This is the payoff, for Chicago, and it’s … not terrible.
It could turn out to be pretty awful. Chicago has turned a solid two years’ worth of asset gathering, even more if you count deals dating back to 2010 that paid off this year, into what could be one of the NBA’s most entertaining rosters just one year after making the playoffs on the shoulders of perhaps the most excruciating postseason roster in the league’s history. The 2013-14 Chicago Bulls, working without Derrick Rose yet again, were third to last in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and yet they still made the playoffs. Home-court advantage in the first round, even.
That’s a fluke that speaks to the character of types like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and head coach Tom Thibodeau. Character alone, however, doesn’t get you into the second round, or back to the conference finals, or back to the championship plateau that Chicago fans knew so well in the 1990s. Thibodeau’s all-out approach, if NBA history is any indication, can work for only so long. Gibson just turned 29. Noah is in his prime, and his style of play is brutal on his body. Rose is set to return, again, for 2014-15 in full health. The Bulls need to win, now.
Unlike in 2010, when Chicago had Rose and Noah on rookie contracts and room to sign a major free agent to the maximum, the Bulls front office had to get crafty in order to make a significant upgrade. It had two first-round draft picks, one courtesy of a 2010 deal with the then-Charlotte Bobcats, heaps of tradeable and/or unguaranteed contracts for next season, and the ability to amnesty the last year of Carlos Boozer’s contract, knocking $16.8 million of the salary cap (if not payroll) books. If things became desperate, several suitors would line up to trade for Taj Gibson in order to clear off more space. And apparently, free agent Carmelo Anthony was willing to take less money to play for a winner.
Not that much less, as it turns out, because as expected Anthony talked himself into New York’s chances at turning it all around while understandably settling in for a five-year, $120 million deal. The most Chicago could clear to reasonably offer Anthony was a four-year deal likely in the low $70 million range, and though his presence would turn the Bulls into a title contender, that’s … that’s a lot of money to turn down.
This became apparent when Anthony didn’t immediately jump on the Bulls' bandwagon after finishing his tour of free-agent suitors earlier in July. If the lure of playing for a winner alongside several good-to-great players wasn’t enough to spark Anthony’s insistence straightaway, then it was more or less obvious that he would be taking New York’s cash while giving off the appearance of being torn between his options. New York, in the end, really was his only option.
With Anthony just about out of the picture, the Bulls turned to other options. Very risky options.
Timing plays a huge role in these sorts of franchise shifts. The Bulls were left a day late and dollar short in their attempts to deal for Kevin Garnett or Pau Gasol in the last decade, only to watch as Minnesota and Memphis finally relented and sent each player away later on for what were arguably far lesser trade packages, after Chicago’s options had lapsed. The NBA is dotted with teams that had cap space at the wrong time, a high end lottery pick in the wrong draft, or trade options that just weren’t enough to sway things at the wrong trade deadline.
Time will tell if Chicago acted as one of those teams in the summer of 2014, but for now the on-paper lineup looks formidable.
Boozer’s contract could potentially be dealt to another team by Wednesday’s deadline to waive him, but just about all signs point to the Bulls using the amnesty provision on their four-year starting four-man. From there, the motions will be in place to sign Pau Gasol outright to a three-year, $22 million deal, and Spanish league star Nikola Mirotic to a three-year, $17 million deal. Those two draft picks were sent Denver’s way as the Bulls moved up to draft Creighton star Doug McDermott, a lights-out shooter whose game has at least translated to Summer League stardom so far.
The squad will re-sign Kirk Hinrich, a player that pains some Bulls fans to no end, but his work as a combo guard off the bench will be more than appreciated if things go according to plan. Taj Gibson, meanwhile, was never a sterling sign-and-trade candidate for New York, because at age 29 he is less than a year younger than Anthony, and Knicks president Phil Jackson doesn’t need to start his rebuilding process with a guy in his prime, working on his second contract.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. wasn’t traded. Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, and the team’s upcoming first-round draft picks (and upcoming pick and potential movement options with Sacramento and Cleveland) weren’t dealt. The team will now be over the cap, presuming Boozer is waived and Gasol and Mirotic sign outright, but the team’s payroll is far under the luxury tax, which will allow the front office to dot the roster with smaller signings to fill out the rotation.
And Derrick Rose, who has played ten rather terrible regular-season games since April 2012, has been healthy for months.
Noah and Gasol could team to form the greatest passing starting frontcourt since Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas. Snell and McDermott could build off of their stellar Summer League showings to become fantastic wing or even stretch four options off the bench. Gibson is the perfect big man to come off the pine to spell Noah or Gasol at either position. Gasol is the perfect tutor for Mirotic. Butler, with Hinrich now acting as a reserve and with Snell developing, won’t have to play 48 minutes a night anymore. D.J. Augustin won’t have to lead the team in scoring.
That’s the hope.
Noah and Gasol could also break down, which seems like a just-about certainty given their history, and Gasol’s age (34). McDermott has only been getting his shot off against terrible Summer League defense from Denver, Gibson will start to decline in two years, Hinrich is always injured, Snell was mostly terrible last year, and nobody knows how Rose will react to both the mental and physical rust that comes from playing just ten NBA games in a 30-month span. All while Anthony spends his prime on a Knicks team that, despite Phil Jackson’s smart intentions, may never turn it around due to that timing aspect I mentioned above. And nobody will be happy.
That’s the worst case scenario.
The more likely prospect does have Noah and Gasol missing some time, but also Gibson and Mirotic capably stepping up to take on their duties. It will have McDermott struggling to find his shot at times, but it will also probably see him contribute well even in his rookie year. It well feature inconsistency from Snell, some tough nights from Butler, but just enough on either end from those two to keep you coming back.
And unless Rose has some terrible mental block, or if he badly re-injuries his knee in what would be a fluke move, he will eventually overcome the rust and approximate the sort of player that led a lesser Bulls roster to the best record in the NBA in both 2011 and 2012.
It’s not a knockout, no free agent in his prime signed off on the dotted line, and there is risk here. There’s also a chance for some beautiful and, most importantly, championship-level basketball.
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