It doesn’t feel like that long ago that point guard play would be a strength of the Bulls for years to come. The youngest MVP in NBA history, Derrick Rose seemed like a lock to captain the offense at a high level for at least a decade. Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and GarPax often go awry.
The Bulls took an interesting approach to filling the void at the point this summer. The flashy Rajon Rondo signing stole the headlines, but the Bulls also purchased several cheap lottery tickets to back up the mercurial Rondo with the hope one would pan out for future seasons.
Purchasing lottery tickets is not a sound financial planning method, and the battle between Jerian Grant, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Isaiah Canaan was depressing enough that the Bulls front office, typically reluctant to wheel and deal, pulled off a trade for Michael Carter-Williams with just over a week until the regular season tips off. The acquisition of Carter-Williams shores up the weakest spot in the Bulls rotation (although I would argue letting Wade run the second unit with shooters on the floor was a fine alternative). It also gives Bulls fans insight into how the team will approach the point guard position in the summer of 2017. With MCW set to hit restricted free agency, I believe Forman and Paxson think they’ve already locked up a bargain.
There is no chance Rajon Rondo returns to the Bulls next season. With the rarely seen “double option” on the second year of his contract, Rondo will either opt out if he plays well, or the Bulls will take the $3 million cap hit and let him go. The Bulls brass know they will have to reenter the free agency marketplace once again, and are rightfully wary after seeing freaking Mike Conley receive the largest contract in NBA history.
Even if the marriage is destined to only last a year, Rajon Rondo is going to play the vast majority of the minutes at point guard. Rondo is coming off of a season where he averaged just over 35 minutes per game in his 72 games played. I do not anticipate Rondo’s playing time to dip below 30 minutes a game this year, if only to preserve the peace in the locker room and keep Rondo’s feathers unruffled. I also expect that Denzel Valentine will have some opportunity to try his hand at point guard, and Jerian Grant will get a fair shake as well. Assuming a relatively healthy season for all of the guards on the roster, I can’t imagine a scenario where Carter-Williams plays more than 15-18 minutes a night.
Carter-Williams was never going to fetch max offer sheets as a restricted free agent; few teams outside Chicago are giddy to lock up guards who can’t sniff 30% from three point range. But the combination of his limited offensive skill set and his depressed playing time (MCW averaged about 30 minutes per game last year in Milwaukee), Gar Forman and John Paxson will likely be negotiating against themselves next summer and will try and lock in Carter-Williams on a team friendly long term contract.
I love a good bargain as much as the next guy, and the Bulls are not completely wrong to think the 25 year old point guard could grow with the young core they are building. But, even at a great price, pegging MCW as the point guard of the future will cause the Bulls to miss out on an incredibly deep pool of point guards set to hit free agency in 2017. The big prize is Stephen Curry, who nobody thinks will entertain offers outside Golden State. But beyond the reigning MVP, next year’s point guard class is filled with players who could fit in well with the Bulls.
Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, George Hill and Patty Mills are all significantly better players than Michael Carter-Williams. All have their warts to be sure, but all have proven at some point in their careers to be capable of leading a winning team.
Beyond that tier are a collection of guys past their prime who can still manage an offense: Darren Collison, Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and Brandon Jennings.
Dennis Schroeder and Trey Burke will join MCW in restricted free agency and, depending how this season pans out for the Hawks, could be pried away from their current teams.
Oh, also Derrick Rose will be available to whoever wants him.
In July, when Conley signed the biggest contract in NBA history, he benefited not just from the massive spike in the salary cap. Conley was far and away the best point guard on the market, and the drop-off in talent at the position for other free agent options was massive. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to a dollar amount that GarPax would never dream of inking a player to.
The cap is making another huge leap this summer, but the depth of talented point guards will prevent another Conley situation, where a good-but-not-great player can hold his team for ransom. This summer, team’s shopping in the point guard isle will find themselves in a buyer’s market.
If MCW either makes a leap with the Bulls, or is abysmal, the decision making process will be easy. But, if a limited role prevents the team from being able to make a firm evaluation of their newest player, it may be tempting to resign him for three or four years at low price and spin a story about how next year, with more playing time, he will mesh with his teammates and thrive, and GarPax will look like geniuses.
But the reality is that there will be bargains at the position all across the league this upcoming summer. There will be several options who fit the framework and timeline of this Bulls team. And it would be very foolish of the Bulls to not explore beyond the walls of the Advocate Center for a long term solution.