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Dwyane Wade to the Bulls: Not as Flash-y as it Sounds

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The signing of Dwyane “Flash” Wade makes no sense for the Chicago Bulls.

Younger and more athletic, or older and more arthritic? Merely a week and a half ago, Gar Forman had us all believing that the Bulls were heading down the path of the former. But, as Forman (and John Paxson) has proven time and again throughout his preposterous seven-year reign as General Manager of this once proud franchise, what he says and what he does are two completely different things. The signing of Dwyane Wade last night just adds more fuel to the white-hot fire that Forman’s adversaries (and there are A LOT of them)  lit for him many years ago.

To be perfectly blunt, the signing of Wade (and Rondo, for that matter) is an absolute joke. It’s a classic example of two guys (Forman and Paxson) trying to save their jobs by making a splash for a former superstar in order to justify striking out with him six years ago and praying that the “talent” works itself out. It’s also a classic example of a geriatric owner, yet again, refusing to hit rock bottom and not allowing his organization to enter into a much needed rebuild. He’s done it with the White Sox for the past five years, and he’s doing it with the Bulls now. At 80 years old, Jerry Reinsdorf has zero interest in undertaking a franchise overhaul, holding on to any sliver of hope that he can take one more ring with him to his grave. It’s the sad reality of a franchise being owned by a stubborn old man who is blinded by his enormous bank account and keeping fans in his seats, and a franchise being run by two incompetents who are lagging 10+ years behind the brilliant analytical minds that have taken over the sports landscape. Recognizing and understanding the loads and loads of data that’s out there, much of which is open to the public, and demonstrating any sort of soft skills when it comes to actually conversing with players and agents, can go a long way towards building a legitimate, sensible roster and keeping it in tact for the foreseeable future.

From a pure basketball standpoint, we are now entering a period where we can already crown an undoubted champion 11 months before the NBA season even begins, and signing Dwyane Wade makes little to no sense whatsoever for a non-contender like the Bulls. Why? It’s easy.

In a world where premier three-point shooting is as valuable as having stock in Apple just four years ago, the Bulls have found a way to piece together a starting back court containing three of the weakest three point shooters in the game. While Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler combined for a mere 133 made threes last year, 30 other players in the NBA were busy making at least that many threes on their own. Not only that, but these are also three very ball-dominant guards, each of whom actually needs the ball in his hands to be effective offensively. Fred Hoiberg was hired to install his pace-and-space system, which relies heavily on versatility, athleticism and shooting. With three non-shooting, ball-dominant guards running the offense (one of which is a 34-year-old who has missed over 20% of games the past five seasons due to various knee ailments, the other of which is literally afraid to shoot or get fouled because he sucks so much), there will be no pace, and there will certainly be no space.

Last season, Wade’s advanced statistics were either career lows or his worst marks since his rookie season. He shot a career worst 46.8% on twos, and the lack of explosion he once had has strapped him from getting to the basket on a frequent basis. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, during Wade’s peak 2008-09 season, 17.8 percent of his shots came from within the 3 to 16 foot range. By last season, that figure had grown to 40.9 percent, and Wade sunk just 37.8 percent of those attempts. He still ranked fifth in the league in usage percentage last season but managed a measly .517 true shooting percentage, which ranked 11th among the 12 players with usage rates of 30 percent or greater, ahead of only Kobe Bryant (.469).

From a defensive standpoint, Wade is nowhere near the lockdown defender he once was. He posted the lowest steal rate of his career last season and, discounting his rookie season, he has posted his three lowest block rates over the past three seasons. What was once a staple of Wade’s game on the defensive end has rapidly gone from fully expected on a nightly basis to “where did that come from” due to age and mileage on his legs. ESPN’s real plus-minus* even rated Wade in the bottom-third of shooting guards defensively and a below average player overall – worse than guys like Kyle Korver and Monta Ellis.

If you want to take the half-glass full route, go for it – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There’s no question that Dwyane Wade is one of the four or five greatest shooting guards of all time. He’s a three-time NBA champion, one-time NBA Finals MVP, ten-time All-NBA player, four-time NBA All Defense, 12-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA scoring champion, and the leadership he’ll bring to the locker room could be invaluable – especially when an overwhelmingly negative presence like Rondo is roaming around. There will be some incredible moments, to be sure, that will excite fans in spurts. But for every incredible moment, there will be many head-scratching moments, too – ones where Wade has to miss time because his knees are aching, something us Bulls fans should not be naive in foreseeing. The Hall of Fame-caliber Dwyane Wade is now in the rear-view mirror, and there’s no sugarcoating what little value Pat Riley saw left in him by letting the greatest and most accomplished athlete in Miami sports history walk out without regret.

