It’s very possible the Chicago Bulls are lighting up the phone lines right now. It’s very possible the team is either trying to make some sort of season-saving, shot in the arm-type move in order to right its recent four-game losing streak, or blow things up in response to Derrick Rose’s most recent (sigh) season-ending knee surgery. While the Chicago front office likely doesn’t have any concrete plans in place, mainly because it takes two trading partners to tango, that doesn’t mean they aren’t actively seeking out options to improve the franchise in the short and/or long term.
That’s sort of their job. That still doesn’t mean anything is going to happen.
Because while the team badly needs another ball-handler in Rose’s absence, and someone to break down defenses as the team recovers from the shellshock of Rose’s medial meniscus tear, there are so many options and also limitations that expecting a cogent series of moves or a contrary strict “don’t move”-policy is ridiculous at this point. It’s even ridiculous in February, when a litany of NBA names could be sent packing in anticipation of a crazy 2014 offseason.
This is why Chicago general manager Gar Forman, in speaking with the team’s website recently, tried to settle things down. We’re not always Forman’s biggest fans, and it’s true that he was giving the website the Chicago company line … but for now, there’s nothing there. Here’s Gar:
Forman: It’s still too early in the process and we’re not going to make any rash decisions. We feel there is a bright future ahead and we believe we are positioned well. Look, we fully expect Derrick to come back 100 percent for next season. This basically was a freak injury. This was not due to the ACL or some fatigue of other factor. We have a young nucleus of veterans basically in their 20’s; we have multiple draft picks, including a pick from Charlotte in one of the next three drafts; we have the rights to Nikola Mirotic, who has been the best young payer in Europe the last two years. I know people get tired of hearing it sometimes, but we also have the possibility of flexibility in free agency this summer or next. So we feel we are in a good position, and we will be getting Derrick back.
Question: But why not trade some of your free agents if you might lose them?
Forman: Again, we evaluate everything constantly in the goal of becoming a championship team. I don’t want to get into discussing any particular players since we feel we have a strong group that is going to have a good season. But like any organization, it’s an ongoing process of evaluation to do what’s best for the franchise.
Sure, the last part is milquetoast, GM-speak; but sometimes those GMs speak the truth.
On paper, the Bulls would seem to have myriad assets. Joakim Noah is one of the NBA’s best center, a two-way player that is bound to only get better as he gets into basketball shape following a significant groin injury. Carlos Boozer is averaging nearly 17 points and over nine rebounds a game in just 30 minutes a contest, making more than half of his shots from the field, and the Charlotte pick and Mirotic’s looming presence would seem to act as knockout trade sweeteners.
Then there’s Luol Deng, a two-time All-Star who is tied with Boozer as the team’s leading scorer, someone who can help lock down two or three positions defensively, and a reliable force that you can bank on running over 40 minutes a night. Lord knows Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has tried.
Noah is untouchable, though, and Boozer has little to no value around the league with two years and over $32 million left on his deal counting this season. With the Bobcats continuing to whiff on their own lottery picks, it makes no sense to deal away what could be a cheap and significant future lottery selection from that woebegone franchise, dealing Mirotic is a risk that few would want to take on, and Deng clearly is a favorite of coach Thibodeau.
On top of that, any deal involving Deng would seem like a lose-lose for both sides.
Though I respect Deng as a person and player more than just about any other in this league, I’m not one of those that overrates his game. Yes, he is a superior defender and teammate, but his scoring and rebound stats are often pumped up by that minutes per game allotment, and he has a tendency to disappear offensively for stretches if those low percentage, two-point jumpers aren’t falling.
Worse, Deng turns 29 next April, right before he becomes a free agent. And while that age often serves as a player’s peak year, Luol has been huffing it for the Bulls since 2004-05, playing big minutes and giving up his body on both ends. Plenty of teams will have cap space this summer, which means plenty of teams will be disappointed when incumbent free agents stay with their own teams, which means the much-loved Deng will get a huge offer sheet from some team.
This should have both the Bulls and any potential trade suitor worried. Chicago, though I hate to say it, probably should pass on attempting to compete with those offers. And anyone who deals for Deng this year should know that they’re going to have to pay quite a bit this summer if they want to make him more than just a half-year rental.
This is also why the Bulls should pass on dealing him. To keep coach Thibodeau from weeping openly, for one, but also because the payoff wouldn’t be much to write home about. Chicago wants salary cap flexibility this summer, so they’d have to deal for a fellow expiring contract; and it’s doubtful that any team would give up a future first rounder at the risk of only having Luol for part of a season. And why should Chicago (possibly) deal for a lesser player along the way, for their own half-year rental? Just to shake things up? Come on.
Adding to the confusion is the state of the East.
As Forman pointed out in his interview, he packed the 2012-13 Bulls with ball handlers like Nate Robinson and Marco Bellineli in order to aid the team’s backcourt in Rose’s absence. With Taj Gibson’s big contract coming into the fold and Rose returning, the team let both Nate and Marco go and signed catch-and-shoot (and sometimes skip-pass) Mike Dunleavy Jr. to add to the depth around Derrick. This year’s team is ill-suited to play without Rose, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still make the playoffs in a miserable Eastern Conference. Even after that four-game streak, the Bulls are still stuck at fifth in the East – between the bloody Bobcats and above Washington freakin’ Wizards.
And though most remember Bellineli’s solid play and Robinson’s derring-do from last season, it was Joakim Noah that drove this team on both ends. His work at the high and pinch post offensively last year kept the Bulls flowing, and he really hasn’t had a chance to get into the groove yet this season, even though we’re a month in. His training camp basically ends on Wednesday, against Detroit, and unless he’s too sullen to shine, Noah can turn this thing around.
Listen to Forman. Every bit of Chicago history is leading to what we’ve suspected for a while now – the Bulls let Deng walk, Boozer is cut using the amnesty provision or kept around because the team can’t stomach paying a player not to play, while the team adds more one-year wonders, possibly Mirotic, and welcomes Rose back again. Pining for Kevin Love in 2015 is probably out of the question, as the Bulls won’t have enough cash under the cap. This front office tinkers, it doesn’t tilt.
Whether or not this is the best way to go about things is for columns in 2019 to determine. Just understand that, on Thanksgiving Eve, Gar Forman is likely out shopping for bread crumbs, cranberry sauce, and canned pumpkin pie puree.
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