There's been a lot of talk about what the Bulls should do going forward, and I wanted to lay out my thoughts on some things, both in order to clarify things in my own head and to see what y'all think. First, there's a premise I need to establish here in terms of team-building: I believe the Spurs, as a small-market team, demonstrate how the Bulls will have to build their team, if they want to be perennial contenders. One reason I believe this is that I don't believe the Bulls will ever really pay for the luxury tax, as they never did before back when it was far less punitive and also because the tax now is pretty crippling in terms of making talent acquisitions to help build your team once you're in it and the Bulls value flexibility.
Now, if you're operating in a context where you never pay the tax, you have to be smart about where you spend your money. What does that mean? It means you have to figure out who your core group of guys are and who's replaceable / an interchangeable part. You have to get value contracts. The Bulls have been pretty good at this, but not perfect. The Bulls determined that Ben Gordon was not worth paying an 8-figure deal, and they've been proven right on that score. They've gotten guys like Taj Gibson and Omer Asik who way outperformed their rookie deals, late in the draft. They got Derrick, who was a huge value while on his rookie deal and will still be a value deal as a max player. There have been some misses, though. Boozer is the most obvious example. He's way overpaid for his production. Luol is one of my favorite players and still underrated, but I don't think anyone would say that he's a value deal. He's likely paid just right or slightly overpaid for his production. Now the framework for team-building in the Spurs way, in a general sense, the best I can tell, is to get your best 3 guys locked in and find role players on cheap deals that fit around them.
The Bulls right now have 4 guys going forward that are paid like they are top 3 guys (Rose, Deng, Noah, and Boozer), which is a problem. As I've pointed out, Boozer is by far the worst contract of that bunch, and he's the oldest. So, clearly, Boozer can't be part of the Bulls long term plans, if they are to be perennial contenders after 2013 (I'm throwing out next year, obviously, since it will be the Rose Rehab tour). The next issue is whether Rose-Deng-Noah is a good enough trio to be perennial contenders with plug-n-play role-players surrounding them. I'm not sure that it is, but it's close. I definitely think Rose and Noah are good enough to be part of such a trio, but I'm not sure that Luol is that kind of player. His defense is fantastic, but his offense is still pretty mediocre and he's still prone to injury, even if he's gotten better at fighting through it, it hurts his effectiveness quite a bit. If there's someone of these 3 that will have to go in order to make things work properly, it's probably Luol. On the other hand, he's only under contract through 2014, so Luol's potential inadequacy isn't such a big problem going forward. One other important thing to remember when building a team on a budget, one of your big 3 stars needs to be a big man. Why? Because big men get paid, even if they are merely average (see e.g. Javale McGee's upcoming monster contract). The marginal value of a dollar spent on a star big man versus a merely average one is a huge return. Fortunately, I am of the opinion that Noah is such a big man. He raises his game in the playoffs and he's a top 5 center -- the only centers clearly better than Joakim, imo, are Dwight, Bynum, and Duncan. Joakim is locked up to a ridiculously affordable deal for a center of his gifts, making $50 million over the next 4 years. Incidentally, this might be a reason why the Thunder are boned long term. None of their big 3 are big men (Westbrook, Harden, Durant) and as a result, they will have to pay market rates for guys like Ibaka and Perkins, who simply aren't worth the 8 figure deals they will be receiving, especially for what they contribute to the Thunder. It's the biggest difference between the Spurs and the Thunder, in terms of how they're built, but it's significant. It's much easier to find plug-n-play cheap wings to surround Duncan than it is to find cheap bigs to go with Durant.
Okay, so what does this all mean in terms of what the Bulls should do regarding their big decisions this off-season?
1. DO NOT overpay Omer Asik. If he gets a big offer sheet, he needs to be let go. Why? Because he's replaceable. Don't get me wrong, Omer's defense is fantastic and finding active bigs with defensive skills isn't easy, but the Bulls have proven relatively adept at doing so (see: Joakim and Taj). In addition, the Bulls have the best defensive coach in the league, who can likely turn a cheaper option into a pretty good Omer approximation for a fraction of the cost. Omer is an abysmal offensive player and given that the Bulls have a defensive scheme that makes Omer's defensive skills somewhat replaceable, I think it's important not to overvalue him.
2. Let Ronnie go, replace him with Jimmy Butler. I like Ronnie and think he's been excellent and he's actually probably slightly underpaid for how good he is. But the fact is that Jimmy is going to be locked up for a cheap deal for at least the next three years (assuming the Bulls pick up his options, which they should do). It's important to see what the Bulls have with him. He's shown himself to be a capable wing defender in limited minutes and again, in limited minutes, he's been pretty great at drawing FTA per FGA (5.6 FTA to 7.9 FGA per 36 minutes). Jimmy was quite good at drawing fouls in college as well, so there's reason to think this is a real skill of his. I think he has the potential to be a huge value deal for the Bulls and he needs playing time to develop that potential. What better year to do that than the Derrick Rose Recovery Tour? We're not winning the title next year, so build for the next year.