 

Trading Derrick Rose was ultimately a good decision for the Bulls, but signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade was not. It’s not that the Bulls can’t be better than last season’s 42-40 record – in fact, they probably will. They’ll make the playoffs in a crappy Eastern Conference, bow out early, and earn themselves another bad draft pick. But there’s nothing worse for any sports franchise than toiling in mediocrity, and that’s where the Bulls have found themselves, to no fault but their own. Sure, with the salary cap projected to go up another $8M or so next summer, the Bulls will get a chance to recruit one max free agent , but so will a lot of other teams. Given the track record our front office has when it comes to signing big time free agents, and the bad rap it has received throughout the NBA over the years, whose to say Chicago will be everyone’s top choice?

Gar Forman had a vision that “younger and more athletic” was a necessity for re-tooling the most disappointing team in the NBA last season. Turns out that vision was just another one of his blurry, pixelated pictures that he painted for the rest of the fan base in order to save face. Wade coming back home sounds cool in theory, but envisioning him meshing with the current pieces in place leaves me shaking my head over what lies ahead.

*ESPN’s real plus-minus is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.

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Impact of the Luol Deng Trade

Luol Deng will be sorely missed in Chicago, but the decision to trade him was the right one.

Crazy how fast time flies. Nine and a half years ago, Bulls nation was in the midst of embracing a new era of basketball. Elton Brand was traded three years earlier, Jason Williams had literally driven himself out of professional basketball for the rest of his life two years earlier, and the Bulls had to settle for Kirk Hinrich instead of Dwyane Wade (not that we all don’t love Kirk) the previous year. A core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry looked somewhat promising, but there was one piece missing. That piece ended up being Luol Deng, whom the Phoenix Suns selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2004 draft and immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls for their 2005 first-round pick and Jackson Vroman’s left nut. Deng helped take that Bulls team from 23 wins in 2003-04 to 47 wins in 2004-05 and their first playoff appearance in seven years despite suffering a season-ending wrist injury late in the season.

Fast forward nearly 10 years to now. The Bulls front office had finally decided to swallow their pride and part ways with Deng and his massive expiring contract, but not before he earned himself nods to the NBA All-Rookie first team (2005), the NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2012), a NBA Sportsmanship Award (2007) and two trips to the NBA All-Star game (2012-13). Only once did the Bulls fail to make the playoffs in Deng’s nine seasons (2007-08). He poured his blood, sweat and tears into this organization and will forever go down as one of the most hard-working and charitable players of his generation; he has become one of the most beloved players to ever throw on a Bulls uniform, and it’s downright sad to see him go. However, the trade with Cleveland includes three future draft picks, along with Andrew Bynum’s corpse, and actually benefits the Bulls and their long-term future. How so, you ask? Let’s break it all down.

Standings Projections

First things first, it’s officially time for everyone to embrace the art of tanking. The worst thing you can possibly experience in the NBA is consistent mediocrity – there is no hope for short-term success, unless losing in the first round of the playoffs year in and year out is something that tickles your fancy, and there is very minimal hope for long-term success via the draft unless you get extremely lucky by having a future superstar fall into your lap (cut to the seven or eight Atlanta Hawks fans nodding viciously, as they’ve been in NBA limbo for years). Bulls fans should be thankful that a notoriously conservative front office decided do what absolutely had to be done in trading Deng as opposed to letting him walk for nothing next July. That being said, how exactly will trading Deng impact the Bulls in the NBA standings, and what kind of draft position can fans expect in June?

For those of you unfamiliar with the Pythagorean Theorem in sports, it is basically a simple measure to predict win-loss percentages based on the number of points a team scores and gives up in a given season (if you ever happen to find yourself on basketball-reference.com, baseball-reference.com or football-reference.com, you can find a team’s Expected W-L based on this equation near the top of a team’s page). Based on this measure, the Bulls, who score an average of 91.34 points per game (dead last in the league) and give up an average of 92.19 points per game (second-best in the league), were projected to win about 38 games this season WITH Luol Deng, which would have been good for a 5 seed. That’s how pathetic the Eastern conference is in a nutshell.

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With Deng now gone, the most logical way to project their record is to assess John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added metric which, as you could have guessed, estimates the number of wins a player adds to a team’s season total above what a ‘replacement player’  would produce. Deng ranks 8th amongst small forwards in this category with an EWA of 3.0. In other words, Deng has added three wins to the Bulls’ record by himself this season in only 23 games played. He has already missed 9 games this season, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Deng were to miss another 10 games of the 50 remaining. That gives him a projected EWA of 5.2 for the rest of the season. With Tony Snell set to act as the ‘replacement player’ for Deng, his woeful -0.7 EWA must all be factored in. Assuming Snell appears in the next 5o games and continues to experience that rookie learning curve, his projected EWA sits at -1.30. Add the two together and round up to the nearest whole number (6.5 rounds to 7) and you see that trading Deng will likely make the Bulls seven games worse than their projected 38-44 record, plummeting to a 31-51 record.  With Cleveland adding Deng and replacing one or two of the horrendous Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee/Anthony Bennett threesome, they’re projections go from 25 wins to at least 32 or 33 wins.

