- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Five burning questions and answers on the future of the Chicago Bulls after their first-round elimination Tuesday night with a 75-69 home loss in Game 5 to Washington:
1. How will a first-round exit sit with the Bulls after all the plaudits Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau got for leading this team to a 48-34 record after a 12-18 start?
It sure doesn't feel this way right now after managing just one win against a team that hadn't been in the playoffs since 2008.
But the Bulls will ultimately be forced to look back on the 2013-14 season as a raging success.
They rallied from another devastating knee injury suffered by Derrick Rose to make a run at 50 wins. They got team finances in order, with the emotionally trying trade of Luol Deng, to the point that the mere mention of the luxury tax stopped sending key staff members into convulsions. They didn't get to the second-round for a matchup against the wounded Pacers or limited Hawks that looks more inviting than anyone could have dreamed of, but the hypercompetitive likes of Noah and Thibodeau will eventually come to grips with it.
Because they know, deep down, that this team probably maxed out thanks to its severe offensive limitations.
As down as the Bulls looked when they first lost Rose, merely sneaking into the playoffs seemed like a long shot at that point. Losing in such short order to the inexperienced Wiz undoubtedly fills the Windy City air with a sense of underachievement in the short term, but that's a pretty harsh assessment if we look back at the last six months in full.
Especially with Noah, their unforeseen MVP candidate, clearly playing hurt at times against the Wiz.
2. OK. Stop wasting time. What are the Bulls realistic chances of signing Carmelo Anthony away from the Knicks?
On paper, honestly, they don't look great, because the Bulls would presumably have to shed a couple players on the roster that they want to keep unless they can construct a sign-and-trade for Anthony that involves Carlos Boozer
The whispers out of Chicago for the past month have been increasingly hopeful when it comes to the Bulls' chances of swiping Melo away from the Knicks. No one is saying so for public consumption, but quiet optimism about their chances is palpable.
Melo's repeated public claims in recent weeks that he's prepared to prioritize winning over top dollar was the first bit of encouragement. The subsequent news that the 2014-15 salary cap is projected to be nearly $5 million higher than it was this season only added to the sentiment.
Among some rival teams, meanwhile, Chicago's seemingly minor late-signing signings of veterans Lou Amundson, Ronnie Brewer and Mike James were interpreted as a signal that the Bulls must have something up their sleeve, because that trio's fully non-guaranteed combined salary of $4.07 millions theoretically adds up to a useful trade chip in a major deal.
Let's put it this way: Despite the fact that the Bulls will undeniably have to be creative to manufacture sufficient cap space to offer Melo a representative starting salary, Phil Jackson's Knicks are undeniably nervous about the threat Chicago poses.
The Knicks remain the favorites to keep Melo, given their financial advantages and the fact he loves the Madison Square Garden stage so much, but the general belief around the league -- with Melo on record as saying he looks forward to the "Dwight Howard treatment" in terms of being courted in free agency -- is that his list of eventual finalists starts with New York and Chicago.
3. Will the Bulls finally amnesty Boozer to help facilitate Melo's arrival?
There are only 10 amnesty-eligible players left in the entire NBA. And eight of them realistically face zero threat of being released by their teams via the amnesty provision this summer: Atlanta's Al Horford, Boston's Rajon Rondo, Chicago's Noah, Memphis' Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Nick Collison and San Antonio's Tony Parker.
Which leaves only two players on the entire NBA map who still have to worry about the A word.
The Thunder's Kendrick Perkins. And Boozer.
But here's the thing: You continue to hear rumbles that Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is adamantly against the idea of setting Boozer free via amnesty, even though the 32-year-old is finally poised to enter the final year of his contract, valued in 2014-15 at $16.8 million.
Sources briefed on Chicago's thinking say the Bulls are going to do everything they can to try to find a trading partner for Boozer before seriously considering the amnesty option.
Bear in mind that Chicago essentially has until July 15 to craft a deal that finds a new home for Boozer after a season in which he lost much of his fourth-quarter run to Taj Gibson. The NBA's amnesty window this summer runs through July 10-16.
(One bonus question we'll sneak in just in case Boozer does get amnestied: What are the odds his agent, Rob Pelinka, who also reps Kobe Bryant, urges the Lakers to put in a waiver claim for the former All-Star?)
(Actually couldn't resist one more sneaky follow-up: Would the Bulls ever, ever, ever consider taking on J.R. Smith in a sign-and-trade deal for Melo if the Knicks agreed to take back Boozer?)
4. With all this focus on Melo, what's the immediate future for the Bulls' European hot shot Nikola Mirotic?
Mirotic is under contract for two more seasons with Real Madrid and might have to spend one more abroad if the Bulls' Melo fantasies materialize.
Or if the offensively desperate Chicagoans make a fallback swoop for, say, longtime Bulls target Pau Gasol.
Given the sizable buyout required to free Mirotic from his Spanish obligations -- and with Chicago able to kick in only $600,000 toward that buyout that wouldn't count against the salary cap -- it's conceivable Chicago might even ask its talented frontcourt prospect to stay abroad for a fourth successive season since he was drafted.
It's hard to see how the Bulls could manufacture the needed financial flexibility to add a high-dollar free agent and Mirotic. The good news is 2011's No. 23 overall pick said earlier this month in an interview with Spain's Canal Plus that he's fine with playing one more season in Madrid, which he calls "home for me."
5. How did you get this far without devoting an entire question to D-Rose?
If it took us this long to get to face of the franchise, we'll have to save the discussion about what Chicago plans to do with its two draft picks (projected to be No. 16 and No. 19) ... or the futures of Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin ... or the work Jimmy Butler needs to put in on his jump shot for another day.
The good news: There have been some positive signals lately about the progress Rose is making his rehab from the torn right meniscus he suffered in Portland on Nov. 22.
The bad news: Rose is making the sort of progress that should allow him to proceed with plans to try to make the Team USA roster for the World Cup of Basketball in Spain, a pursuit that will consume more than a month of the summer from mid-August to mid-September.
The Bulls can't say so -- especially with Thibodeau serving as a Team USA assistant to Mike Krzyzewski -- but they'd surely prefer that Rose hold off on his full-speed return until training camp next fall.
Because if they can't get Melo, or Pau, or the offensive-minded fallback choice we don't yet know about, it'll be incumbent upon Rose to be the offensive savior Chicago badly needs.
I'd love to tell you I'm smart enough to forecast right now, with clarity, whether Rose's body get hold for an entire season -- let alone the three left on his contract at a tidy total of $60.28 million -- but I can't.
67dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo