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BASKETBALL

Bulls poised for big splash in free agent pool

DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Dwyane Wade, any interest in playing for your hometown team? How does Chicago sound, Chris Bosh?

The Bulls are in position to make a big splash in a star-studded free agent market this summer after a flurry of activity before Thursday's trade deadline.

Not only did they rid themselves of John Salmons' $5.8 million player option for next season, they unloaded their biggest headache in Tyrus Thomas. Now, they're in position to land a big-ticket free agent to play alongside All-Star Derrick Rose, and they didn't have to dismantle the rest of their core.

"You want to be seen — and I think we are — as a team that's trending up," general manager Gar Forman said. "I think we saw some of that last year in the Celtics (playoff) series. You could see Joakim Noah growing right before your eyes. You can see Derrick Rose now growing, it seems like, almost game by game. Luol Deng is making strides."

And now, the Bulls are in position to take a giant step.

"In order to create the cap space to attract a max free agent this summer, we knew we had to make some moves," Forman said. "A lot of teams were positioning themselves to be able to attract a maximum free agent this summer, so we created that flexibility."

The Bulls did it by sending Salmons along with their second-round picks in 2011 and 2012 to Milwaukee for the expiring contracts of forwards Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander. The Bucks also have the option to switch first-round picks in this year's draft as long as Chicago's isn't in the top 10.

That trade left the Bulls with about $18 million to $20 million in cap space this summer and enough room to offer a maximum contract to one of the big-ticket free agents such as Wade, Bosh, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer or even LeBron James if he becomes a free agent.

Then, they dealt Thomas to Charlotte, parting ways with an athletic but underachieving forward who had several run-ins with the organization during his 3½ seasons. In return, they acquired the expiring contracts of guards Flip Murray and Acie Law along with a protected first-round pick.

Thomas, who's averaging 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds, is due to become a restricted free agent and there was little chance the Bulls would make the $6.3 million qualifying offer let alone match anything he got from another team.

He missed seven weeks early this season with a broken left forearm and was in and out of the rotation, leading to a reported tirade at coach Vinny Del Negro that resulted in a one-game suspension for detrimental conduct. He was also fined $10,000 in February 2006 for saying he was participating in the slam dunk contest for the money and got suspended for two games in March 2008 for skipping practice.

The Bulls knew they were getting an unfinished product when they acquired his rights from Portland for the rights to LaMarcus Aldridge on draft night 2006. While Aldridge quickly emerged as one of the Trail Blazers' top players, Thomas never realized his potential.

Now, he's gone. And the Bulls can start looking ahead.

In the short term, they get an athletic forward in Warrick to fill the void up front left by Thomas along with an explosive shooting guard in Murray, and at 27-26, they figure to remain in playoff contention. But these moves were really about that star-studded summer.

Besides offering a big contract, they can sell the stars on the idea of playing alongside one of the best young point guards in Rose.

"We've got an All-Star — a young All-Star — who we feel is going to be one of the top players moving forward in the NBA, and I think his game translates into the type of game that guys want to play with him. Though he's got a lot of special abilities, he's very unselfish. He gets others involved."