- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- If there's one figure floating around Gar Forman's head these days, it must be $20 million.
That's the amount of money under the salary cap the Bulls will have to spend next summer when the contracts of Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich come off the books and the amnesty tag is likely used on Carlos Boozer.
That's the rough estimate that salary-cap guru Larry Coon has come up with given the Bulls already have a little over $42 million tied up in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Marquis Teague and the figure for the cap is expected to be around $62 million. So as Forman prepares his plan for this summer, he has to do so with next summer in mind.
Much was made about the Bulls' decision not to go deep into the luxury tax last summer, but that proved to be the right decision given that Rose ended up not playing since injuring his knee on April 28, 2012. The Bulls' front office is well aware that it needs another star to pair with Rose in order to get past the Miami Heat and get over the hump toward an NBA title -- but how does it do that with just $20 million in actual cap space likely staring the staff in the face a year from now?
Let's go through a few of the scenarios Forman likely is considering:
Luol Deng: The Bulls have to make a decision on what to do with their two-time All-Star. If Deng wants to stay with the Bulls, he is going to have to take a pay cut from the over $13 million he is scheduled to make this season. Just how much of a cut will go a long way toward determining what the Bulls are going to be able to do in the future. If Deng won't re-sign for about $7 million or $8 million a year, the Bulls may be forced to deal him at some point in the next few months. They cannot afford to let him walk away for nothing. The problem for them is that there isn't going to be much of a trade market for a 28-year-old who has battled health problems over the past year and a half and could easily walk at the end of the year.
The flip side is that if the Bulls commit to Deng for the next three to four years, their odds of getting a max player go down dramatically because that would eat up almost half of their available cap space. Forman is in a tough spot either way, especially given that Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly called Deng "the glue" of the team.
Nikola Mirotic: The Bulls' prized draft pick from a couple of years ago continues to dominate overseas (named the Spanish League MVP earlier this week). He is almost as important a piece for the Bulls' future as Deng is given the ramifications regarding the salary cap. As Forman explained last month on the "Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN Chicago, there are a lot of hoops to go through in order to get Mirotic over to the States and playing for the Bulls.
"You're slotted in the first round, and I think the slot for No. 24 is $1.3 or $1.4 million," Forman said. "Well, he makes a lot more money than that right now over at Real Madrid. So the way the CBA is written is after three years then you're no longer slotted. Then you can use whether it's exception room or cap room in order to pay a guy. So there's no possibility this summer [of getting him] because next year will be his third year. But after next year, the summer of 2014, then we'll be able to start some negotiations as far as a buyout possibly with Real Madrid or negotiate with him to come over here."
While the Bulls have always been privately confident that Mirotic would come to Chicago next summer, even they don't know for sure. First, they would have to negotiate a buyout with Real Madrid. If they get past that complicated step, the most interesting portion of the negotiations will begin. As Forman stated, Mirotic could be signed for an exception or any available cap space. What if the Bulls offer him the midlevel exception at $5 million a year and he says no? What if he wants more and says that he will stay in Europe if he doesn't get the deal he is seeking? The Bulls believe that Mirotic could develop into a star at the 4, but how much cap space are they willing to give toward his future? The 22-year-old would appear to have most of the leverage in this negotiation.
Trade: There don't appear to be many superstars readily available on the market at this time, but the one name that intrigues fans and executives is that of Kevin Love. The Minnesota Timberwolves star has worked out over the past few summers with Rose and has two years left on his contract worth over $30 million plus a player option worth almost $17 million in the third year. The Bulls would love to acquire him and would be wise to call new Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and discuss a deal. But the Timberwolves have not given any indication that they would part with Love in any deal. He was the organization's representative at the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night in New York City.
If Forman were able to land Love, it would likely cost the Bulls every available asset they have, including improving swingman Jimmy Butler, the future first-round draft pick from the Charlotte Bobcats and Mirotic, as well as either Boozer or Deng to make the numbers work. Forman & Co. would have to ponder whether a core of Love, Rose and Noah would be enough to topple the Heat core of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh since there wouldn't be enough leftover cap space to add another game-changer to the roster.
Aside from Love, who isn't even on the market, there isn't another star player available at this time -- although the Bulls, like every other team in the league, are always keeping a close eye on who may pop open later.
Free agency: This was always part of Forman's original plan -- clear out enough cap space to make a run at a max or near-max player like the Bulls did in 2010. The big issue for the Bulls is that it's still unclear exactly who will be on the market. Depending on opt-out clauses, James, Wade and Bosh figure to be back at the forefront of the madness, but after being jilted by all three in 2010, it's hard to imagine any one of the three leaving Miami and coming to Chicago. Plus, James is really the only one in that group who could put the Bulls over the top. Wade is on the downside of his career, and Bosh isn't the type of dominant scorer the Bulls need on the wing.
After that, Dirk Nowitzki will be on the market, but it's hard to believe he will leave the Dallas Mavericks. Danny Granger is another possibility, but he has missed almost the entire season because of a knee injury and isn't getting younger. Carmelo Anthony could opt out of his contract in New York, but the only way he would wind up with the Bulls is if he took a pay cut since he is scheduled to make over $21 million next year and will likely be looking for even more. Kobe Bryant will be an unrestricted free agent, but he is coming off an Achilles injury and it's unclear how long he will continue to play.
Even if the Bulls were able to land one of these players, they wouldn't have much left to sign anyone else. Aside from James, everyone else has question marks and is getting up there in age -- not exactly the types of players to pair with Rose and Noah for the long haul. Given the new salary cap structure, it's unclear whether Miami will be able to keep its three-star model intact with James, Wade and Bosh all up for extensions, but with all these factors in play, it's clear that the Bulls are in a bind.
They could decide to roll the dice and hope that a core of Rose, Noah, Gibson, Butler, Deng and Mirotic, assuming the latter two would sign (or re-sign in Deng's case) with the Bulls, would be enough to overtake James -- wherever he may land. The Bulls would also have comfort in knowing that eventually a likely high pick from the Bobcats would arrive in the next couple of years and add to their young core, along with the 20th pick in the draft this summer.
But Forman knows that championship windows don't stay open forever. Rose is 24, but if the Bulls don't win a title in the next couple of years, will he be the next great superstar to look for greener pastures when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in a few years? Only time will tell, but the clock is ticking for Forman to start making some hard decisions. The choices he makes this summer will go a long way toward figuring out how good the Bulls can be in the future.