The Chicago Bulls had a massive payroll through most of their championship runs during the 1990s. Though Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman combined to make just under $12 million during the team's 72-win season in 1995-96, this squad was usually near the top in terms of salary commitments during its Finals runs. Something about owner Jerry Reinsdorf paying Michael Jordan a combined $61.4 million in two seasons from 1996 to 1998.
The post-dynasty phase changed all that, at one end at least. The Bulls continued to rake in the profits, ranking as the league's highest-earning franchise for the decade following Jordan's last year in 1998, as the seats were full but the payroll demands were not. In fact, a couple of seasons saw the Bulls having to sign bench additions just before training camp tipped in order to make the minimum payroll, which is a prerequisite few fair-weather fans know exists.
The Bulls exceeded the salary cap several times and spent money on boffo free agents like Ben Wallace(notes), but by and large the team kept things tight, while rolling in the dough. Then, smartly, the team cleared salary for the 2010 free-agent run, before splurging on Carlos Boozer(notes) and a series of role players.
And now, coming off a season that saw Chicago earn more wins than any other NBA team, things could get tight again. From ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:
It's doubtful the Bulls will make a major move on draft night. The last thing they want to do is add another high-salaried player because of the uncertainty of the impending lockout and new collective bargaining agreement.
The safer bet is the Bulls will decide to make both selections. Yes, first-round contracts are guaranteed, but the salaries are relatively cheap and the Bulls need to fill out their bench. At present, the Bulls roster is fairly set. No matter whom the Bulls select, it will be tough to crack the rotation next season, especially given that the lockout will probably last so long that it will knock out all league sanctioned summer leagues and could wipe out any regular version of summer workouts and training camp.
I don't want to overreact to an expertly reported column that simply tells its readers that the Bulls won't really be able to do much with two crummy first-round draft picks (28 and 30) in a really crummy draft, but please let me overreact whether I want to or not.
For ages, the Bulls have sent out these signs in order to warn their fan base that, no, they won't be paying the luxury tax despite the team's RIDICULOUS profits. I'm not privy to the books and I can't see the future, but history suggests that this team won't exceed the luxury tax in a way that eight NBA teams did in 2010-11.
Honestly, the way one of the league's most profitable franchises continues to excuse itself from paying the tax or taking on extra salary is one of the league's most under-reported storylines, and while I agree that I'm coming off as way too conspiratorial in divining this from a "don't expect the Bulls to get much from their draft picks" story from our hard-working mate in Nick, just understand that we've seen this dance before.
I'm constantly asked in chats about Chicago's ability to turn its upcoming draft picks and supposed upcoming salary cap space (a reference usually made by writers working on Chicago's payroll and for its website, usually in AM radio talks) and/or expiring contracts into the next star needed to turn this team into a Finals participant, and I'm constantly forced to poo-poo the idea. There is no space. Teams don't want the guaranteed money that comes with the 28th and 30th picks in the Worst Draft Ever, and no team is looking to make Chicago's day and put it over the top by handing it the mythical Shooting Guard That Can Defend and Shoot for the price of … what, C.J. Watson(notes) and two terrible draft picks?
This isn't to dismiss Chicago going forward. Derrick Rose(notes) can spend the summer trying to improve on the stroke that saw him go 25-101 from behind the arc during the postseason. He can also work on his passing in a way that puts less pressure on Carlos Boozer to try and score in isolation situations. Another team could fret about its own payroll, and Chicago could take advantage and secure a rotation part on the cheap. Things should get better, even if the regular-season wins drop a bit.
But just beware, Bulls fans. This is a team that will choose to keep its payroll manageable not because it wants flexibility in basketball terms moving forward, but because it wants to remain a profitable or near-profitable franchise. Mainly because Bulls fans proved, in the miserable years following the end of the championship runs, that the support will be there regardless of high payrolls and/or winning records. Such is the price, so to speak, for intense devotion. Silly us.