This, effectively, will move the Bulls from a top five team in the East to a bottom five team (I’m giving Brooklyn the benefit of the doubt and expect them to improve after the All-Star break) and directly into the 2014 draft lottery. I’m projecting the Bulls to end up as one of the eight worst teams in the NBA (Milwaukee, Utah, Philadelphia, L.A. Lakers, Orlando, New York, Sacramento and Chicago) and, seeing as how this is going to be hands down the best and deepest NBA draft since 2003, every fan in Chicago should be thrilled. With that said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone by any means whatsoever if the Bulls somehow made the playoffs with this depleted roster because they simply have too much pride. For the sake of this franchise’s future, I truly hope that won’t be the case.

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Short-Term Effects

Tony Snell will be the biggest beneficiary of Luol Deng’s permanent absence in the short-term. The Bulls now have 50 games to see what exactly they have in Snell and whether or not they want him as a part of their future plans. Snell has the potential to become a very solid 3-and-D (3-point shooting/defensive specialist – think of Trevor Ariza) player in this league, but there’s no denying he’s struggled mightily in limited playing time this season. Gar Forman and John Paxson have been high on Snell ever since they drafted him, so my guess is that they’ll be more than tolerant of any poor performances going forward and allow him plenty of time to grow in Coach Thibodeau’s system. After all, he’s only a rookie. Patience is a virtue.

Another story line to follow closely is Mike Dunleavy’s trade stock. With the Bulls in full tank mode, I’d expect them to deal Dunleavy down the line given his cheap contract (2 years, $6 million) and the fact that he has another year left on his contract after this one. There are plenty of playoff-caliber teams currently in need of three point shooting, and bringing in a 12-year veteran who can do just that, as well as bring some positive leadership to a playoff locker room, will never hurt. Look for teams like Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Memphis and Minnesota to be in the market.

Long-Term Effects

A quick breakdown of the package the Bulls received from Cleveland:

  • Andrew Bynum, who will be waived by the Bulls by Tuesday’s 4 PM CT deadline to clear his $12.3 million salary off the books. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “this will enable the Bulls to get below the luxury tax threshold, which, combined with the savings from not having to pay Deng the balance of his $14.3 million salary, will save the team more than $20 million.”
  • A future first-round draft pick owed to the Cavaliers by the Sacramento Kings. The pick is top-12 protected in 2014 and top-10 protected from 2015-17, meaning the Bulls will receive the pick if the Kings fall outside the top 12 in this year’s draft or outside the top 10 in one of the next three drafts. Otherwise, it becomes a second round pick in 2018.
  • Second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016 owed to the Cavaliers by the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • The Bulls will be able to swap draft picks with the Cavs in 2015 IF the Cavs make the playoffs next season.

The fact that the Bulls got a potential first round pick in return for Deng’s expiring contract is a near miracle. This deal was about saving money and getting under the luxury tax which, in turn, will set us up for a chance to go after some highly sought after free agents to join the Rose/Butler/Gibson/Noah core. Throwing in a legitimate draft pick on top of it? That’s huge, people. Huge.

The only way that could be possible, though, is to amnesty Carlos Boozer, which the Bulls will almost certainly do this upcoming summer. In doing so, they will pay Boozer $17 million to leave Chicago in order to free up salary cap space for free agent spending. The key, at that point, will be to sign former Euroleague MVP, Nikola Mirotic, and bring him to Chicago as soon as possible. There’s no telling who the Bulls will go after in free agency after that, but at least they’ll have some more flexibility to work with.

As for the draft, let’s not forget that Charlotte also owes us their first round pick this year if it falls outside the top-10. As of now, they’re on pace to make the playoffs, which will likely give the Bulls the 15th or 16th pick on top of whatever pick they receive. If they don’t make the playoffs, there’s still a decent chance we’d get their pick – it would just have to fall between 11-14 – giving the Bulls potentially two lottery picks in an incredible draft class (we must assume, for now, that Sacramento will keep their pick this year considering they’re awful yet again). There are a plethora of fantastic scorers likely to enter the NBA draft this summer that can easily land outside the top-10, namely Gary Harris (Sophomore – Michigan State), James Young (Freshman – Kentucky), Rodney Hood (Sophomore – Duke), Jerami Grant (Sophomore – Syracuse), Doug McDermott (Senior – Creighton)… the list can go on and on, but these are just some of the names to follow closely and keep in mind come this June. The cream of the crop should (I would hope) all be household names at this point to even the most casual of basketball fans (Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid), but until the Bulls prove they’re as bad as they’re supposed to be and finally find themselves outside of the dreadful Eastern conference playoff picture looking in, it would be wise for all of us to keep our expectations tempered.

