By BRIAN FITZSIMMONS
One loss away from being cast into a cold offseason, Chicago is beyond trying to claw its way back into a seven-game series. The hapless Bulls look lost, failing to play off the momentum gained from a Game-Three win, and a lot less built for the playoffs than the upstart Washington Wizards.
Perhaps it's time for the franchise to start turning its focus on the sterling prize of free agency this summer.
More and more, the first round has further exposed an ugly truth about the Bulls: They are an overachieving team with their current roster, which desperately needs scoring prowess and more punch.
The brilliance of Tom Thibodeau kept the squad afloat in the watered-down Eastern Conference despite Derrick Rose suffering another devastating injury. The Bulls failed to score 100 or more points in 57 of their 82 games – dead last in the league – but entered the playoffs as a four-seed thanks to a top-ranked defense.
Chicago needs more. And come to think of it, the Bulls need Carmelo Anthony as much as Carmelo Anthony needs the Bulls.
Some have whispered about Houston emerging as a no-joke destination for the perennial all-star, and it makes sense. If Anthony wants the easiest road to a title, though, he'd be better off in a system made for him. Playing alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard – two superstars who predominantly need the ball to be successful – doesn't exactly sound like a dream marriage.
Serving as the main offensive catalyst, alongside Noah (a budding star who thrives off dirty work), Rose (a flashy point guard who brings a lot of value outside of shooting the ball) and a stellar supporting cast (highlighted by Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson) is the perfect situation.
More importantly, consider 2013-14 numbers of some notable trios around the league, in no particular order:
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant (32 ppg, 7.4 reb, 5.5 ast); Russell Westbrook (21.8 ppg, 5.7 reb, 6.9 ast); Serge Ibaka (15.1 ppg, 8.8 reb, 1 ast) = 68.9 ppg, 21.9 reb, 13.4.
Miami Heat: LeBron James (27.1, 6.9 reb, 6.3 ast); Dwyane Wade (19 ppg, 4.5 reb, 4.7 ast); Chris Bosh (16. 2 ppg, 6.6 reb, 1.1 ast) = 62.3 ppg, 18 reb, 12.1 ast.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin (24.1 ppg, 9.5 reb, 3.9 ast); Chris Paul (19.1 ppg, 4.3 reb, 10.7 ast); DeAndre Jordan (10.4 ppg, 13.6 reb, 0.9 ast) = 53.6, 24.5 reb, 15.5 ast.
San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan (15.1 ppg, 9.7 reb, 3.0 ast); Tony Parker (16.7 ppg, 2.3 reb, 5.7 ast); Manu Ginobili (12.3 ppg, 3.0 reb, 4.3 ast) = 44.1 ppg, 15 reb, 13 ast.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George (21.6 ppg, 6.7 reb, 3.5 ast); Lance Stephenson (13.8 ppg, 7.2 reb, 4.6 ast); David West, because his numbers are better than George Hill's (14.0 ppg, 6.8 reb, 2.8 ast) = 49.4 ppg, 20.7 reb, 10.9 ast.
And, here is what would've been the Bulls' combination, including Anthony and Derrick Rose's numbers from last full campaign ...
Chicago Bulls: Carmelo Anthony (27.4 ppg, 8.1 reb, 3.1 ast); Joakim Noah (12.6 ppg, 11.3 reb, 5.4 ast); Derrick Rose (21.8, 3.4 reb, 7.9 ast) = 61.8 ppg, 22.8 reb, 16.4 ast.
According to those numbers, the group beats every trio in at least two categories. Now, I understand you can't infer a whole lot from these equations -- and expect Rose to return to the player he was -- but they certainly put things into context.
The arithmetic also serves as Chicago's top sales pitch. The second? Well, they received a flashy assist from Oscar Robertson, who urged Anthony to bolt the Big Apple, like, ASAP.
"I would leave today [if I were Carmelo]," Roberston said on SiriusXM NBA radio last Thursday. "... Let me tell you why: wherever that kid has gone, when he was at Denver, they had a team that fooled around with the ball, fooled around with the ball, then all of the sudden when they needed a basket, threw it to Carmelo. Then, when he shot the ball, they said he shot too much. Then when he didn't shoot they said he didn't shoot enough.
"No matter what he does in New York they're going to criticize him, the people are going to criticize him, because you got guys on (the Knicks) that cannot play. You got guys that are hurt all the time."
Sure, but new president Phil Jackson's best ally right now is the hope of Anthony following the lead of other stars taking smaller paychecks for the good of the team.
"I think (there is) a precedent that's been set," Jackson said of stars taking less money to join or remain with contending teams, according to ESPN.com. "Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams is that it's really hard to have one or two top stars or max players, and to put together a team with enough talent, you've got to have people making sacrifices financially.
"So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word and we understand what it's going to take, and we will present that to him at that time."
Regarding a pay cut, if Anthony took less money to re-sign with the ever-rebuilding Knicks this summer, it wouldn't help the team's cap situation for 2014-15.
According to an ESPN report, unless Anthony takes a significant pay cut, the Knicks are expected to be over the salary cap due to the following dreadful commitments: Amar'e Stoudemire ($23.4 million), Tyson Chandler (14.6 million) and Andrea Bargnani ($11.5 million).
That's neither here nor there; it shouldn't be Carmelo's problem anymore. He can sign a max contract worth $129 million over five years, and if he signs with another team, the maximum he can earn is $95.8 million over four years. Perhaps a sign-and-trade deal is in the cards?
Anthony has grossed over $135 million over his career. He'll crack the 200-mark with this next deal, no matter where he chooses. This superstar is at a crossroad so many other hungry stars face around the 10-year mark of their time dazzling the basketball world: is winning a championship more important than squeezing out a couple more dollar bills?
How many paychecks would Charles Barkley have forfeited in exchange for a trophy? Do you think Karl Malone and John Stockton would shell out a portion of their lifetime earnings for one title? Anthony, years from now, will look back on this upcoming free agency and hopefully he remembers it as time of obsessing about a ring – and not so much about the cha-ching.
Remember, Chicago can also offer 'Melo legitimate championship hopes – and the grand opportunity to play in the same building as his idol, Michael Jordan, night after night – as part of its package. While faced with the potential future decision regarding Chicago, Anthony should retain his shoot-first mentality that's served him well over the years.
Follow Brian Fitzsimmons on Twitter: @FitzWriter