The summer of 2017 could be a pivot point for the Bulls franchise. Chicago’s front office has two clear paths to future success open to them. They can decide to finally commit to building around Jimmy Butler, a genuine franchise cornerstone who has never been put in a situation that allows his strengths to flourish. Butler has never had an ideal partner alongside him in the back court, somebody who can hit threes and is comfortable playing off the ball. Decline Rondo’s option for $13.3 million and try to make a splash in a fairly deep free agency crop.
The other clear path to escape perpetual mediocrity would be to arrive at the conclusion that Butler is not a player worth building around. There will be no better time to trade Jimmy than between this week’s draft lottery and draft night, a time when Chicago will have clarity about picks Boston could offer in a blockbuster that would shake up the Eastern Conference power balance. Signaling their intent to move on from Butler will make Dwyane Wade think twice about opting in to his $24 million option for next season.
Of course, the organization does not need to travel down either of these paths. There is a third option, the one that they seem mostly likely to choose. The Bulls could simply arrive at this fork in the road and take a seat.
The Bulls get a lot of criticism for seeming to not have a plan. This is an unfair accusation, as the plan has been clearly laid out to the world. From Sean Highkin at the Athletic:
For the past year-plus, Bulls general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson have preached patience and preserving long-term flexibility over spending on long deals for pricey veterans.
“[T]here was a huge cap spike a year ago where you saw a large number of long-term contracts given out to veteran players,” Forman said in a radio interview with 670 The Score shortly after the trade deadline. “And we’re going to look at another cap spike this summer because of the TV revenue, and as we began to add youth, we didn’t want to lock ourselves into some of those deals at that time because we feel that there’s going to be a flattening of the cap after this summer, and we want to set ourselves up for opportunities that are going to present themselves with having flexibility within our budget. And a big part of our job is managing our cap, especially as we redo this roster.”
Whether or not this is a good plan is a point of obvious contention, but it is a plan nonetheless. This quote from Forman gives a lot of insight into how the Bulls will approach the oncoming offseason, and it gives a clear signal that the team will display extreme patience as they believe the rest of the league condemns itself to salary cap hell.
Here’s a snapshot of the Bulls salary cap, and as always look to Basketball Insiders as an up-to-date reference:
Updated #Bulls cap projection with clarity on MLE impact. I'm projecting no functional cap space for Bulls this summer. pic.twitter.com/GWPza8nZ3L— Kevin Anderson (@CSNKevin) May 5, 2017
(Canaan also has a $200k guarantee if he’s not retained after 6/30. Also important to note that NG money like his and Rondo’s can be stretched over 3 seasons -yfbb)
The Three Alphas Return
The Bulls are likely going to exercise their team option and keep Rajon Rondo. Beyond his strong finish to the season and whatever value he brings as a mentor to the young guys on the team, Rondo is an appealing option to play point guard next season if only because the team has no obligations to him beyond the 2017-18 season.
Rondo is an abysmal defender and is such an unwilling shooter that building an adequate offense around him is tough to do. But he’s an adequate NBA player, and far more stable than any of the other point guards on the roster. Nobody is handing Cameron Payne the keys next season. Should the Bulls move on from Rondo, they would need to make a splash in free agency to find someone capable of bringing the ball up the court. Doing so would force the team to commit serious money over a three or four year period, a move that would muddy up their efforts at staying flexible as the salary cap flattens.
The Bulls also won’t trade Jimmy Butler. John Paxson can talk for days about how you build with players and not around them, but he’s smart enough to know that Jimmy and a flock of geese could win 38 games in the East. The esteemed front office duo has made no indication that the organization has the stomach for a complete tear-down. The Baby Bulls left serious scars on the Reinsdorf family psyche, and so long as Jimmy Butler is elite, the Bulls will hold on tight to their star.
So if Rondo and Butler are still around, hey, maybe this Three Alpha thing just needed some time to develop? Wade, unless he gets a serious case of ring-itis in the next 40 days, is not going to say no to say no to $24 million. He might not make $24 million total over the rest of his career should he choose to opt out. There will be chances to ring chase in 2018 and beyond.
Letting The Restricted Free Agency Market Come To Them
The Bulls have a lot of pending restricted free agents. Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio, Michael Carter-Williams, and Joffrey Lauvergne will all have the chance to test the market, but the Bulls, assuming they offer each player a qualifying offer, will have the ability to match whatever offer their players receive.
The market for Mirotic is going to be fascinating. Inconsistency is the only thing we’ve been able to count on in Niko’s three years in Chicago. Will other teams see the flashes of brilliance as the real deal, and believe that Mirotic could thrive in a situation where he’s not pigeonholed as a spot-up shooter? Or do they see an unconventional three point stroke and a knack for playing out of control?
All it takes is one team, and I’d bet a lot of gumballs on that team being the Brooklyn Nets. The team that was willing to give massive offers to Tyler Johnson and Alan Crabbe will certainly feel comfortable making a play for Mirotic. Imagine if Kenny Atkinson develop Niko into in a free wheeling, Rockets-lite offensive scheme. Why can’t Mirotic grow into 2009 Hedo Turkoglu?
A four year, $52 million offer would probably be enough to keep the Bulls from matching. Need to preserve that flexibility!
Felicio is next most interesting restricted free agent. The savviest addition GarPax has made since snagging Butler with the 30th pick in 2011, I would be shocked to see the team let him walk after developing him from an unknown Brazilian prospect. The market for backup centers is not nearly as robust as for playmaking stretch-fours. If I had to guess, I’d say Felicio will be back with the Bulls on a three year, $21 million deal.
I do not expect the Bulls to resign Carter-Williams or Lauvergne. If they do, I would hope it would be for extremely low salaries.
Some, but not a lot of cap space
So lets say that all of these predictions are correct, the Bulls bring back the Three Alphas and Felicio, and let Mirotic and the rest of the pending free agents walk. In that scenario, the Bulls will have $87.5 million committed to the 2017-18 roster, leaving them with about $14.5 million to play with in free agency. Not enough to lure a star, but certainly the wiggle room to add one or two rotation players.
How will the Bulls use that money? Again, we must refer back to the stated goals of the organization: flexibility over everything.
Jeff Green will be on the market, looking for another make-good deal after he wore out his welcome in Orlando. Rudy Gay could be had for a high dollar, short-term contract as he proves to the league that he can still play after tearing his Achiles. A guy like Ersan Ilyasova could be enticed by a one year, $10 million deal over a longer contract for a lower annual value from another team.
This is not the path I want the Bulls to take. Nobody is clamoring for another .500 season and a first round playoff exit. But with a risk-averse ownership and management team calling the shots, look for the Bulls to stick with what they know, and for the roster to look largely the same when training camp opens in September.