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After 3 years projecting they’re smarter than the league, the Bulls gave up with the Otto Porter trade

cap space is no longer an asset, yet another change in direction

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NBA: Chicago Bulls-Dwyane Wade Press Conference David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls trade deadline acquisition for Otto Porter looks to be a good fit on the court, and they didn’t give up much in the deal. But as acknowledged by the team itself, there was a sacrifice in the opportunity cost with forgoing future cap space.

We are realistic in terms of what the free agent market is. We’re not in the position to go after the big names, the franchise changers. We’re looking at things realistically. We also looked ahead to this summer and even the summer beyond, looked at available wings and versatile players, and the list is what it is, no guarantees of getting players like that. We thought this was a perfect opportunity to get a player like Otto.

Now, there are valid arguments that support management’s decision to play the “realistic” card, none bigger than the likelihood that no star player would commit their prime years to a franchise fumbling through a rebuild. By admitting this, though, it runs counter to what the Bulls braintrust has told us for years when it came to their designs: don’t have big long-term money on the books, because cap space is an asset.

2016 Trade Deadline

Let’s go all the way back to the 2016 trade deadline, before the cap spike. You may recall rumours surrounding then-Bull Pau Gasol, the most pertinent of which being a deal that would’ve sent Gasol to the Sacramento Kings. It never went ahead. Asked by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune why the Bulls elected not to deal Gasol, general manager Gar Forman offered up this infamous line.

We really like Pau. We were thrilled when he came. We think he has been very good for us these last two years. We see him as a part of our core.

Except he wasn’t. As an unrestricted free agent, Gasol left Chicago to join the San Antonio Spurs. Losing Gasol, a supposed member of the core, for nothing should’ve stung. Not for Forman, though, who offered up this reasoning at the Bulls’ end of season press conference.

We value Pau and we like Pau, but anytime you have a restricted free agency you know there’s going to be opportunities and you could lose an unrestricted free agent. But in our situation if you really study where we’re at in our books and everything else, if that were to happen with any unrestricted free agent then the benefit of that is cap room, and cap room is an asset. So we felt the cap room was much more of an asset than anything that was in front of us.’

Summer 2016

As other franchises signed players with their newfound cap room, they were indeed typically inflated, long-term deals. The Bulls saw themselves as smarter than the market in avoiding 4-year contracts.

How did they then use that cap space? Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.

But to the Bulls, even as those decisions were borne out to be mistakes, they were spun as ‘at least short-term’.

2017 Trade Deadline

And then as the team flirted with .500 all year partially due to the failure of those short-term signings, instead of making talent-adding trades they opted for the salary flexibility motivation - again - in their horrible deal with the Thunder that February that sent out Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and a 2nd round pick for expiring contracts and Cam Payne.

Ken Berger at Bleacher Report published a long ‘state of the Bulls’ column shortly after. Like usual - John Paxson doesn’t see this era as ‘a rebuild’, conveniently - that state was disaster but stretching for optimism:

“It can’t be easy for Fred [Hoiberg] and his staff to deal with all of this,” a rival coach said.

But there was more than X’s and O’s involved in Chicago’s trade deadline strategy, and it has to do with Forman and Paxson predicting that the NBA’s free-spending free-agent market will burst in 2018.

Like hedge fund managers, they’re counting on a crash after two straight summers of exorbitant contracts given out amid unprecedented spikes in the salary cap. And when other teams pull back, the Bulls believe they’ll be ready to pounce.

Forman himself then made this clear shortly after in an interview on 670 The Score:

There’s a new CBA in place, and there was a huge cap spike a year ago where you saw a large number of long-term contracts given out to veteran players. 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 in to 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.

Summer 2017

As we then saw that summer: the franchise dramatically pivoted when dealing Jimmy Butler on draft night.

Though even engaging in a rebuild, Forman reiterated the franchise’s insistence in managing its cap position to allow for a big future swing in free agency, not at that time but some years in the future:

We’ve talked about what’s happened with the collective bargaining agreement, what’s happened with the cap. Obviously this gives us a greater level of flexibility. We’ll study that and look for opportunities. But when John mentioned we picked up three young assets moving forward we feel gives us a jump start on a rebuild; The other things we picked up is even more flexibility not only this year but into the future, which I think is a big part of any rebuild. So as the cap flattens and our young guys develop part of what we want to do is have a level of flexibility to continue to add to the roster; we’ll evaluate that next week going into free agency and make decisions after that.

Fair, a star wasn’t walking in their building after trading Butler.

But there was nothing done the rest of that summer or throughout the season that used that ‘future flexibility’ to gain assets. Because the Bulls insisted that instead of taking on other teams “bad” money they wanted to be ready to strike with their own talent acquisitions.

Summer 2018

And so the cap space effectively rolled over. Where then, after sitting out much of the summer, they bid against themselves to land Jabari Parker.

We know now — and heck, knew at the time — that wasn’t going to work either. But, yet again, the deal was spun by management as relatively benign due to how it was structured: a one-year team guarantee allowing for, again, cap flexibility in the following summer.

As the Jabari experiment quickly soured and trade talks for him began, the motivation to maintain that flexibility remained, per sources to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Teams interested in Parker are asking the Bulls to take on bad, long-term contracts. As of now, that’s a non-starter for the Bulls, who structured Parker’s deal the way they did for a reason.

Fast-forward to actual trade of Parker for Otto Porter, where they indeed did what they had been saying they wouldn’t do, not only with Parker but for the past 3 years: take on a big long-term contract.

A missed opportunity due to poor planning

OK, sure: motivations can shift over time. We don’t want the team to be so rigid in its thinking that they hoarded cap space simply because that was their plan years ago.

But while it was wise to be ‘realistic’ now in how to best use their cap space, it was also way too late. Why not take on ‘bad’ money for assets the past 2 years, especially during the 2018 Draft?

Leading up to that draft, the Memphis Grizzlies reportedly “gauged the trade market” on a package with their No. 4 overall pick, according to Michael Scotto of The Athletic. The price was Chandler Parsons, who’s always injured and owed $24.1 million in 2018-19 and $25.1 million next season.

But like we saw in all reports until this Porter trade was consummated, the Bulls appeared uninterested in such a move. Because, as they were smarter than the rest of the league, they were going to take advantage with their cap flexibility in 2019. Trading for Parsons, even if he came with the ability to select Jaren Jackson Jr., negated this “plan”.

Though ‘realistic’, the new plan exposes the old one

Now, after years of hoarding cap space and pushing a message of patience and shrewd planning, a steadfast mentality has quickly been erased. A rebuild quickly regressing under a botched coaching change will do that to you.

Even if we can parse the decision to deal for Porter as a good one — he’s an advanced metrics maven, fills a positional need, and balances the roster — what should’ve been a slow, methodical rebuild now feels rushed and looking for a quick fix.

Considering the path that led to this point, we’re here because the Bulls believed their own brilliance: they’d continually roll over their cap space in hopes of a franchise-changing player. and have an advantage over the rest of the league.

Instead, now it looks like the Bulls were simply operating as a small-to-mid market team, not just keeping flexibility but keeping a ton of cash. And now they’ve exchanged that flexibility for a player that’s not a star, but a productive role player who is paid like one. Just as we’d expect an NBA also-ran to do.

If the justification for buying an elite role player earning a max-level wage is this is the best the Bulls could do with their money, then cap space isn’t an asset for them, and it never was.