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How the Chicago Bulls became the king of cash considerations, using a rebuild for a two-year shameless money grab

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instead of using their financial standing as a competitive advantage, the Bulls have just kept the money

NBA All-Star 2020 Announcement Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

It is somewhat striking that John Paxson’s latest rebuild (or as he likely calls it: “uh, um, the latest path we’ve been on”) has only been going on for a little over 2 years. Maybe because in the time since there’s been so many losses, bad lottery luck, and batshit Bullsian nonsense, but you can reason that it started with the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night 2017.

It’s certainly fair to believe that GarPax didn’t deserve to oversee a roster reconstruction they necessitated themselves (the Cam Payne trade was also somewhat rebuild-y). But if you want to give them a chance, they’ve squandered it. Now, one can have optimism about the 2019-20 season yet still lament on the poor execution so far. You pick high in the draft and luckily nail a couple, that helps. Perception-wise, being in the crappy conference definitely helps.

But one thing is more certain in assessing the rebuild than team performance: the franchise has made and saved a ton of money.

The Bulls spendthrift and outright-cheap ways have been a sore subject forever. From The Dynasty to the Rose injury fallout and then eventually fueling the pivot towards this rebuild (or did you really think it was because they didn’t want to be mediocre?).

But the financial element has been even more glaring in this ‘path’, to the point where it’s made them a punchline. They made it as plain as day on that same night beginning this rebuild, the 2017 draft, when they sold the #38 pick for $3.5M. They tried to rationalize it by claiming instead of cheap they were merely stupid and lazy, but a driving force was likely just the money.

They have then spent the following two seasons taking cash in transactions. Maxing out the amount of cash they were allowed to take in. And while they’re also allowed to spend that much cash outgoing, they’ve instead spent nothing.

BlogABull.com

Some dollar figures are from the league reimbursement of veterans minimum contracts, but this is mostly from the Bulls doing trades like the ones in 2019 for Carmelo Anthony or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, where they helped a competitive franchise lessen their luxury tax bill but received no other meaningful compensation but straight cash.

It’s kinda gross and a nut-kicking to the fans that they are so eagerly doing this - why are the Chicago Bulls the league leaders in these transactions? maybe they were told of the rules by Darryl Morey? - when they instead could’ve negotiated better non-financial trade compensation. A pick swap, a future second round pick, or dare I say spending some cash yourself to sweeten the return.

This is all worse under the big-market shadow that the Bulls cast: they have Chicago to themselves with a glamorized worldwide brand, and that allows for steady revenue no matter how they perform on the court. So there’s no reason for them to not only take in so much cash, but simultaneously spend so little on team payroll.

Over the past 2 seasons, the Bulls have been a bottom feeder in the standings but at least aren’t paying much for it: it’s the 5th lowest total expenditure in the league, around half of what the Warriors and Thunder have doled out, and $50m less than several mid/small-market teams.

BlogABull.com

This more accurately shows expenses versus the cap and tax figures, most effectively when considering trades of high-salary players midseason: in these cases, the outgoing team may have paid a lot of salary, but their final cap and tax numbers are depressed.

(this does not cover any insurance money reimbursement, like whatever the Bulls received to cover Omer Asik’s contract)

I then added the luxury tax payments for the teams that paid it the past two seasons, subtracting what was paid out to the rest of the league. For example, the Thunder paid a staggering $61.6M in luxury tax after last season. Not only did the Bulls decidedly not pay any tax - they almost never do! - they receive that number divided among all other non-taxpaying teams.

Now one may think this is expected: a rebuilding team shouldn’t spend money! That mindset may be because said hypothetical person is slow-witted and lacks critical thought, at least to the point where it’s not worth cutting through all the Bulls-peddled bullshit about ‘spending when competitive’.

But spending more money - whether it’s using cap exceptions, or their own cash considerations in trades - is a competitive advantage the Bulls should have been using to help the rebuild and have not. It’s likely not as effective a tool as better scouting or development (and, well, they cheap out on that too!) but this is a tool that they’re decidedly not using. They’re instead just taking and making a ton of money that’s not going towards the basketball product at all.

Finally, if cash considerations is one way to receive value in a trade, I wanted to look at another way: draft considerations. This is less scientific, but I did the manual labor to calculate this so you are going to see it. I looked at all the draft picks used the last three seasons (for example: the 2017 Bulls 2nd round pick was used by Golden State), then also added up the future picks owed over the next 7 drafts.

BlogABull.com

Some major caveats, as this doesn’t determine value completely: Firsts and seconds are counted equally. A protected first that likely converts to 2 seconds is just marked as a single pick. And there’s no credit for advantageous pick swaps like the Bulls effectively used in 2017.

But while that 2017 trade meant getting to #7 overall, it was always totally crazy to me that the Bulls finished that draft - the first in their rebuild - with fewer picks than what they started the night with. Through these last three drafts the Bulls have only used 5 selections, a number otherwise reserved for contending teams who used those picks for more immediate help. The similarly-rebuilding Hawks used 12 in the past three seasons.

And the Bulls have not made great gains in future picks either compared to other rebuilding teams. The Bulls have 13 selections in the next 7 drafts (quick math: one less than they are allotted), while the Knicks have 16, the Grizzlies have 18, and two teams that just dealt stars have 21.

As stated, looking at just total number of picks isn’t the best metric, but it’s to show that it’s not like the Bulls are saving money yet getting picks instead. We can’t know whether the Bulls have taken money as opposed to a 2nd round pick swap.

But we do see above in a more explicit way they have made and saved a ton of money.

This hurts them when competing with other teams in the trade market, but it’s even worse when considering the opportunity cost during this rebuild: the Chicago Bulls should have been flexing their financial muscle for a competitive advantage, and they have not only failed that standard, but are instead aggressively doing the opposite.

Even if this rebuild progresses to where they are required to blow out the payroll and spend then, these past two-plus years have been a missed opportunity, outside of the financial gains of ownership.

[note: this took a lot of diligent copying and pasting, hoping there aren’t mistakes. Here’s the base spreadsheet if you want to check! -yfbb]