The 2013-14 season is a lost cause for the Chicago Bulls, but trading Luol Deng now was as good a move as they could have made and a monstrous step in the right direction. There are a couple more shrewd moves to be made, but for the first time in a while, Bulls fans should feel a sense of trust towards the front office. For a team like this, the quickest way to get to a championship is to bottom out and gather as many assets for the future as physically possible, not limp into the postseason as a 7- or 8-seed, get swept by the Heat or Pacers in the first round and then let Luol Deng go for absolutely nothing. Some people will disagree with the move, but it’ll be their emotions getting the best of them. Trust me – I nearly shed a tear when I heard that Luol was gone and, in all honesty, it may take me a little while to get over it. Seeing him in a gross Cleveland jersey will be weird, and it will be upsetting, but it was simply time to move on.

We, as fans, have two options. We can take the glass half-empty approach – mope about our favorite player being traded and reserve false hope that a) Rose would come back for the playoffs and lead us on a run (which he wouldn’t have done), and b) Deng would sign an extension (which he actually rejected before the trade) or re-sign in the offseason (which is highly unlikely since the Bulls would only offer him a shorter-term deal worth about 65-75% of what he’s actually going to demand). Or, we can take the glass half-full approach – cherish the great joy that watching Luol Deng brought us throughout his phenomenal Chicago career, appreciate his hard work and incredible heart, and wish him nothing but the best all while embracing the fact that the long-term future of our franchise looks a hell of a lot more promising now than it did 24 hours ago. I’ll choose the latter and look forward to the most important offseason in Chicago Bulls history. In my mind, it’s the only way to go.

The Deng Dilemma

What should the Bulls do with Luol Deng?

Few Chicago athletes of this generation have ever had me at “Hello.” Brian Urlacher, Derrick Rose, Anthony Rizzo – they qualify. But Luol Deng? He certainly did not. Although I hated Duke, he was a great talent out of college, and in all honesty, I was quite satisfied when the Phoenix Suns agreed to draft him with the 7th pick and then trade him to Chicago.

During the first three seasons of his career, Deng continued to get better and transformed himself from a somewhat raw offensive talent into a very reliable, very productive NBA small forward, improving his field goal percentage from 43.4% to 51.7% over that span. But once the 2007-08 season came around, I started to lose trust in Deng, as he rejected a pretty generous contract extension, missed 19 games because of a lingering Achilles injury and saw a dip in his numbers across the board, including minutes (37 mpg in 06-07 to 33 mpg in 07-08).

By the end of the 2008-09 season, I began to genuinely dislike Deng. He had signed a major six-year contract extension worth $71 million before the season started, yet ended up missing 33 games plus the playoffs due to some mysterious injury. At that point, I self-proclaimed myself as the conductor of the “Luol Deng is a Straight Up Pussy” bandwagon, and many people started hopping aboard. I personally felt that Luol had no interest in trying or caring, and I looked at him as another one of those athletes that got his money and just said “f**k it.” I wanted him out of Chicago, and I wanted him out fast.

The 2009-10 season proved to be a decent turnaround for Lu, but it wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, after the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, that I did a complete 180. Deng has been a different player since then. He’s led the NBA in minutes per game two of the past three seasons (and finished fourth in the other), he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012 as well as the last two all-star teams, and he’s battled through literally every injury he’s been plagued with. Now a premiere small forward in the league, Deng is considered the ultimate glue guy. His work ethic is one in which you cannot teach, he’s as tough, mentally and physically, as they come, and he has made himself invaluable to the success of the Chicago Bulls. Call me crazy, but there are few athletes, if any, that I currently love more than Luol Deng, and I can’t imagine him in another uniform – it’d be devastating.

But let’s be honest – the Bulls cap situation going into next season is nothing short of horrendous, as evidenced by this fantastic cap breakdown. Since you’re probably too lazy to click on that link and read what’s within, allow me to sum it up: the Bulls are already into the luxury tax with just eight players (Rose, Boozer, Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Butler, Teague) plus the likely Rip Hamilton buyout. Eight players, as you know, isn’t going to cut it, since each NBA team kinda needs at least 13 players on its roster. The 20th overall pick is going to cost $1.472 million by itself, and minimum salary players will cost another $884K each. By now, you hopefully get the point – there is basically no flexibility and no hope for any significant free agent signings this summer. Nate Robinson ain’t coming back, and the chances of a Marco Belinelli re-signing are slim to none. If Cheap Ass Reinsdorf can’t stomach this already uncomfortable salary cap situation, what in god’s name can be done to relieve it?

Insert the Cleveland Cavaliers. They happen to have the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts (stardom-wise) in recent memory. There’s a lot of depth, but to even the most casual of basketball fans, no one screams potential superstar. Cleveland is as open as any organization will ever be to trading that pick away, and what they desperately need is a scoring small forward with veteran experience and the ability to anchor a defense. Luol Deng fits that bill perfectly. However, a two-time all-star isn’t going to be enough to covet the first overall pick. Throw in an asset like Marquis Teague to back up Kyrie Irving and the 20th overall pick? Now we’re talking.

If I’m Chris Grant (Cleveland’s GM), I’m thinking long and hard about this deal. My team just invested the fourth overall pick last year on a shooting guard in Dion Waiters, so why would I want to make that situation even more complicated by drafting Ben McLemore? Sure, I could draft Nerlens Noel and stash him for a year while he recovers from ACL surgery, but what good will that do? We have Anderson Varejao locked up through 2015, plus we’ll be atrocious again next season yet have no chance at winning another lottery (you know, because it’s rigged and all), meaning Andrew Wiggins will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

If I’m Gar Forman, I’m not even thinking about this deal – I’m ready to sign some papers. Not because I don’t want Deng anymore – it would be heartbreaking at first to see him go – but because it’ll make Jerry Reinsdorf get down on his hands and knees thanking me for coming up with a genius way to save him money, and because of two words that every basketball fan will likely be muttering in their dreams in a few years: Victor Oladipo.

Call me biased towards my precious Hoosiers – I don’t care. Victor Oladipo will be the best player to come out of this draft when it’s all said and done for three reasons, and nothing anyone can say or do before June 27th will convince me otherwise:

  1. His unfathomable work ethic and energy 

    Before Oladipo took the college basketball world by storm last season, he wasn’t what one would consider a household name. In three short years, he went from an under-recruited player in high school known for throwing down hellacious dunks in the backyard of my fraternity house (in jeans, mind you) and failing to crack ESPN’s top 100 recruiting rankings to National Player of the Year candidate and potential top-three draft pick. He is the epitome of a gym rat, having spent hours and hours upon end working on his game and improving upon his significant weaknesses. His first two seasons at IU saw him combine for 18/74 from three; in his junior season, he made 30 of 68 threes, good for 44.1%. He led all guards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, with a 60% field goal percentage. He won Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.2). Oladipo is always hungry, constantly trying to raise his game and making the players around him better. He’s the full package, and that much can’t be said about most of the players in this draft.

  2. Nothing phases him

    When the lights are on and the drunken fans are screaming, Oladipo rises to the occasion. Check out these stat lines:
    vs. MSU: 21 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 blocks (WIN)
    @OSU: 26 points on 8/10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals (WIN)
    @MSU: 19 points on 7/11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 steals with the go-ahead put back, dunk and free throws in the final minute, albeit on a sprained left ankle (WIN)
    @Michigan for the Big Ten title: 14 points, 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive (WIN)
    vs. Temple in Round of 32: 16 points, 8 rebounds and the heroic game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left (WIN)I can keep going, but you get the picture: Oladipo thrives in big moments, a characteristic that almost always translates well at the professional level.
  3. The writing is on the wall

    A number of GMs have said that Oladipo is hands down their favorite player in the draft. As one GM said, “I know he’s the one guy in this draft that my head coach would love to have right now. He’s an impressive young man on and off the court.” Chad Ford noted that GMs are impressed by his mixture of candor and intensity in interviews. Another GM stated, “Athletically he’s so gifted. And he combines that with hard work both in the game and in practice. He keeps working on his game and getting better. His attitude was just special in the interview we had. He’s humble, but confident. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when he speaks he sounds like a leader.” And the best quote of all from Will Perdue (added to this post on 6/7):

    “If you’re talking about the guy who is going to come in and be the most effective player from day one, it’s Oladipo. He’s got that ‘It’ Factor,” that it takes to be successful in the league. A lot of guys in this draft don’t have that. There’s no doubt he plays with an edge. Watching him play defense this season, I wouldn’t have any hesitation putting him into an NBA game and letting him guard Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant from day one.  I think he’s that good defensively.”

    Honestly, what more needs to be said?

Turning Deng, Teague and the 20th pick into Oladipo will do two things for the Bulls:

  1. It will save them a little over $12 million in cap space for the 2013-14 season (Deng’s $14.125M + Teague’s $1.075M + 20th pick’s $1.135M minus Oladipo’s $4.287M), getting them to roughly $10 million under the projected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million (Cleveland is roughly $15 million under that threshold at this point in time). What does this mean? They can potentially make a run at the highly sought after shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, and fill the rest of the roster out with minimum salary players, giving them, if all goes as planned, a projected starting lineup of Rose, Oladipo, Butler, Boozer, and Noah, with Mayo, Hinrich, and Gibson to round out a fantastic eight-man rotation. How realistic a scenario like this is, I’m not sure. But it does make sense for both the Bulls and Cavs, and if the Bulls aren’t able to sign an impactful free agent this summer, they’ll have all the flexibility in the world next summer, with Carlos Boozer likely to be amnestied just in time for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic and an extremely deep 2014 free agent class.
  2. That very class, plus the resurgence of Deng’s protegé, Jimmy Butler, has suddenly made Deng expendable. A deal like this will free up Butler and allow him to take over as the small forward of the future, all while replacing Lu with Luol Deng 2.0 in Victor Oladipo, a relentless defender with the versatility to guard multiple positions and enormous upside. Although his offensive game lacks a true foundation at this point, his shooting has still improved tremendously, he’s one of the best finishers around the rim due to his unparalleled athleticism and body control, and he’s a fantastic rebounder for his position.

