As the Bulls' season came to a close Saturday night, the prevailing personnel question heading into the off-season is whether leading scorer Ben Gordon will return or depart as a free agent.
Neither side has complete control of the situation. Gordon is free to leave, but he may not have many options with only a few teams expected to be under the salary cap.
One thing the Bulls should do, though, is not let the luxury tax get in the way of doing what's best to for the team to keep moving forward - whether that's re-signing Gordon or making another move to improve the team. Here are five reasons why:
• Most importantly, the Bulls owe it to their fans, who have filled the seats at the United Center and helped make the franchise the most profitable in the NBA this decade, according to an estimate by Forbes Magazine.
• Paying the tax would be only a one-year proposition, because the Bulls will have around $25 million in expiring salaries next season between Brad Miller, Tim Thomas and Jerome James.
• As much as the Bulls would like to make a taller lineup work with John Salmons at shooting guard and Luol Deng at small forward, that's a risky proposition. Salmons is coming off a nice season, but it's the first time he's averaged more than 12 points in his NBA career.
Plus, there is no telling whether Deng's stress fracture in his tibia will continue to be a problem. If Gordon leaves and Deng is unavailable at the start of next season, the Bulls are down to Kirk Hinrich at two guard and Salmons at small forward, without much in reserve. If everyone turns up healthy and playing well, the Bulls will have options in the trade market.
• If a trade opportunity comes along at next year's deadline, whether it's for Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or anyone else worth acquiring, the Bulls will need some depth to have enough pieces to make a deal.
• The Bulls only have themselves to blame for being close to the luxury-tax level, thanks to the Ben Wallace signing that didn't pan out beyond one season.
For the past several years, it was set in stone that the Bulls would not let their payroll grow beyond the luxury-tax threshold, which triggers a dollar-for-dollar tax on any excess salary.
They'll probably need to pay the tax in order to re-sign Gordon, and some team insiders believe there is a possibility that could happen. The team certainly finished the season on a high note, taking the defending champion Celtics to seven games in one of the most dramatic playoff series in NBA history.
The Bulls still need some help to become an elite team. But if the same group returns next year, it's reasonable to assume they could move their victory total into the upper 40s and challenge for a top-four seed.
Gordon is free to leave, he but won't have many options in free agency. At this point, Detroit, Memphis and Oklahoma City are the only teams that seem certain to have salary-cap room. Gordon isn't an ideal fit for any of them.
"Well, you only need one team, right?" Gordon said Sunday at the Berto Center.
He also said he's not pursuing a change in management. The relationship between Gordon's agent, Raymond Brothers, and the Bulls appeared to be rocky the last two summers when they failed to agree on an extension. Gordon calmly addressed the situation in response to a Daily Herald question after Saturday's Game 7.
"At the end of the day, it's a business," Gordon said. "I'm able to put my feelings aside and if there's animosity, the organization needs to be able to do the same thing. We're not kids in the playground arguing over a basketball. This is a business and we need to sit down and figure something out. If there's nothing to figure out, move on and do something else."
Last year, Gordon turned down an offer believed to be worth around $54 million over six years. After a deadline set by the Bulls passed, Gordon changed his mind, but the Bulls wouldn't budge.
Still, the team was very impressed with the way Gordon handled himself this season and if the tax was no issue, they would gladly re-sign him.
If the tax is the only issue, the Bulls should get it done.