The 2011-12 Chicago Bulls. (Getty Images)
With news hitting on Tuesday that the Chicago Bulls are preparing to decline to match Houston's contract offer to restricted free agent Omer Asik, the team's miserable offseason is just about complete. They've done absolutely everything right, in a very real sense, and everything miserably. The Chicago Bulls will finally pay the luxury tax*, in 2012-13, so that the team will be able to point and yell "SEE?!?" when you call the organization's ownership group cheap. They've dismantled the core — and, make no mistake, this is THE CORE — of the team that put together the league's best record from 2010 through last April with enough caveats and excuses in place to completely get away with it.
This is what they always do. Spend enough to skirt complete and total criticism. Leave enough not entirely unreasonable influences and timing issues to help you understand. Leave it so the moves in a vacuum — taking apart that bench just to save money — that seem so abhorrent are easily argued with a nice pull quote from a team employee or sound bite in a call-in radio show from the team's owner. You don't need to be an NBA junkie to shake your head at the team's moves, but the Bulls' front office makes it so you don't need to be an NBA salary capologist to understand their impetus behind those moves. The fair-weather fan can be persuaded away from his anger in a manner of minutes, or space of two paragraphs.
They're clever, those Bulls. And they're going to be gone for a few years.
Yes, two years. Not just for 2012-13, as Derrick Rose sits for in upwards of 60 games as he recovers from a torn ACL. All of 2012-13 will be a wash, the Bulls will infer, as they decline to retain Kyle Korver (traded to Atlanta just days before the team was going to waive the last year of his contract, for a trade player exception the team will not use), C.J. Watson (team option declined, he's off to Brooklyn), or Ronnie Brewer (team option declined, he's off to New York). Chicago won't straight up own to the fact that Rose's injury will wipe out its chances next season, it's under no obligation to, but reasonable analysts agree that Chicago was not retaining that tax-paying triptych even if Rose was healthy heading into his fifth season next year.
The Bulls won't even be fully back in 2013-14, when Rose roars back to full health (it often takes nearly a year following the return from ACL rehabilitation to regain full strength and explosiveness). That season's Bulls team will be stocked much as the upcoming season's Bulls team will be, full of one-year wonders not unlike the group Chicago put together in anticipation of the 2010 free-agent bonanza in 2009-10. Not until 2014-15, with Carlos Boozer amnestied off the team and Montenegrin wunderkind Nikola Mirotic in the fold, will Chicago set out to turn things around. Even then, with Luol Deng's contract expiring in the summer of 2014, the team might still play it cheap, while (with Mirotic and Taj Gibson replacing Boozer and Deng) winning heaps of games alongside Rose and center Joakim Noah.
Damn, they're good at this.
This doesn't mean we can't criticize. Replacing Korver, Brewer and Watson with three decidedly worse players in Vladimir Radmanovic, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich (and I still remain one of Hinrich's most ardent defenders) saved Chicago hundreds of thousands of dollars per player. Not "millions." Thousands. The team could have retained the crew, minus Asik's offer from Houston (which would have been a bargain to Chicago in the first two years and a cap killer in its third; no complaint here), and still paid the same miniscule amount of luxury tax while leaving flexibility with each player for next summer.
All while retaining the same crew that played so expertly when Rose and Deng missed a total of 39 games during last year's regular season.
Because the Bulls are the Bulls, and they're so damn smart, they'll boast enough depth to get away with this. Belinelli is a good enough shooter to keep you coming back to the well. Hinrich can defend well and make the simple pass, even if he doesn't take chances as a point guard and has turned into a miserable shooter both inside and out. Radmanovic looks like a shooter, even when he isn't doing it all that well. Second-year wing Jimmy Butler seems like the sort of athlete that can take over for Brewer. Nazr Mohammad isn't awful as a fourth big man. Nothing was going to happen this year, anyway. Taj Gibson is still around. There's still Mirotic. Rose had a good workout today, we'll note sometime in January. They're owed a lottery pick from Charlotte. More carrots, more sticks.
It's never the execution. It's the ideal. Overpaying on one end (with Ben Wallace, or Boozer) in order to decline to spend elsewhere (like, say, for the person who has done the best head coaching job of any in the business over the last two years). Declining to pay Ben Gordon in 2009, because he's Ben Gordon … but what if Ben Gordon was any good? Would the Bulls have stepped up, with Luol Deng's contract already on the books? Ah, but the team had 2010 to look forward to, and the potential for LeBron James! Always a reason.
There's always another year, and another plan, to look forward to while we wait for the definitive statement as to whether or not team owner Jerry Reinsdorf cares about the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls enough to spend a fortune on the team that has made him fortune after fortune even after the retirement of Michael Jordan.
There's always, "wait until the summer of 2000; because all the 1998 free agents re-signed with their own teams, the 1999 crew was junk and we just dealt Brent Barry for cap room that summer."
It's always, "wait until Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry learn to play alongside each other, because Elton Brand was never going to be able to fit in there, and we're sure his looming contract extension had NOTHING to do with us trading him to Los Angeles."
It's always, "wait until 2006, when we'll blind you with Ben Wallace's signing before trading Tyson Chandler's eight-figure contract for an expiring deal — an 'asset' we'll never end up using in a trade because that would add salary."
It's always, "wait until 2010, LeBron James! Carlos Boozer!"
Now the team will try to sell 2013-14, even if it's really selling 2014-15, even if the team doesn't really buy anything in the summer of 2014 outside of locking up Taj Gibson as he enters his 30s, and retaining Deng if his battered body even makes it that long. While adding Mirotic on a, you guessed it, rookie contract. All while playing competitive basketball, winning just enough to keep you coming back.
You did it again, Chicago Bulls, and for this you deserve my respect. I'll see you once more in 2015, when I attempt not to re-write this column for the sixth time.
*As Bulls fan and The Basketball Jones editor Trey Kerby points out, the Bulls won't actually pay the luxury tax unless they make it to the tax deadline at the end of the season with this payroll, so there's still time for ownership to avoid it.
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