Barring a championship this season -- and perhaps not even then -- the summer of 2014 always pointed toward change for the Chicago Bulls.
Derrick Rose's second straight season-ending knee injury merely accelerated the process. Luol Deng, due to be an unrestricted free agent, got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last month for a contract to be waived later -- hours later.
Avoiding the repeater luxury tax -- which the Bulls are on track to do as they continue their 10-day contract/12-man roster dance -- became management's prudent path once Rose went down. But what executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said the day Deng got dealt could be telling as Thursday's trade deadline bears down.
"In talking to (Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf), we are confident that we are going to take these resources and put them back into our team in the form of players and trying to get better," Paxson said Jan. 7.
In the context of this week, that certainly sounds like a franchise looking strictly to make basketball moves and no longer financial ones. In other words, though players such as Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy have been involved in rumors, unless a team offers a young rotation player or first-round pick, it's unlikely they will be dealt.
In fact, Dunleavy, with his $3.3 million salary next season, matches the description of the essential player in the current collective bargaining agreement -- a rotation player with an affordable salary who fits with All-Stars.
Speaking at the Bulls' annual charity function last week, Paxson and general manager Gar Forman downplayed the likelihood of making another big splash this week. This summer, when the Bulls could use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer and enter the free-agent market for either overseas star Nikola Mirotic or other rotation players, is when more changes are coming.
"We do think we're well-positioned going into the summer," Forman said last week. "We've got the possibility of a couple of first-round picks. We've got the possibility of some flexibility. And as I've said all along, the core guys we have, we like. So we think we're well-situated going into this summer and the future."
Minor change is coming. The Bulls will add a 13th player Tuesday, likely via a 10-day contract. Familiar face Mike James is a candidate to be signed for the remainder of the season once the Bulls get through their 10-day deals.
The Bulls return from the All-Star break for a Tuesday afternoon practice with a three-game winning streak. Wednesday's game in Toronto is one of 12 remaining in their final 30 against a team currently .500 or better. Sixteen of their final games are against teams currently in playoff position.
"We took a lot of hits early, and to dig out of the hole, it shows a lot of spirit and will and determination," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We have the belief we can win. Our offense is coming around."
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