Heading into the season with the current roster plus a healthy Derrick Rose should hopefully be enough to beat Miami next year, but the end of Luol Deng’s contract is very near, and given Chicago’s terrible cap situation, either trading him or letting him walk in free agency may be inevitable. Trading Deng is something that would really hit Bulls fans where it hurts, but if we can replace him with Tom Thibodeau’s ideal type of player in Oladipo as the first overall pick in the draft AND give them major cap room flexiblity, it’s something that management should at least consider bringing up to Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert over the next few weeks.

To Match or Not to Match Houston’s Offer to Omer Asik

Restricted free agent Omer Asik has received a hefty offer from the Rockets. Do the Bulls love him enough to match the offer sheet?

Less than a week after striking out and getting rejected by Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey has decided to settle for Bulls’ restricted free agent Omer Asik to fill their gaping hole at center. As everyone expected, the Rockets have offered Asik a heavily backloaded 3-year deal worth $24.3 million (about $14 million in the third year). Once July 11 hits, the Bulls will have three days to match that offer sheet, or else The Turkish Hammer will be taking his talents to H-Town. For months, Gar Forman has made it very clear that re-signing Asik is a priority and that all decisions made within the organization this summer will be basketball decisions, not financial decisions. That being said, matching this offer and re-signing him will be extremely difficult and will put us right up against the luxury-tax threshold –something that Jerry Reinsdorf has never felt comfortable with.

Blogabull.com crunched the salary numbers Saturday and determined that, if the Bulls are to re-sign Asik, they will be going well over the luxury tax, meaning that Watson, Brewer, Korver AND Lucas will almost certainly be gone in order to make things more affordable for the organization. They will have to find cheaper alternatives (Jimmy Butler is already one of them) to those players, as they’ll still have very little wiggle room with nearly $70 million tied into nine players (the luxury-tax threshold is expected to be around $70.3 million, according to ESPN capologist Larry Coon). The Bulls are in an incredibly difficult situation this summer — they’ll be treading water like a scared four-year old without inflatable armbands and scrambling to find cheap replacements (some of whom I wrote about last week, some of whom Nick Friedell touched on on Saturday). That’s why it’s hard to see them bringing Asik back even after Forman’s adamant statements about keeping him. They have limited flexiblity, if any, to work with before next season tips off. Keep in mind, though, that the luxury tax is put in place at the end of the regular season, which opens up the opportunity for a midseason trade to get the Bulls back under if need be.

By bringing back Asik for this price, the $14.09 million he’s set to make in the 2014-15 season will be added to the combined $47.7 million owed to Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah that season. That would be about $61 million tied into four players, which pretty much guarantees that the amnesty clause will be used on Boozer by 2014. Unfortunately, that’s an extra two years of potential frustration and bipolar conversations/debates about Boozer’s erratic play and mysterious hairline. The popular opinion amongst Bulls fans, including myself, is that we’d be better off amnestying Boozer now instead of two years from now. That way, the Bulls will be able to re-sign Asik, allow Taj Gibson to get more minutes and even audition for a starting gig before he’s up for an extension, and bring in some better free agents (either this year or next) to surround Rose with. But everyone knows by now that there’s no chance of that happening, and in life, we can’t always get what we want.

There’s no denying how phenomenal Omer Asik is on the defensive end of the court. If we don’t keep him, his 7’1″ presence will be severely missed. Take a look at the impact he made last season while anchoring the paint (according to Hardwood Paroxysm):

Of the Bulls’ top 50 most played 5-man lineups this past season (via NBA.com), Asik was in six of the top seven in points allowed per 100 possessions (pts/100). Without Asik on the court, Chicago allowed just 97.6 pts/100, which would have place 5th in the league over the course of a full season. But when Asik was on the court, that number dropped all the way down to 89.7 pts/100, which would have led the league 5.6 pts/100. He ranked in the 96th percentile in individual points allowed per possession, via mySynergySports, as well as 84th percentile against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and 77th percentile against isolations. (h/t Matt Moore) He’s an elite rebounder (h/t Zach Lowe), an excellent help defender and a good shot-blocker.

Take that all in for a second and think about this: the Bulls were a ridiculous eight points better defensively with Asik on the court. But as great as that sounds, we all know about the train wreck that is Asik’s offense. He has bricks for hands, has absolutely no range outside of an inch from the basket (meaning he can’t do anything but dunk), and watching him shoot free throws is more painful than jamming a finger or stubbing a toe. Asik may be as valuable to the Bulls’ defense as anyone (especially the second unit), but I’m not convinced that matching this fat offer would be the smartest decision. NBA players (especially centers) get overpaid all the time — I know that. But given the situation the Bulls are in, someone who has literally no offensive ability whatsoever, regardless of how good he is defensively, doesn’t deserve a contract that averages $4 million per year, let alone $8 million. I fully expect the Bulls to immediately start negotiating a sign-and-trade with Houston if they feel they can’t match this offer in order to get something in return for Asik’s services. It may sound unrealistic if Asik and/or the Rockets are unwilling to work out a new contract, but it’s definitely a possibility.

As much as I like Asik and would be devastated to see him go, I don’t think this deal is worth it. His future his bright, and he will continue to improve, but to pay a backup center an average of $8 million a year who only played 14.7 minutes per game last season is just too much. Big men are always tough to find, and this summer is no exception. The best low-cost options are guys like Joel Przybilla, Rony Turiaf, Troy Murphy, Nazr Mohammed, Greg Stiemsma, and Eddy Curry (just kidding, chill out), among many others (I’m not sure what kind of money Marcus Camby will demand, but he’s an unrestricted free agent as well). As unappealing as that list is, the Bulls would have to bring in someone cheap to fill the 5-spot in the second unit, plus they’ll have the money not used on Asik (about $5 million next year) to bring in whomever else (or bring back Watson/Korver) they feel will help keep this team afloat until Rose and Deng (Thibs actually said Deng won’t have wrist surgery and will be ready to go by training camp, so who knows with him) come back. It’s not ideal, that’s for sure, but we have to believe that Thibs and his hardworking mentality will find a way to make it work. Over the next week and a half or so, we’ll see how madly in love Gar Forman and John Paxson still are with Omer Asik.

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Tough decisions loom for Bulls front office this summer

Gar Forman and John Paxson have some tough decisions to make this summer.

Let’s be honest: with Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Luol Deng (wrist surgery) set to miss a majority of next season, the Bulls may not be ready to compete for another title until the 2013-14 season. Which means that next season may be more of a transition and a learn-to-play-without-your-two-best-players period. Assuming Pat Riley doesn’t break up the Superfriends in Miami (that would only maybe happen if they don’t win the championship this year), it will be too difficult for the Bulls to win a playoff series against them with Rose and Deng still trying to shake off their rust.

I’ve heard many fans talk about how the Bulls should tank their way through the season in order to earn a high draft pick. As great as that may sound, we all know it just won’t happen. Gar Forman, and especially Tom Thibodeau, would never allow it in a million years, so we may as well put that case to rest. There are a lot of other decisions, though, that the front office has to make as the scalding summer drags on. Yes, there are still games to be played in this year’s epic NBA finals, but that shouldn’t stop us from talking Bulls and thinking about what could be some day. That being said, let’s break down what the Bulls should do this summer, in order of realistic expectations (starting with the most unrealistic).

Keep Dreamin’

Amnesty Boozer, then sign Eric Gordon and a free agent power forward: If you haven’t read my piece, The Summer of Gar, from last month on this, then you should. Because you will definitely agree. However, let’s just be clear: this sweet-sounding chain of events will not happen. Time and time again, Nick Friedell has shut down any hopes that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer. There’s zero chance it happens this summer because Forman and Paxson are counting on him to carry the scoring load with Rose and Deng out (great plan, huh?). Friedell said if there’s ever a time that the team will amnesty Boozer, it will be next summer. We’ll have to keep dreamin’, I guess.

Highly Doubtful But Not Inconceivable

Trade Luol Deng or Joakim Noah for draft picks and/or lower-salaried players: Relax, people. Let me start off by saying that I did not come up with this idea: Bulls.com writer Sam Smith came up with a Deng scenario, and ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle came up with a Noah scenario. I’m not saying I actually want this to happen. I love Luol Deng and Joakim Noah like I love Portillo’s chocolate cake. And that says a lot. But, this is all just speculation and nothing more, so it can’t hurt to talk about it.

The Bulls are set to enter next season with just over 96% of their salary cap invested in four players (Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah). Not good. Since the Bulls are not going to amnesty Boozer and have a slim chance at striking gold with the 29th overall pick in the draft (I’ll be breaking down draft prospects later this week), how in the world are we going to improve for the future?

That’s where Deng and/or Noah come in. Obviously, these two players have a ton of trade value. They have been the defensive anchors for the best defensive team in the NBA over the past two seasons and running. One has been the glue guy (Deng) while the other has been the emotional leader (Noah). Any team would be lucky to have them. Problem for us is no one’s getting younger, and no one’s salary is decreasing.

Sam Smith proposed the Bulls trade Deng to a team with a top-five pick, such as Cleveland or Sacramento, both of whom desperately need a small forward. The Bulls can then use that pick to select Harrison Barnes, the sharpshooting high-school phenom out of UNC (has been compared to a Luol Deng/Glen Rice type of player at the NBA level) if he’s still there, or Bradley Beal, the uber-talented shooting guard out of Florida who would be a perfect fit for the Bulls (nbadraft.net compares him to Eric Gordon/Marcus Thornton) because of his great jump shot and ability to spread the floor for the offense. Of course, there are many scenarios for trading Deng, as I’m sure numerous teams would be highly interested in acquiring him, but Smith’s proposal has to be the most ideal if we were to actually trade him. As you know, I would much rather keep Deng than ship him off, but if the front office decided that a move like this would be best for our future, I would have to learn to live with it.

As far as Joakim Noah goes, Doolittle proposed the Bulls trade him and the no. 29 pick to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and the no. 5 pick. Evans’ name alone may make the casual basketball fan think that trade is perfect. I, on the other hand, don’t really like the idea of trading for Evans (although I can maybe convince myself to) because of his obvious regression throughout the first three seasons of his career. He’s known to have a bad work ethic and has really underachieved defensively, and he’s also going to be a restricted free agent after next season. Not exactly the type of player Thibodeau likes to coach. That top-five pick is really the only thing holding me back from despising this idea altogether. Nevertheless, I don’t see Noah going anywhere, so assuming the Bulls bring back restricted free agent Omer Asik (which they plan on doing), the front-court should be set.

Gotta Make It Happen

Let CJ Watson go: After a horrendous playoff performance this past May against Philadelphia (7.3 points on 24.1% shooting), it became evident that Watson just cannot run a successful offense in the NBA. He’s a decent backup point guard and should have little to no trouble finding another job if the Bulls were to let him go, but he’s too predictable, makes too many bad decisions and will never be more than a backup.

The Bulls have a team option for Watson but will save $3.7 million if they choose not to pick it up. That, combined with the money they can save by letting Ronnie Brewer go (which I’ll get to in a minute) and/or Kyle Korver (whose $5 million contract is non-guaranteed this season), should help them land a very legitimate free agent, such as Andre Miller.

Miller, who is now 36 years old, showed this past May that he still has something left in the tank and can run an offense very effectively. After a solid season (6.7 assists) backing up Ty Lawson in Denver, Miller should be able to land a respectable $5-7 million from any team that wants his services and can undoubtedly start at the point, as he has for basically his entire career, until Derrick Rose is healthy enough to come back. If he’s not the answer, then there are more than enough unrestricted free agent point guards who can replace Watson and help keep this Bulls team in contention for a top-four seed in next year’s playoff race, such as:

  • Goran Dragic: Coming off a ridiculous 2012 campaign (18-4-8-2 as a starter) and will probably be very expensive; also likely to re-sign with the Houston Rockets, leaving Kyle Lowry as trade bait.
  • Kirk Hinrich: Not really convinced that he can run an offense full-time anymore, but I’m putting him on this list anyways because a) I miss him and b) I’ve heard numerous rumors that the Bulls are looking to bring him back, and if they were to sign him this offseason, it would make me look much smarter than I really am.
  • Delonte West: He has legit game, had sex with Lebron’s mom and gives wet willies to opposing players mid-game. I’ll welcome him with open arms.
  • Jonny Flynn: Averaged 13.5 points, 4.4 assists and shot 36% from three-point land during his 2009-10 rookie season as the starting point guard in Minnesota. I’d like to think he’ll come dirt cheap and can be a decent backup at worst. Just something to think about.
  • Jeremy Lin: Just kidding. Or am I?
  • Other notables: Steve Nash (can’t see it happening), Ramon Sessions (if he declines his player option with LA), Jason Kidd’s corpse

It’s also important to point out that John Lucas III is a free agent as well. If the Bulls choose not to bring him back (along with Mike James), then they’ll absolutely have to find another point guard. Now would be a good time to start looking if they haven’t already.

It’s Inevitable

Let Ronnie Brewer go: As much as I like Ronnie Brewer, he’s set to make $4.37 million this season and didn’t really get the job done last season. He’s a fantastic defensive player, but to me, Brewer has maxed out his potential as an NBA player. He’ll never be more than a high level defender and role player with a limited offensive skill-set and inconsistent jump shot. Brewer has a team option this season, so the Bulls can buy him out for just $333,000 and let him walk. That’s a good amount of money they can save, and with Jimmy Butler waiting in the wings, why not promote him to the backup shooting guard/small forward role?

At 22 years old, Butler is worth much less, has a higher offensive ceiling, and he has the potential to be an even better defender than Brewer has been. After seeing Butler take on the difficult task of guarding Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony one-on-one during the regular season, there’s no reason to think that Butler isn’t worthy of at least backup minutes. In fact, in 43 total minutes that Butler guarded Carmelo last season, he shot 29%. In all other minutes against the Bulls, he shot 52%. With his great attitude, motivation and hard work ethic, Butler has the ability to become one of the better all-around defenders in the NBA (think Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and players of that nature). If given the opportunity to play valuable minutes next season and beyond, I have no doubt that Butler will thrive in almost any situation Thibodeau throws him into. The Bulls should trust him and open up some salary space by letting Brewer go. When it comes down to making that decision, they will probably do just that.

With the NBA draft just ten days away and the start of free agency coming up sooner than we think, the Bulls will need to have a game plan in place for how to approach improving this team. This was the best team in the NBA this past season, but we all know that the regular season doesn’t really matter. If the front office decides to stick with what they’ve got and not build a team that can survive a little longer in the playoffs without a fully healthy Derrick Rose (who knows when exactly he’ll get back to full strength), then we could be in for a long 2012-13 season with another disappointing finish.

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