In the immediate aftermath of Chicago Bulls’ star point guard Derrick Rose’s season-ending right knee injury, we advocated that the team conduct a fire sale of all players except Rose and youngsters Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and Marquis Teague. In return, we hoped, veterans on the squad would fetch young assets and/or draft picks and expiring contracts. The plan was predicated on our belief that the Bulls, even with a healthy Rose, could not overtake the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat or the team with the conference’s best record, the Indiana Pacers.
Young players like Snell, Teague, and Butler would get a chance to continue developing with an abundance of minutes, and the Bulls might finish in a draft lottery the riches of which the league has not seen in a decade. With the likely addition next season of European Real Madrid sensation Nikola Mirotic, who has been loosely compared to Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, the Bulls develop a draft-driven team like the Oklahoma City Thunder that could be ready to compete for a championship within a few years led by one of the league’s top five coaches in Tom Thibodeau.
While we endorse the fire sale, we recognize its downside of likely causing disrepair to an already rifted relationship between Bulls General Manager Gar Forman and Thibodeau and further sullying the Bulls’ reputation as a desirable organization for prospective free agents. Thus, in today’s piece we discuss the significant benefits of the Bulls not making any drastic changes this season.
The Bulls’ young players are progressing. Teague is shooting a woeful 22% from the field but sports a 2 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio and has tallied thirteen assists to just three turnovers in his last four games through Wednesday. He is also playing solid defense. Butler, who has not played since November 18 due to a toe injury, is averaging 11.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.8 steals, all career highs, and has established himself as one of the best wing defenders in the league. Rookie Snell, whose minutes have spiked since Buter’s injury, has averaged 9.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 42.1% shooting in his last ten games.
Even if the Bulls, ravaged by injuries, still make the playoffs, they will still get a quality player in the 2014 draft. Despite his failure to acquire another superstar to play alongside a healthy Rose, Forman is adept at procuring quality talent late in the first round of the draft, and Thibodeau could coach up a manikin.
Taj Gibson was selected 26th overall in the 2009 draft. Always a defensive stalwart, Gibson is now averaging a career-high 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds. Butler was selected with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft, Teague the 29th pick in 2012 and Snell the 20th pick in 2013. So whether the Bulls plummet into the lottery, the probability of which would have been enhanced by a fire sale, or make the playoffs, we remain confident that the team will continue drafting and developing quality players.
The salary cap landscape favors the Bulls against their chief conference rivals. If, as expected, the Bulls use the amnesty provision on forward Carlos Boozer and renounce their own free agents, the team could be committed to approximately $48 million for the 2014-15 season but probably have closer to $51-52 million in cap outlays due to various salary cap holds. The salary cap is expected to increase from $58.7, to $62.1, million
In this scenario, the Bulls would have only about $11 million in cap space to sign Mirotic. They could not obtain Mirotic through the taxpayers’ midlevel exception of approximately $3.3 million annually or the non-tax payer’s mid-level exception of $5.305 million because they would be below the cap and those exceptions are reserved for teams over the salary cap. If the Bulls shed Mike Dunleavy’s contract for 2014-15, they might be able to increase their salary cap space to around $13-14 million, maybe enough to re-sign Deng and bring Mirotic aboard.
If Deng balked, the Bulls could still bolster their roster with the available cap space not allocated to Mirotic. A healthy Rose, Teague, possibly Mike Dunleavy, Snell, Butler, Gibson, Mirotic and Joakim Noah; one or two first round draft picks and a key veteran acquisition could give the Bulls as strong a core as any team in the East. Deng would make the core that much more formidable.
Conversely, the Bulls’ primary competition in the East, the Heat and Pacers, are in much worse condition in terms of the salary cap. Indiana’s salary commitments for next season are approximately $65 million, and star wing player Lance Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent who will likely command over $10 million annually.
The following season, center Roy Hibbert and forward David West can both opt out of their deals, and even if they do not, they both would become unrestricted free agents after the 2015-16 season. Will the small market Pacers be willing to pay the punitive luxury tax that takes effect next season to keep their core together? Will West and Hibbert, the latter who already tried to bolt for Portland as a restricted free agent earlier in his career, re-sign with Indiana?
Meanwhile, all of Miami’s Big Three can opt out of their contracts at the end of this and next season and are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents following the 2015-16 season regardless. Key contributors Ray Allen, Shane Batttier and Mario Chalmers are free agents at season’s end. If Miami does not defend its title, will the Big Three stay together? Will Heat management continue to surround them with a superior supporting cast (no one is signed on the Heat for the 2015-16 season besides possibly the Big Three). Wade and his achy knees will soon be 32.
Whether the Bulls stay the course because of their burgeoning young players, salary cap flexibility and a proven track record of drafting and developing talent, the plan is likely only as good as a healthy Derrick Rose in terms of getting back to the championship brink. The benefit of a fire sale is that the Bulls could find the next Derrick Rose in the lottery riches if he does not return to full health or, if he does, provide him with a running rate who can help the Bulls climb back atop the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls could also split the difference and make intermediate moves. The mystery is what route management will decide to employ because this season to date (8-12 record) has to be a means to an end and not the new par for the course.Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks