- Nick Friedell, Chicago Bulls beat reporter
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CHICAGO -- Gar Forman sat at the podium after the Bulls drafted Marquis Teague late in June and uttered a statement has already started to haunt him amongst fans. Forman, one half of Chicago’s basketball brain-trust, stated the team would be making "basketball decisions, not financial ones," as it pertained to free agency this summer.
Given the organization's recent decisions and its lack of enthusiasm regarding going deep into the luxury tax, Forman's statement falls flat for fans.
The truth is that pretty much every decision the Bulls have made this summer, and the decisions they'll make in the coming weeks, all are financially based. It's the way of life when you're running a business, and make no mistake, the Chicago Bulls are just that.
Jerry Reinsdorf has made a ton of money while owning the Bulls. The United Center is filled every night and the Bulls are one of the profitable, and recognizable franchises in the world. That's the issue with a large portion of the fan base right now. Reinsdorf has more than enough money to cover any luxury tax hit, but the organization has clearly made it a point to make financial decisions, not basketball ones in the past few weeks. Recently traded guard Kyle Korver admitted as much after he was dealt.
"What do you do?" Korver said last week on ESPN 1000. "You learn this is a business and teams are going to make business decisions and that's all right ... I knew it was going to come down to dollars. I'm not really going to take it personally because I don't think (the trade) is because of my play, so they traded me or something like that, I think it was a dollars decision and I understand that."
Former Bulls guard C.J. Watson echoed that sentiment in recent weeks. He acknowledged that much of his talks between the Bulls’ front office revolved around the luxury tax. Couple this with the fact that NBA capologist Larry Coon said on Wednesday night on ESPN 1000 that he has been hearing that the Bulls don't want to go into the tax at all.
With all this knowledge, fans are understandably frustrated and angry. They want to know why the Bulls, the same team that's led the NBA in wins the past two seasons, are suddenly gutting the core group of a bench that had so much success. They want to know why their team can't add another major piece, while it seems most of the other contenders in the league are doing so. They want to figure out why if the Bulls knew they were going to eventually lose some of these pieces due to salary-cap restrictions, they didn't unload them and get something in return besides a trade exception Atlanta gave them to acquire Korver. They want to understand why a team flushed with cash suddenly finds itself in such salary cap hell. Let's try to break down each issue individually:
How did the Bulls get here?
Well, for starters, as my radio partner Jonathan Hood would say, the Bulls ended up in this no man's land the second LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all decided to sign with Miami. From that point on, the organization faced an uphill climb. They chose Carlos Boozer as the next best option and signed him to a $75 million deal. They re-signed Joakim Noah for $60 million, Luol Deng was already in the middle of a $70 million deal. Then Derrick Rose, who became the NBA MVP, was locked up for a max deal worth over $90 million. For better or worse, this was their team. Sure, they could add various pieces here or there, including Rip Hamilton for $5 million a year, but the four names mentioned above made up the core. Once Rose's new deal kicked in, this was the reality of the situation. Unless Reinsdorf wanted to go deep into the tax, he wouldn't be able to keep this team, as constructed, in place.
Why can't Bulls add another major piece?
I encourage everybody to listen to the interview Hood and I did with Larry Coon on Wednesday night. Larry does a far better job than I could describing the intricacies of the salary cap. The issue is this: the Bulls don't have enough cap space to acquire the type of game changer they need via free agency. A trade is a different story, but as I outlined here , the only major name I would go after if I were the Bulls would be Dwight Howard, but trading for him presents a scary reality. If he won't agree to an extension, the Bulls would run the risk of trading away most of their assets only to have Howard walk after the season. Yes, it would clear up cap space, but then they'd be left trying to sell prospective free agents on playing with Rose, a soon to be amnestied Boozer, and Kirk Hinrich since Noah, Deng and Taj Gibson would likely have to be included in the deal. Not exactly a championship ready trio.
The Bulls are currently hovering around $70 million and they still have to make a decision on whether to bring back Omer Asik, who is expected to ink a lucrative offer sheet with Houston any day now. If they fill out the rest of the roster with players on the veteran's minimum, they would still likely be into the tax, even if it's ever so slightly.
How are other contenders still able to add players?
