[You guys may remember Zach from his fantastic playoff dispatches from Brooklyn. -yfbb]
It's been a Bulls fan's daydream for years now: The Charlotte Bobcats 2016 unprotected pick. It rolls off the tongue. Tantalizes with its possibility. It is the limo ride between high school prom and the hotel room afterwards. It is hope, savior and trump card rolled into one, non-Tyrus Thomas-y package.
The Bobcats have sucked for so long, and so absurdly hard, that somewhere along the way it became implausible to believe the Bulls would collect their owed asset until all its protections expired. And for the same reasons, it seemed assured that said pick would be the of extremely choice variety. Since 2004, The Bobs have selected 2nd, 5th, 3rd, 8th, 9th, 12th, 9th, 2nd and 4th overall. They ARE the NBA draft lottery. But as the 2013-14 season gets underway, two developments are worth noting:
One, the Bobcats Reign of Terrible may finally be coming to an end.
And two, the upcoming 2014 NBA draft is an overstuffed grab bag of awesome.
Which begs the question: Would it benefit the Bulls more to collect this year's top 10-protected Charlotte pick than it would to wait for the promised land of an unprotected 2016?
Before we get started, let us acknowledge the scope and pace of the moving parts involved in this exercise. We have the Bulls and Bobcats respective rosters, any possible forays into free agency and the trade market, projecting the entire NBA standings at year's end after only a handful of games, and the oh-so-simple task of predicting the next three NBA drafts.
So yes, this is the basketball equivalent of launching a whiffle ball into a hurricane and positing the blade of grass upon which it will land. But the point of the exercise is much simpler, and worth investigating now: Should we be rooting for the Bobcats to suck less this year? Come nerd with me.
We do this with sports. Whenever a narrative recurs long enough, we forget it might ever change. The Lakers will always be Showtime. The Red Sox will never win a championship. The Cowboys will forever be America's Team. And, the Bobcats will always be terrible. It's hard to see change happening behind the blinding appeal of a narrative. And to be fair, things like this are hard to forget:
With the caveat that 2013-14 season is only eight games old, the Bobcats look like they might not be awful. This is a major development. Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist look like quality pieces. Gerald Henderson is a respectable NBA 2-guard coming into his prime. Ramon Sessions and Al Jefferson have enough Veteran Savvy™ to show the kids the how to win (or at least how other people seem to do it). Jeff Taylor looks like a thunder-dunking draft steal and if Cody Zeller gets up to speed anytime soon, the 'Cats might actually creep towards pluckiness. They shan't be making the playoffs, but for the first time in a long time, respectability is a legitimate possibility this year.
This matters to the Bulls not just for the more remote possibility of collecting Charlotte's first rounder this year, but also the potential state of the Bobcats in 2016. Thinking logically about where that year's draft pick might fall is considerably less fun for Bulls fans than the amorphous beauty of The Charlotte Bobcats Unprotected 2016 Draft Pick, but examine we must.
Let's say the 'Cats finish in the lottery again this year. That means they will likely get a game-changing player (as we will examine, this year's draft is shaping up to be generationally spectacular) to go with their aforementioned building blocks. To boot, Sessions and the mostly useless Ben Gordon (pardon me while I cry) are on expiring deals, leaving the 'Cats with only $41m in committed salary in 2014-15. With owner Michael Jordan eager to win something, anything, now and a whole bunch of solid players - Zach Randolph, Greg Monroe, Danny Granger, Marcin Gortat, Luol Deng, Evan Turner, Ekpe Udoh, and Greivis Vasquez among others - coming available, Charlotte is in good position to make a leap in the next two years. Don't say you weren't warned: The 2016 Charlotte Bobcats Unprotected Draft Pick is not going to be that good.
For the Bulls to collect their pick this year, ten teams must finish with a crappier record than Charlotte. Even before injuries and tanking really take hold, arguments could be made for the Kings, Jazz, Lakers, Cavaliers, Magic, Pistons, Celtics, Bucks, Wizards, and 76ers to out-stink the 'Cats. Before you go nuts at those suggestions, remember that Western Conference teams will get crushed twice as often by the quantity and quality of its playoff-bound, and that some of these teams will sell off their useful parts and point the plane at the ground at the first sign of being a 2014 lottery team. And for whatever reason, Michael Jordan has decided this is the year that winning is all-important. Remind me to send him a fruit basket. Anyways, the point isn't that it is likely for the Bobcats to outplay these teams, only that it is plausible.
After The Convention at the United Center on Tuesday night, there can be little doubt as to the outstanding impact the 2014 draft will bring to the NBA. And while players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle get all the publicity, it belies the depth that have league insiders drooling over mid and even late round picks that would be lottery talent in any other year. One NBA GM said that six players in this year's draft would have gone first overall in 2013, and that may be underselling it a bit. We haven't even had Thanksgiving dinner yet but already we're hearing comparisons to the Lebron-Melo-Wade 2003 draft that sparked the talent renaissance the NBA is enjoying today. That seems noteworthy.
To be fair, it's still too early to forecast what Charlotte's 2015 (top-8 protected) or 2016 draft picks might be despite some sites giving their best shot at determining the draft order of kids who haven't finished puberty. But if it were even remotely close to the hype surrounding this year's class we would have heard about it already. Jabari Parker himself has been on the NBA radar since he was a freshman in high school.
Many things can happen over the next three years, but It seems logical to deduce that the Bobcats arrow is pointing up and that the class of 2014 is so loaded as to be deemed an outlier. It seems more than likely that the Bulls would get a later pick in a lesser draft in 2015 or 2016. The best case scenario for the Bulls is to cash in their lottery ticket now.
Speaking of which, the final piece of this puzzle is the current state of the Chicago Bulls. The dark underbelly of this year's title aspirations is that a failure to win (or get damn close) likely spells the end for this iteration of the team. So many core players - the ones Paxdorf has been so reluctant to part with over the years - have graduated to second level salaries that the team is now capped out and may ultimately be undone a lack of depth. The short term view of the Bulls fan is Championship or Bust. But the dispassionate among us should realize that planning for the franchise's near future is equally important.
Deng has been with the Bulls since he was drafted in 2004 and represents much of what has made the team so successful, to say nothing of being by all accounts a stellar human being. But he is making $14m in the final year of his contract and - if early returns are representative - appears diminished, especially as a shooter. The presence of Jimmy Butler - and to a lesser degree Tony Snell - make Deng somewhat expendable, especially at his current price. Indeed their presence on the roster seem to indicate that management might be planning for life after Deng. Kirk Hinrich's injury-riddled (seriously, it's like he was shot with a malady machine gun) two-year redux with the Bulls will mercifully expire at season's end. And Carlos Boozer will enter the last year of his contract as one of the NBA's last amnesty candidates. For the first time in a long time, the Bulls are in position to make dramatic changes to their roster should they elect to. At a critical time for the franchise, having an extra first round pick in hand would introduce a wealth of possibility and flexibility for a team in need of both.
If Gar Paxdorf lets the team's free agents walk, holds onto Boozer and brings Mirotic over from the Euroleague, the 2014-15 roster looks like this:
PG - Rose, Teague
SG - Butler
SF - Dunleavy, Snell
PF - Boozer, Gibson, Mirotic, Murphy
C - Noah
Having two firsts next year would allow the Bulls to A) have flexibility in negotiations with Deng and/or the rest of the free agent market; B) have the luxury of drafting the best talent available while still addressing positions of need (center, wing shooting) with their other 1st rounder; C) Re-introduce depth and cheap rookie-scale assets to a team in desperate need of both; And D) give the front office the assets required to make a major move were it so inclined. The last option is likely a pipe dream, given that history has shown Bulls management to be one of the least creative in the league when it comes to contemplating deals that subtract pieces from the roster.
Finally, the Bulls need to begin to build the bridge to the next generation now. With Thibs' tendency to de facto redshirt rookies and only Gibson, Rose and Snell (and Mirotic if he signs the mid-level exception as expected) on the books beyond 2016, the sooner the Bobcats first round pick becomes an actual human being with a Chicago Bulls jersey on his back, the better. Every day that Rose's (and to a lesser extent Noah's) prime goes by without championship pieces surrounding him is a waste of a singular talent.
The goal of this Bulls season is to win a championship, full stop. And in the interest of full disclosure, I love and have loved this team and genuinely believe a run at the title to be within the realm of possibility. But on those bad nights when their chances seem in doubt and I cast your eye to the horizon, I don't fantasize about The Charlotte Bobcats 2016 unprotected pick any more. Instead, I go to NBA.com, check the latest Bobcats box score, and cheer like a coked-up soccer mom for every step they take out of the cellar. The future of the Chicago Bulls depends on it.
(Hat tip to Shamsports.com for salary information.)