3. Dump Rip Hamilton (h/t Sports2), Keep Kyle Korver. Value, value, value. They both make the same amount of money, but Rip can't shoot straight and Kyle stretches the floor. They both do the same things on offense, but Kyle is far, far better at it. I think they are about the same on defense, as Kyle is really underrated on defense. Plays very good scheme defense. This one isn't really all that important for the future, it's just one I like. Additionally, Rip was a win-now move, but the Bulls aren't winning anything next year. Plus, Kyle makes for pretty basketball with his movement and shot-making, which will be important for me not losing my sanity as a Bulls fan next year while they toil away rather pointlessly. As far as the future goes, the Bulls are just as well off keeping Rip this year and not picking up Kyle's option. I'd just prefer Kyle and dumping Rip to a team with cap space. Also, Kyle is more capable of playing SF minutes than Rip and that's important given Luol's time out at the start of this year. Bonus: Kyle is healthy and Rip isn't.
4. Keep Boozer for next year, amnesty him after that. Boozer is a bad, bad deal. He'll make $15 million next year and is slated to make $32.1 million in the two years following that. The Bulls can keep Boozer next year and not be a tax payer, assuming they make the moves I'm outlining. The Bulls will probably be loathe to pay Boozer NOT to play for them for two years, but he's good enough to likely get signed by someone through the amnesty waiver process and likely will be wanted by multiple bidders, so some of that $32 million is likely to be paid by another team. In addition, the Bulls are going to need that space going forward after next season in order to re-sign Taj Gibson,who I've argued recently is already a better overall player than Boozer and will continue to be this good, while Boozer continues to decline as his already limited athleticism dissipates, without putting themselves in luxury tax territory. Given how punitive the luxury tax is, the Bulls would probably be better served by paying Boozer not to play for them than they would going into the tax to keep a player who's actually good. Some of this is contingent on Taj proving himself worthy again next year. If Taj turns out not to be the guy to pay, maybe the Bulls decide not to resign him and just suffer through the last two years of the Boozer deal, but I hope that's not the case because Boozer is really bad and getting worse. It might also make sense not to pay Taj if Mirotic continues to be the real deal and the Bulls can bring him over, but that's stuff for the future, not this off-season. Another argument for keeping Boozer next year is that the Bulls will be starved for offense in the absence of Derrick for possibly the whole year and Luol for a good portion of the beginning of the year.
5. Draft a big man to replace Omer at #29. Possible guys available where the Bulls will be drafting are: Fab Melo, Andrew Nicholson, Meyers Leonard, Kyle O'Quinn. I like O'Quinn and Nicholson quite a bit, but Melo is the best shot blocker in this group, which is the most salient skill of Omer's to replace, but obviously you draft the best player and trust Thibs to make the rest work.
6. Bring back CJ, JLIII, and find a minimum level PG to play when those guys are hurt or tired or whatever. I'd prefer not to bring back Mike James again, just because he's so old, but worst case scenario, he's fine.
7. Sign a cheap SF minutes sopper for the first half of the year. Maybe someone from the D-League. With Luol hurt and one of Rip or Korver on the way out, it'll be important to have someone to play the SF slot behind whichever of Rip or Kyle stays. This might be an argument for keeping Ronnie around and not getting rid of him after all, but he simply makes too much money. Maybe they grab a guy like Malcolm Thomas who had a lot of success in the D-League last year or maybe they grab someone pretty much washed up, but likely to be okay with a cheap one year deal like Rasual Butler.
8. Grab one more cheap big to round out the roster / meet the 13 man roster requirement. I'll call him Scalabrine, although it may not (hopefully will not?) be Scal.
Where does the leave the Bulls for next year from a personnel and salary perspective?
CJ Watson - $3.2 million
JLIII ~ $ 1 million
3rd PG ~ $ 1 million
Jimmy Butler - $1.067 million
Kyle Korver (or Rip) - $ 5 million
Luol Deng - $13.37 million
Crummy SF signed off the scrap heap ~ $1 million
Boozer - $15 million
Taj - $2.156 million
Joakim - $11.3 million
Drafted big guy - $1.061 million
Scal / 5th big guy ~ $1 million
Rose - $15.51 million
Add it all up and it's about $71.5+ million in salary to fill out the bare minimum 13 guys on the roster, with only 12 on the active roster. That's bumping right up against the potential luxury tax to field what will be a pretty mediocre team, given the time Derrick and Luol will miss. This year's luxury tax was $70.307 million, and next year's luxury tax is guaranteed to be at least that much, but it will probably go up a little bit. But whether it rises enough to make $71.5 million slide in under it, is a tough call.* So even with this relatively minimal salary plan, the Bulls are going to be right up against the tax. This is obviously without re-signing Omer, which makes it pretty clear to me that the Bulls shouldn't, and likely won't, re-sign the Turkish Hammer. It makes no sense for the Bulls to pay the tax next year for a non-contender, which this team won't be without Rose or with a gimpy version of the MVP, especially given the penalties for being a repeat offender in the new CBA. The above plan gives the Bulls flexibility going forward, doesn't overpay or overvalue non-essential players, and allows them to (hopefully) build around a Rose-Noah-3rd star core going forward. Maybe that 3rd core guy is Luol, maybe it's Nicola Mirotic or maybe it's someone who isn't a Bull currently.
*One possible way to cut the salary even further to get closer to or under the potential luxury tax line is to let Korver go, salary dump Rip, and bring back Ronnie, whose salary if the Bulls pick up his option next year is $4.37 million, as opposed to the $5 million owed to Kyle or Rip.
This ended up being a lot longer than I expected, and if you've made it this far, thanks for reading. I'd love to hear what everyone thinks of the ideas I've presented and to keep the discussion of the Bulls' future going.