Working without illness-stricken center Joakim Noah, the Chicago Bulls fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Monday night, dropping their record to 22-22 on the year. That’s the very definition of “mediocre,” which in recent years has been misused as a byword for “bad,” but really only means “average.” The Bulls, at .500 with the bookends of a 27th-ranked offense and second-best defense in the NBA, are average.
This is a hit to the stomach of everyone involved with the organization, as the team started the season with two 2013 All-Stars on hand, the return of former MVP Derrick Rose, a luxury tax-paying payroll, and a perfect 8-0 exhibition season run. The team got off to a miserable start to the season, though, one that was exacerbated by another season-ending injury to Rose, and further made dim by the dealing of Luol Deng for first round draft considerations that are very unlikely to materialize, and only payroll relief. Deng was a free agent this summer anyway, so it isn’t as if the Bulls got out from a long-term, onerous contract.
The beneficiary of that payroll relief, one that allowed the Bulls to escape the clutches of the “repeater tax,” is longtime team owner Jerry Reinsdorf. In a rare basketball-related interview with WGN’s Rich King, the Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner accurately pegged where the Bulls are currently, while trotting out the expected timeline for fans frustrated at the team’s two year run in purgatory. From K.C. Johnson at the Chicago Tribune:
"Obviously, we're a mediocre team this year, a middle-of-the-pack team," Reinsdorf told King. "Looks like we probably will make the playoffs but we don't know for sure. But we're not that bad. When Derrick (Rose) comes back, that gets us a top-five player and we've got a lot of things going for us.
"We have the rights to (Nikola) Mirotic, who's probably the best player in Europe. He's going to come either this year or the following year at the latest."
Reinsdorf also cited the Bobcats' first-round pick from the Tyrus Thomas trade and a potential first-round pick from the Kings acquired in the Luol Deng trade to the Cavaliers.
"We're not starting from scratch," Reinsdorf said. "We still have Noah and Derrick and (Mike) Dunleavy and Taj Gibson and (Carlos) Boozer. We've got a pretty good base.
"The future looks good, and you have to be proud of the way they've played this year.”
Reinsdorf isn’t wrong. This is a mediocre team without Rose, one not worth paying the luxury tax for, which is why the team traded Deng without receiving any immediate rotation help in return. Deng had previously turned down a three-year, $30 million extension; and though he is a fantastic two-way player working in his prime, there were genuine concerns that the wear and tear of ten NBA seasons would make that sort of pay rate (much less the one Deng was seeking) too prohibitive.
It’s the other carrots that Reinsdorf dangles in front of Bulls fans that are the issue.
There’s no guarantee that Nikola Mirotic will come to Chicago next season, partially because the team currently does not have the cap space to sign him, but also because Mirotic will personally have to pay a hefty buyout fee to make the jump. Chicago is over the salary cap next season with just eight players on the roster, their first round draft pick, and potentially the little-used rookie Erik Murphy (who has an unguaranteed deal). Without Deng or an obvious replacement, the team is banking on Rose’ return and the ascension of both Jimmy Butler and rookie Tony Snell (who has not played well this season, despite extended minutes) to make up for the loss.
Chicago could always waive Carlos Boozer this summer using the amnesty provision, but Reinsdorf’s inclusion of Carlos in his quotes is telling. Long presumed to be an obvious cut candidate because the relinquishing of his $15.3 million salary would provide Chicago with some cap space, there is also some dispute as to whether or not Reinsdorf would want to pay Boozer not to play for his team, while adding salary on top of that to attempt to replace Boozer’s production. It would be the sound basketball move if things worked out with Mirotic and the free agent market, but Reinsdorf hasn’t always leaned in that direction.
A first round draft pick from the perpetually cellar-dwelling Charlotte Bobcats was thought to help, but protections on that pick will make it so the suddenly respectable Bobcats may hand over a middling first rounder this year, instead of Chicago waiting out those restrictions (the pick is top 10 protected this season, top eight in 2015, and unprotected in 2016). Chicago could receive a pick from Sacramento over the next few years, but it is top-12 protected this year, and top ten in both 2015 and 2016 (before becoming a pair of second round picks). The Kings are in the midst of another terrible season despite resurgent years from DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, and does anyone see them spiraling out of that pick protection any time soon? Or in 2016?
So the vague, “we have picks” narrative doesn’t exactly scan with those who are paying attention. At absolute best, the Bulls could have a middling pick from Charlotte and their own middling pick in this year’s loaded draft, plus an 11th overall pick from Sacramento in either 2015 or 2016. At best. The team drafts well, but this isn’t exactly franchise-altering stuff.
The Bulls have survived – 13-6 over their last 19 games, still good for fifth in the East despite that mediocre record – thanks mainly to the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, and a general manager in Gar Forman that brings in players that aren’t afraid to go through a wall for coach Thibodeau (often to their own physical detriment). That’s to be commended, and Reinsdorf does as much in his interview, and it is true that Chicago does have some flexibility in the coming years.
Will that, paired the uncertainty behind Reinsdorf’s willingness to open up his checkbook, be enough? We’ll find out about as much this summer.
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