The names we’ve heard from a supposedly-active Bulls this trade deadline are known: Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday, Jerian Grant...essentially anybody not in their designated Big 3 of Markkanen, Dunn, LaVine. Which really is a Big 1, but over-valuing young ‘guys we really like’ is a GarPax tradition to the point where it’s almost comforting to see again.
Another established tradition of the Bulls: dumping players at the NBA trade deadline. The deadline is supposed to be one of the more fun days of the year for NBA fans, but Bulls fans have not seen a trade where they actually helped themselves in nine years, when they got Brad Miller and John Salmons from the Kings. Since then:
2010 - dumped Tyrus Thomas for a first round pick
2011 - dumped James Johnson for a first round pick
2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 - nothing
2016 - dumped Kirk Hinrich for Justin Holiday and a 2nd round pick
2017 - dumped Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (and their own 2nd...) for the Payne Payne Platter
2018 - dumped Nikola Mirotic for a 1st round pick
We know the Bulls history of trades is pathetic in general, but their deadline history is not merely impotent, the few moves they make is only for ‘future flexibility’. And some are even good moves, it’s just tremendously pathetic over the course of that long of a time.
Now, of course, we’re in the vaunted PATH, so it at least dumpage makes more sense. The Mirotic trade was ok. For today, it’d also work to get off of Lopez and/or Holiday to receive more assets, and also be worse (that’s what ‘give more minutes to the likes of Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio’ means, though to a much lesser extent it’s player development). Heck, maybe you can replenish the 2nd round picks that a rebuilding team should covet to ‘throw darts’.
But what the Bulls also have is the ability to take on money, something very rare in this league, and you’d figure something of value. The Mirotic trade had no real affect on this: the Bulls are still getting by extremely cheaply this year. They have a payroll that allows themselves nearly 15 million in cap room right now (the salary floor doesn’t matter), or at the least a $12.5m traded player exception (the difference is semantics).
They showed some savvy before the season in the Quincy Pondexter deal, though the asset gained then was un-done in the Mirotic trade. They also showed to still not really knowing what they’re doing when it came to Kay Felder. It’s in the margins, but instead of accepting a deal from Cleveland for Felder and taking Richard Jefferson’s contract, the Atlanta Hawks obliged and received 2 second-round picks, while the Bulls then picked up Felder on waivers anyway.
There is no real reason the Bulls shouldn’t be using their cap space today, to help another team reduce their own payroll. Danny LeRoux had a very helpful primer over at RealGM on which teams should be looking to save money. Though his conclusion was that there weren’t many teams truly desperate, at least with expiring conracts.
Since there are not many teams with the urgent need to drop below the luxury tax line this season, the Bulls’ front office would be able to secure a much better return if they are willing to use it on a multi-season contract. Of course, sacrificing some of that 2018-19 space now reduces their leverage and flexibility in the offseason so one key evaluation is whether the return now is better than it will be then.
This was written before the Mirotic trade, where the Bulls indeed did just that, exchanging Mirotic’s team option next season for the guaranteed deal of Omer Asik. They are now failing to reach max-level cap space for this summer, and given that they’re currently terrible and their Bullsian history, free agency is unlikely to produce much.
But even that doesn’t speak to using cap space right now for expiring money, to get something off another franchise looking for Bullsian penny-pinching. There’s a minor opportunity cost in that they then can’t use cap space on draft night. But a team’s luxury tax payment is assessed at the end of the regular season, so this is their last chance to reduce that amount and use the Bulls to do so.
The other cost is, well, pure money from ownership. And we always have to be wary, as we’ve seen that even in a rebuilding effort the Bulls will defer to methods like ‘building equity’ instead of leveraging their spending power to gain assets. We already know the Bulls are insanely valuable and make a ton of money. But compared to other big-market teams, they did not grow as much this year.
One can’t help but think that part of GarPax’s selling of THE PATH to ownership was that while they may be terrible and uninteresting (to the casual fan especially), they’d also be inexpensive. The Bulls not only have the lowest total salary in the league, they’ve received $2.5m out of a possible $5.1m in cash, after maxing out the $3.5m they could receive last season when they sold their second-round pick. They can not only take on contracts into their cap, but still lay out $5.1m in cash of their own.
Hopefully today shows us another move or two from the Bulls. Not just the tear-down kind, we know they’re capable at that. But while buying bad money still costs money, it would build some equity with the fans to show they’re doing what they can to help the rebuild.