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.
The Chicago Bulls, as has been bandied about for years, are about to enter into a career-defining postseason. This can’t be overstated. The various dominos that will fall into place during the 2014 draft and free agency period will help shape the legacies of the ownership group, the team’s front office, its coaching staff, and the squad’s top players. It really will be that important. This is their time to either develop into a champion, or continue life as a plucky also-ran.
The options that the team’s ownership group and front office have in front of them are innumerable. There are potential waivings, potential trades, potential free agent signings, potential debuts from rookies from either stateside colleges or the international ranks, and potential stasis. Things could honestly remain the same, with the Bulls chalking up “flexibility,” some solid rookies, and the return of Derrick Rose yet again.
Or things could go haywire. Carlos Boozer could be given the boot via the amnesty clause, freeing Chicago of the $16.8 million they owe him next season. Chicago could use any number of assets – from international forward Nikola Mirotic to its two first round picks to in-prime big man Taj Gibson – to work up sign-and-trade deals for a star to place alongside Rose and star center Joakim Noah. Tom Thibodeau could finally open up his rotation and play more than a selected, needlessly-trusted few. Rose could not tear something. Noah may not run himself into the ground. The Miami Heat, full of heavy contracts and thin depth to support it, could fall short.
Y’know, like it was supposed to go in 2011. Like it was supposed to be in 2012. Like Chicago fans hoped, entering 2013-14.
Those 2013-14 hopes were dashed initially when Rose appeared nervous and uncertain out of the gate, with an out-of-breath Noah attempting to make up for a training camp mostly lost to a groin pull. Derrick then tore his meniscus in his right knee two weeks into the season, and Chicago smartly chose to take the long-term approach and re-attach his meniscus, rather than shaving it and forcing an in-season return. This once again put Chicago in NBA purgatory for the second straight season, one that was further damned by a January deal that sent former All-Star Luol Deng to Cleveland for no on-court help and draft picks that ultimately might just result in a pair of second-rounders and conditional switch of picks with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was a real heavy sigh-sort of situation, but because these are the Bulls, somehow things shaped up. Guard D.J. Augustin was pulled off the free agent pile, Noah rounded into shape and started whipping passes around, and the Bulls turned a 12-18 start into a 36-16 finish. And because the NBA loves an underdog, the plaudits rained down – Noah was given the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, while most assumed the Bulls would shut down the younger Washington Wizards in the first round.
The Wizards instead dispatched Chicago in five games, pushing Chicago’s offseason back into April for the first time since 2010. That 2010 offseason saw Chicago potentially construct a winner – hiring Thibodeau, signing various role players, building a heady and deep team around Rose that ended up earning the NBA’s top record two seasons in a row.
Rose’s injury changed things, obviously. The team dumped those celebrated role players in favor of “flexibility” in the summer of 2012. It then dumped another series of role players in search of “flexibility” in the summer of 2013. It then traded Deng in search of “flexibility” in 2014. It could do the same this summer, if owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t want to pay for a winner. The team did pay the luxury tax in 2013, but only because it overestimated the trade value of the declining Rip Hamilton. There are no assurances that Reinsdorf will go all-in on his second favorite sports team this summer.
This is part of the reason why Carlos Boozer may be a Chicago Bull next season. Of course the Bulls are going to attempt to deal Boozer’s expiring contract during the draft and the free agent season, utilizing the same desperation that high schoolers use when they ask supermodels out to prom on Twitter. Unless something currently unseen and super strange pops up, nobody is going to deal for Boozer’s contract, because expiring deals have far less value in the modern NBA than they did a decade ago.
To Reinsdorf, the idea of paying Boozer his full salary to go away and then paying his replacement’s salary on top of that deal might be an anathema. We’ve talked about as much for months. Reinsdorf’s thinking doesn’t have to tall in line with what basketball executives or NBA analysts know to be proper, it’s his team, and it’s completely up to him as to whether or not he wants to ruin it.
The dominos that fall from there?
Sure, the Bulls could waive Boozer (who declined to speak with media following the Game 5 loss and after cleaning out his locker on Wednesday at the team’s practice facility), construct some sort of sign-and-trade with their cap space and small batch of unguaranteed 2014-15 contracts and somewhat approximate a maximum salary for Carmelo Anthony in the offseason. This would also entail Phil Jackson working with a team he likely doesn’t want to (though he and Reinsdorf do have a good relationship), and Anthony turning down the Madison Square Garden spotlight, likely well over $30 million (remember, Chicago can’t offer the full “other team” maximum, as Houston did last year with Dwight Howard), and MSG’s tired 2015 “plan” that is no guarantee to ever play out.
This much is known: Joakim Noah is in his prime, Taj Gibson is in his prime, the Bulls have several rotation holes to fill if the much-maligned Kirk Hinrich and Boozer go elsewhere this summer, and the return (or even sound play) of D.J. Augustin is far from assured. It’s hard to tell if general manager Gar Forman and VP John Paxson are just unfortunate tools for Reinsdorf’s tax-avoiding ways, or if they are just that inconsistent in their approach, and there are genuine questions as to whether or not Tom Thibodeau’s stubborn nature (Jimmer Fredette couldn’t have helped you guys when Augustin was shooting 1-10?) holds this team back on its losing nights.
That’s not even getting into how Derrick Rose will look next fall. On opening night he’ll be playing just his 50th regular season NBA game since his 2010-11 MVP season ended. That’s 50 games, in three and a half years.
There is genuine concern that the Bulls will play up their two middling draft picks, search again for a one-year wonder on the wing and in the backcourt, attempt to bring Mirotic over for a so-so salary before ultimately failing, and once again put the pressure on Derrick Rose’s two surgically-repaired knees, Joakim Noah’s aching everything, and Tom Thibodeau’s “THIS FEBRUARY GAME IN ORLANDO IS OUR GAME 7!”-approach once again. While pointing to a shiny new practice facility, and tossing the carrot of yet another year full of flexibility in front of Bulls fans for what seems like the 15th year in a row, since Jerry Krause emptied his roster in search of cap space in 1999.
Or, they could get ‘Melo.
Big summer, this. Just your franchise on the line. No big deal.
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