Well, in many ways the reason for that is because players want to come and play for less money to win a championship. Ray Allen? Went to Miami for less money to play with LeBron. Antawn Jamison? Signed for the veteran's minimum to play with the Lakers. OJ Mayo? Signed in Dallas, which has cap space the Bulls don't – and they had to jettison Tyson Chandler to do it.
Would Reinsdorf have been more willing to go into tax if Rose was not injured?
It's a hypothetical that is impossible to answer. Bulls fans seem to feel like the ugly stepsister as far their relationship with the Reinsdorf's other team, the White Sox, goes. Most years, including this one, the White Sox find a way to make a move even if they aren't generating the type of revenue they would like. That's a frequent argument used by Bulls fans as to why Reinsdorf should dig deep. If they had knocked off the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals, count me in the group that thinks Reinsdorf would have paid the tax. I think public pressure would have forced his hand -- but, we'll never know.
Why couldn't the Bulls get more in return for the pieces they had?
The Bulls received a $5 million trade exception for Korver. It wasn't like teams were knocking down their door to take back Watson or Brewer, both of whom may end up playing for the minimum or close to it. If fans want to be angry for the Bulls holding onto their assets too long, fine. But the deal they could have made for Asik two years ago for Courtney Lee was not a deal that they felt would make them much better. The fact that Asik could be leaving for nothing is just part of the business of basketball.
How do you fix the Bulls?
First, you don't match the offer sheet for Asik. Paying Asik $5 million over the next two years is fine, paying him almost $15 in the final year of the deal is insane. It would clog the Bulls’ cap space in a year in which plenty of big-name free agents could be available. Unless the Bulls know for sure they could unload his deal in the final year, which they don't, there is no reason to spend that much money on a backup who struggles to catch the ball in the paint. Next, be patient. The Bulls are stuck in cap hell for the next two years. They are good enough to win games, but not good enough to win a title. The way for them to take the next step in their progression is either by clearing out enough cap space to land a free agent or landing another big name in a trade. In either case, the best course of action is to go after somebody once Deng and Boozer (amnestied) are off the books in two years. The reason they won't be able to add next season is because Taj Gibson is expected to be re-signed -- he figures to earn at least $7 or $8 million a year, thus clogging up more cap space.
OK, so the Bulls wait two years, then who do they get?
I'd take LeBron if he opts out of his deal, obviously, but there's no way to answer that question right now. My argument has always been that at least the cap flexibility gives you a better chance to acquire another star either via trade or free agency.
All these other teams are making a trade and finding a way, why can't the Bulls?
Let's take a quick glance at the roster. Rose is hurt, but he is untouchable and going nowhere. Boozer's contract is untradeable. Noah is due $50 million over the next four years and is dealing with reoccurring ankle problems. Deng has a torn ligament in his wrist and has almost $30 million left on his contract. Gibson is a good player off the bench and has value, but the Bulls want to keep him. Nikola Mirotic is playing in Europe and is probably at least two years away. The Bulls have a Charlotte Bobcats' first-round pick, but it doesn't become unprotected for another four years. Sure, there is value there, but as is always the case in NBA trades, it's always tough to get equal value.
Shouldn’t the Bulls, regardless of the luxury tax, be trying to field the best team possible?
There's a difference between being cheap and being stupid; fans need to have the patience to accept that -- even if it's easy to see through the organization's flawed notion that the Bulls are trying to make "basketball decisions, not financial ones" this summer.
The Bulls are, at times, stubborn when it comes to finances – considering the fact that management and Tom Thibodeau appear to be at a standoff on a contract extension and the organization has issue with going deep into the tax. But count me in the minority that thinks that Reinsdorf is making a wise decision as it pertains to this season. The Bulls feel like they made an upgrade, or close to it, by adding Kirk Hinrich and letting go of Watson. They feel like they have a suitable replacement for Brewer in Jimmy Butler. If Forman had decided to bring back Korver, Brewer and Watson, as some fans have suggested, the Bulls would have been almost $15 million over the cap. Given the luxury tax penalty is a dollar for every dollar over the threshold this season (and gets more punitive in the coming years) that would mean the Bulls would be paying almost $30 million to keep The Bench Mob intact. Call me crazy, but if I'm spending an extra $30 million on my basketball team, it better be for guys who can win me a championship, not be the difference between the four seed and the five seed in the East. Korver, Brewer and Watson have value, but not enough to keep them at that price, for that role.
As uninspiring as this offseason has been, the Bulls have a plan.