Creating Cap Space While Staying Competitive: What should the Bulls do now?

Great win last night.  The team's current play is leading me to wonder what the best plan should be going forward to balance cap space and talent.  Even with the addition of Devin Brown, trading away Kirk or Salmons for expiring contracts is likely to lead to a reduction in talent, and in turn, the prospects for a playoff birth are significantly reduced as well.  The benefits of last year's epic playoff series are not difficult to spot.  It forced the young Bulls to grow up.  Rose - once over his early-season injury - has been lighting it up, and unafraid to take on late-game leadership.  And then there's Noah, who after turning it on in the playoffs, has been an absolute beast this year - foot injuries not withstanding.

While playoff seeding is unlikely to be a major factor - Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta, and Orlando are all quite formidable, and the Bulls won't be any higher than 5 seed - some additional playoff experience would be a serious boon to the Bulls young players, as well for free agent marketing efforts.  Also, with 40 regular season games still remaining, you never know if the Bulls might find themselves in an another auspicious matchup, like last year's KG-less Celtics.

Plain and simple though: the Bulls need to make the playoffs.  On the other hand, going into the summer without the space to sign a max free agent nullifies the "sacrifice" the team took on this year by not resigning Ben Gordon or any of the other 2009 free agents (way to go Detroit, really made out big with Charlie "ET" Villanueva). 

There are really only two options that management has going forward: 


Option A) Hope to god that John Salmons continues to shine, and that he will opt out of his player option for 2010-2011:

After an absolutely abysmal start to the season, Salmons has shot a highly respectable 49% from the floor so far in January, and his season 3PT% has rebounded in a big way as well, sitting pretty at 39.3%.  If these numbers continue, it is possible that he will enter free agency in an attempt to net a multi-year contract - likely the last major contract of his career.  If I am John Paxson, I am also talking to Salmons on a regular basis to get a gauge on his thinking with regard to his option prior to the deadline.  Salmons opting out likely represents our best chance at securing a playoff birth this year, and cap room for a max free agent this summer. 

Option B) Make a trade:

What follows are the trades that I see as most realistic and reasonable assuming that the goal is to maximize 2010 cap space while essentially maintaining talent level for the current season.  With Miller already expiring, and Tyrus's value likely quite low at the current moment, I have only explored trades involving the backcourt.  

Hinrich and Salmons have both been doing their parts to raise their respective trade values, however, I see Salmons as the guard most likely to be moved for an expiring contract, mostly due to his reasonable salary and potential opt out.  In spite of Hinrich's recent play, it is unlikely that anyone will take on his inflated multi-year contract in exchange for an expiring contract, let alone an expiring contract that leaves us with a decent team for this year.  Additionally, while undoubtedly overpaid, Kirk's defense, leadership, unselfishness, and - of course - thrust should combine to make him a valuable - if overpaid - role player on a contending team (hopefully next year!).  

Trade Proposal 1a: Johns Salmons & Jerome James for Mike Miller & Javaris Crittenton     OR

Trade Proposal 1b: Kirk Hinrich for Mike Miller

I start off with this proposal because it makes the most sense for the Bulls.  Mike Miller brings to the table everything that this Bulls squad needs, and is an expiring contract.  He is a tall guard (6'8") capable of playing and defending both wing positions, and he is a career 40% shooter from long range.  He is generally very efficient from the floor, and contributes nicely in dimes and boards as well.  The only downside is that he has been fairly riddled with injury this year, only playing in 15 games to date.  But he appears to be fully recovered at this point.  If the Wizards would take Hinrich's contract, then I think trade 1b is a no-brainer.  The Bulls might miss Hinrich's ball handling and court vision, but Miller is a true wing player, who can contribute in areas that Hinrich cannot.  Plus it would be a legitimate coup to get Hinrich's salary off the books for a serviceable expiring contract in Miller.  In the case of trade 1a, the Bulls would immediately cut the embattled Crittenton, and Miller would probably come off the bench in a similar fashion to Salmons.  This trade def initely satisfies both conditions for the Bulls in that they gain cap flexibility while staying competitive for this year. 

The Wizards are in a state of disarray, and it is impossible to know what they will do before the deadline - but rest assured that they will do something).  For years, the Wizards have been weak at shooting guard, with DeShawn Stevenson their primary starter for the past five years.  Miller should have been the piece that pushed them over the edge (along with a healthy Arenas and Haywood), but this year has taken a decidedly terrible turn for the worst.  Suffice it to say that their season is essentially over, and Miller is not in their rebuilding plans.  If they void or trade Arenas, then I could see them taking on Hinrich, as he is a "good guy" and a solid point guard.  Though Foye has played nicely in Arenas' absence, he's more of a 2-guard.  If they trade Caron Butler, then perhaps they'd look favorably upon Salmons.  Who knows? 

