With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Chicago Bulls.
I’ve already fawned over these Chicago Bulls plenty. The team’s unrelenting approach was an inspiration this season, and though Derrick Rose disappointed by not returning to the squad after an ACL tear, and coach Tom Thibodeau disappointed by running his players into the ground early on in the season, the team still gets to go into 2013-14 with Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau as its cornerstones. Not a bad start.
Big moves won’t ramp up the team’s roster prior to that start, though, unless the team’s ownership becomes ridiculously averse to paying the luxury tax, and either trades Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer to another team to shed salary, or waives Boozer outright using the amnesty provision. While that might seem like needless cost-cutting, understand that the Bulls have been practicing this sort of thing for years. If that sounds cynical and self-defeating, understand that I’m a Chicago Bulls fan that just watched 94 games of the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls. Inspiration swings both ways.
Chicago has assets to encourage deals that either lineup opportunities years from now, for 2013-14, or for the team’s pocketbook right away. Boozer can be traded to a team that still holds it amnesty provision. Deng has an expiring contract and was an All-Star this year. Chicago owns a Charlotte Bobcats first round pick that has declining protection until 2015, when it is only protected for the top eight picks, and 2016, when it is completely unprotected (just like Bobcat fans, tuning in to watch a night of Bobcat basketball). Meanwhile, despite his early-season inability to mind minutes, Tom Thibodeau may have the biggest basketball brain in the league, ready to put more and more disparate parts together in functional and competitive ways.
You get the feeling, though, that Chicago won’t undergo yet another rotation restructuring in this offseason. Part of that is the market, part of that is finances, and part of that is the team’s ability to give it one last go, as presently constructed, in 2013-14.
The trade market will play a part. Luol Deng’s game wouldn’t really fit in as perfectly elsewhere as it does in Chicago, a place where his step-back defense is best suited for Thibodeau’s system, and his endless slashing and sometimes shooting is perfect for an offense that relies heavily on interior passing even with Rose around. The plan with Deng remains unchanged, as the Bulls will run him into the ground for the last year of his contract, and then let the then-29 year old forward hit the open market in 2014, mindful of the wearying ten seasons he spent in red and black.
Boozer, to a lesser extent, is in the same boat. It’s true that his pick and pop game never meshed with Rose’s, as Derrick remains a poor pick and roll passer, but he’s a perfect fit alongside Noah offensively because Joakim’s tips and extra passing allow for a litany of good looks for the floor-bound big forward. Teams know this – they respect the Bulls, but they’re not taking on their second-tier stars in Deng and Boozer just to do Chicago favors.
The problem, once again, is the luxury tax. The Bulls horribly mismanaged their 2013 offseason and badly overestimated Richard Hamilton’s trade deadline value, so they ended up over the tax threshold for the first time in their very lucrative history in 2012-13. The team, even before draft picks, without unrestricted free agents Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli re-signing, and after waiving Hamilton, will be over the tax threshold again in 2013-14. By now team owner Jerry Reinsdorf has earned more than enough with this Bulls team (a squad that in 1999 had to sign players to contracts just to make it over the minimum salary cap line) to pay the tax, but tax status also affects the team’s ability to sign players to exceptions, to say nothing of the impending repeater penalties.
And when Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng come off the books in 2014, LeBron James’ big free agent year? The Bulls will be just about capped out. In fact, it would be in their best interest to go over the cap with Deng again that summer, barring any other major moves between now and then, just to be able to use capped-out exceptions to fill a roster that will only have six players on it when July hits.
This is a long way of saying that Chicago doesn’t have many options to grab that Rose and Noah-helping second star over the course of the 2013 offseason.
The team shouldn’t waive Carlos Boozer this summer, unless it is that desperate to get underneath the tax line – something that shouldn’t be ruled out. Instead, the team should wait to cut Boozer during the summer of 2014, hoping that his release and Luol Deng’s move onto greener pastures will be enough to lure a max-level free agent. And they’ll have the money, too, even with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson set to make nearly $40 million combined in 2014-15. Adding a max-level star would only leave the Bulls with six players on the roster, but the team’s front office has proven that it can work around the edges in order to acquire bench help, as we saw in the summer of 2010.
All this is for 2014, though. For this summer, it’s more of the same. The hope that Rose takes the orthodox approach and returns to training camp as if 2012-13 never happened. The hope that the summer does wonders for the team’s four injured workers in Noah, Deng, Gibson and Hinrich. The probable hope that some team makes Nate Robinson a crazy offer that Chicago can excuse themselves out of not competing with, and the hope that bench depth at center somehow pops up in ways that can replace the admirable but declining Nazr Mohammed.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of waiting. Longing stares at LeBron or Kevin Love, and endless fascination about stashed Bulls prospect Nikola Mirotic (steadily improving, not exactly boffo stats but big praise for his work in Real Madrid this year) while hoping that Charlotte pick draws interest. There truly are chances here, between the amnesty clause, Dwyane Wade’s fading brilliance in Miami, the goodbye to Deng and the potential that Flip Saunders messes up a bit in his first few years as Minnesota GM.
Potentially, there could be lot going on.
This summer? There’s not a lot going on. Unless these Bulls decide to get weird with things. Following a season like this one, don’t rule anything out.