CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah had better get used to seeing Cleveland a lot more in the spring again.
The Bulls always knew they were going to have to get past LeBron James in order to win a championship. Now they'll just have to do it by going through Cleveland the next few years.
With James' decision to return to the Cavaliers, the Bulls must hope against hope that Carmelo Anthony will turn down almost $60 million in guaranteed money from the New York Knicks, or find some way to work out a sign-and-trade. The Bulls got encouraging news in the aftermath of James' announcement, when sources told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith that Anthony had eliminated the Lakers and is deciding between the Bulls and Knicks.
If the Bulls don't land Anthony, they are looking at the very real possibility of heading into next season as the third-best team in their own division. James' choice makes the Cavaliers the new favorite in the Central. The Indiana Pacers, despite all their dysfunction at the end of the season, still have Paul George and a core that has been to the Eastern Conference finals the past couple of seasons.
If Lance Stephenson decides to sign elsewhere, that will change the dynamic within the division, but it won't change the fact that James' presence in Cleveland remains the biggest roadblock facing the Bulls.
James' decision has other ramifications on the Bulls -- namely, the backup plan of trying to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that Love is "intrigued" by the possibility of playing with James, and would be open to signing a long-term deal with the Cavs.
If the Bulls don't land Anthony, the next best option is to continue calling Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders to see if they could work a deal to bring Love to Chicago.
The Bulls' offer figured to include Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and/or Nikola Mirotic along with a future draft pick or two. If the Cavaliers offer Andrew Wiggins, the first overall pick in last month's draft, along with a few other assets, will that be too good of a deal for the Timberwolves to pass up? Gibson and Butler are great defenders and solid players, but they don't have the potential star power of Wiggins.
No matter what happens in the coming days in free agency, the Bulls know that James remains in their path more than ever. Like it did in Miami during his first season there, it's going to take him some time to learn the intricacies of playing with new teammates like Kyrie Irving and company, but James is the type of player who makes everyone around him better.
The Bulls have the same kind of talent in Derrick Rose -- a player who opens up space for everyone else on the floor -- but Rose has played in only 49 games in the past three seasons because of various injuries. James' move doesn't change much in that regard. Rose must continue to work on his game and hope his body can withstand the grind of a long NBA season. Until he can prove that he is healthy -- and playing at the same level -- it's foolish to believe the Bulls are a serious contender to win a championship. Even if Anthony signs in Chicago, the Bulls still need an elite-level Rose to be a serious title contender.
The key for the Bulls becomes simple now. They must hope that Anthony signs with them, which would give them the superstar scorer they've been missing throughout the Tom Thibodeau era.
Anthony's presence would take a lot of pressure off Rose and the rest of the team, and it would be an antidote for the intense defense James has played against Rose in the past. The Bulls have to hope that Anthony remembers what their pitch was -- that Chicago offers him the best chance to win right away.
The Knicks can offer the most money, but they are still selling hope. Anthony must buy into the notion that the Knicks' new kingpin, Phil Jackson, can turn around the roster in summer 2015, when he'll be working with a lot more cap space.
The Bulls have to hold onto the belief that Anthony knows that the best way to get through Cleveland and to a championship is to join forces with Rose and Noah. The reality for all parties is that they are much better equipped to do that together, not apart.