringing in some depth. And because LeBron James(notes) is clearly going to the Knicks and Dwyane Wade(notes) is staying home, the two most-discussed targets are Atlanta's do-it-all wing Joe Johnson(notes) and Toronto big Chris Bosh(notes).

Chicago radio guys ceaselessly talk up Joe Johnson, I don't know how Nick Friedell suffers these loons, and you get a lot of Johnson talk on the chat boards and ICQ logs. And as nice as Joe's stats are this season, you also have to understand the sheer amount of minutes he plays and how much he has the ball in his hands. I'm not calling him selfish, but I should point out he has more chances to put together nice box-score stats than just about any other player in this league outside of Cleveland.

And when you factor in all those possessions that are used up, pace, minutes and play relative to the rest of the league, he finishes out at a 19.3 PER. Which is good, but hardly the work of a franchise player. And some Bulls fans have pointed out -- including one Real GM message board poster that I cannot locate right now but will surely be credited when I find his posts -- Johnson's stats at age 28 scarily resemble Jalen Rose's(notes) stats at the same age, the year before Chicago traded for him.

So, clearly, stay away from Joe. Not that they'll have a chance to court him. Woj reported earlier this week that the Hawks are going Joe before coach, looking to trade their first-rounder for cash, hiring a new coach on the cheap and tossing a max contract at Johnson. How very Hawk of them.

Bosh is the target, then.

He could stay in Toronto, but I just don't see it happening. The Raptors can pay him more money than any other team, but they also were the team that could have paid Andrea Bargnani(notes) and Hedo Turkoglu(notes) more money than any other team, and that's sort of why Bosh probably won't be around next season.

Really, he's the only free agent I see leaving, no matter what. I only see Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) leaving Phoenix if he can get to Miami. Boozer, I think, could skulk back to Utah if the dominos don't fall in his favor. Dwyane Wade isn't going anywhere. Bosh? If Miami doesn't work, and these rumored sign-and-trades don't fly, then he could end up in Chicago.

It's still a huge question mark. It would have to be, honestly, his third option after Miami and that rumored trade to the Lakers. And that's tough to bank on, if you're Chicago. But at this point, it's all you got.

And it could be Boozer. Would not be surprised, at all. And probably wouldn't be disappointed.

Chicago will let Vinny Del Negro string along for a while. It could happen as early as next week, but Jerry Reinsdorf isn't going to sign off on paying someone not to coach (VDN has a guaranteed deal for 2010-11, and you're free to go ahead with your jokes about how Jerry paid him not to coach for the last two seasons) until a capable (and cheap!) replacement is found.

So the Bulls will treat Del Negro like crap until that's figured out, and it's not like Vinny isn't used to it. He wasn't a good coach, but nobody deserved the sort of treatment Del Negro got this season. The Bulls should be embarrassed.

Moving forward, another year of rest should do Luol Deng well. He's only 25, and while he won't be a superstar (and I never said he would be, dammit), he's pretty solid. Kirk Hinrich can't help but improve on a miserable offensive season, Rose's issues with earning free-throw attempts are now prominent enough that he'll start to look for contact more and get the calls (nice to see everyone else coming on board with me there, a year later), and Joakim Noah is a double-double and team leader for $3 million a year. Hard to beat that.

Nothing will be sussed out until the coach hits, and the first dominos fall in the free-agent market. Because with so many teams boasting cap space, so many options, and the lure of the incumbent re-signing for more money, the players will be in control this summer. And the Bulls are going to have to endure some Nervous Time.

It can get better, though. They have the core of a second-round team, and while signing a Bosh or Boozer won't make Chicago a championship contender, it will bring a few more wins to the city by the lake. And if the team ever hired a coach that could create a winner that plays bigger than the sum of its parts, you could see a Bulls team that could sneak into the third or fourth round.

But right now, despite that warming core, this team is starting from scratch. And considering how the franchise has handled free agency over the last five years, the draft, coaching hires and player development -- to say nothing of the ability these free agents will have to define their own destiny -- you'd be safe in feeling a bit half-empty as you observe Chicago heading into the offseason.

Prove me wrong, Bullies. Because basketball in May is a wonderful thing.

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