In the end, I would say it is unlikely that either of these trades go down, but they are within the realm of possibility, and either of these trades would represent the most favorable situation for the Bulls going forward.

Trade Proposal 2: John Salmons for Kyle Korver (expiring) and Kyrylo Fesenko (expiring)

This deal would actually save the Bulls a few thousand dollars this year, as well as opening up cap space for a max free agent this summer.  At 6'7", Kyle Korver, like Salmons, is capable of playing either wing position.  More importantly, he is a career 40% three point shooter, and more comfortable than salmons in the catch-and-shoot game.  While not known for his defense, he should be a more than capable backup shooting guard behind Hinrich, and his size alone should be enough to bother half of the leagues SGs.  He has played well in limited minutes since recently returning from injury.  I actually have no idea who Kyrylo Fesenko is, but let's hope he's as good at standing and cheering from the bench as dearly departed Aaron Gray!

Not sure if Utah bites .  The additional ~$300K in salary definitely could be a deal breaker for them, as they recently traded away promising rookie Eric Maynor for financial reasons, and are actively trying to shed salary.  However, the Jazz are not especially talented at shooting guard, and Salmons might be just the kind of "impact" player they're looking for.  With Utah currently on a roll, and looking to make a deep playoff run, management might be shifting its focus somewhat, and could welcome the additional depth in advance of the post season.  Korver is a "one trick pony", while Salmons provides steals, rebounds, assists, and solid defense in addition to three pointers and scoring.   

Trade Proposal 3: John Salmons for Luke Ridnour (expiring) 

This trade works financially, and perhaps in principle as well, but the big X-factor here is that it is a intra-divisional trade.  Ignoring this issue for a moment, Ridnour is (in my estimation) essentially a Hinrich clone, though a bit worse on the defensive end.  Having Ridnour backup Hinrich (and Rose) would essentially give us a full 48 minutes of Hinrich - not all together a bad thing.  His three-point shooting for the season stands at 40%, and I believe that this trade would not lead to a demonstrably worse Bulls team for the remainder of this season. 

For the Bucks, Jennings is their point guard of the future, and they likely will not resign Ridnour this summer.  Though Ridnour has played well for the Bucks this year, Michael Redd's season-ending injury has left them weak at shooting guard as they attempt to make a playoff run.  The Bucks are only a few games back, and would likely welcome a play maker like Salmons.

However, the Bulls and Bucks will be fighting each other for the rest of the season for the last few playoff spots in the East, and neither team's GM is likely to pull the trigger on a deal that could potentially lead to a rival's playoff birth at the expense of their own team's.  Still, in theory it's not a bad idea (in my humble opinion). 

Trade Proposal 4: John Salmons for Roger Mason (expiring), Theo Ratliff (expiring), and Malik Hairston (not sure)

Roger Mason is a long wing (6'5") capable of playing both wing positions and can shoot the three (39.6% career average).  He is only playing 20 mpg this year, but has proven to be fairly capable when given more minutes (such as filling in for Ginobili at the start of last season).  Ratliff and Hairston would be little more than a salary equalizer, but given the Bulls' plantar fasciitis woes, maybe Ratliff could find himself playing some spot minutes.  ESPN show's Hairston's contract as having one more year, but HoopsHype shows next year as a team option.  His 2011 salary would be less than $1mm though, so either way the Bulls save enough to sign a max free agent this summer.  The Bulls definitely lose on the talent side of this trade, but at least they gain a quality 3 point shooter known for his late game heroics.  Between Mason and the newly acquired Brown, the Bulls should have just enough backcourt bench talent to squeak into the playoffs.

Not sure if the Spurs go for this trade or not.  Roger Mason is a good role player, but Salmons has the potential to be a legitimate game changer (when he's not clanking shots off the front of the rim and killing ball movement).  You also have to factor in the frailty of the Spur's backcourt starters.  Parker is battling plantar fasciitis, and Ginobili is constantly injured, so Salmons is good insurance.  Like their starters, Salmons plays well with the ball in his hands, and his three point shooting (if he can maintain it) would also fit the Spurs well.  For a contender (if we can still call them that), Salmons is a hell of a guy to have coming off of your bench.

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