Derrick Rose will suit up for the perpetually-woeful New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler is headed to a country that has legitimate Zika virus concerns for the Olympic Games, and neither of them has as much uncertainty as the Chicago Bulls as the franchise approaches free agency in a few days.
When the clock strikes midnight Friday, it’ll open up business around the NBA but also cement a sea change for the Bulls as far as their league-wide hierarchy. Two summers ago, the Bulls were getting ready to be the welcoming committee for free agent Carmelo Anthony, believing he was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.
Anthony chose to stay in New York, in large part due to the $50 million disparity between the Knicks and Bulls, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement giving players a greater incentive for staying at home as opposed to bolting to other teams.
The Bulls wound up with a big fish anyway, signing Pau Gasol to a three-year contract he officially opted out of a few days ago, as he and Joakim Noah will depart Chicago for Parts Unknown.
Ironically, that’s the address the Bulls are headed to. Although they have over $23 million in cap space—an amount that’s enough for one max player—they won’t be grocery shopping with the big boys this time around.
They’ll be going bargain hunting, the epitome of what general manger Gar Forman calls “retooling” instead of that other dreaded “R” word: rebuilding.
Taking a couple steps back for the sake of taking a few forward sooner rather than later isn’t the easiest route. But when they decided not to trade Jimmy Butler on draft night or any other recent evening, it was the course of action the franchise decided to take.
“We’re still trying to get a sense of what the market is going to be,” Forman said the night of the NBA Draft, after the Bulls selected Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s gonna happen come July 1 because there’s never been anything like this where there’s such a spike in the cap. So we’re still evaluating that. My guess is opposed to one guy we’ll look to fill some holes and guys who fit the plan moving forward.”
Butler and new addition Robin Lopez are the only starters who can say they’re in the top half in the league at their position, with Butler being in the conversation for best shooting guard.
So if the Bulls are to overachieve and find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race, thus showing the competency in the front office and the sidelines to make themselves a destination in free agency this time next summer, they’ll have to be a team whose sum is greater than its individual parts, unless they snag a top-line wing player like Nicolas Batum (Charlotte) or Chandler Parsons (Dallas)—traditional 3-and-D guys but nowhere near superstars and not even All-Stars.
Even still, the proposition the Bulls are facing isn’t enviable but there’s opportunity for Forman to show he’s ahead of the curve and for Fred Hoiberg to rebound from his very shaky rookie season as coach.
Trading Rose was a start, and teams will be interested in Taj Gibson (as they always are), but it’ll be fascinating to see how the Bulls navigate the territory of employing enough veterans to help the young pieces grow while not wasting the valuable time of a respected player like Gibson.
The prudent decisions, the tough ones the good franchises make are usually through trades—players with existing contracts and not the inflated ones the market will bear.
Athleticism is a need, along with a point guard considering the Bulls are inheriting one who had the lowest-scoring point-per-game average in the league last season in Jose Calderon (7.6 points).
While Calderon’s on-floor leadership and ability to spread the floor from the top (41 percent from 3 last season) will be highly valued should he stick around, the Bulls would be better served looking to upgrade the position, despite a class that won’t initially inspire observers at first glance.
Memphis point guard Mike Conley will certainly be the apple of many teams’ eye, but at 29 he’s at the precious age where not only is this the last big long-term contract he’ll likely sign. But he’ll likely want to do it on a team with a clear trajectory upward as opposed to a slow slope down.
Brandon Jennings is a full year removed from Achilles’ recovery, and could take a short deal to rejuvenate his value on the open market, similar to what Gasol did two years ago but on a different level. Jeremy Lin will command a lot of attention, as will Rajon Rondo.
The athletic wings are a bit deeper, but with the league putting a premium on versatile players who can defend the perimeter, run the floor and shoot, the competition will be stiff and it appears as if the Bulls will have to overpay for quality.
Knicks free agent guard Arron Afflalo could be an intriguing, if not understated option as a wing who can defend and be credible as an outside shooter, able to alleviate pressure on Butler to play 40 minutes on the opposing team’s best scorer.
The Bulls’ interest in Golden State’s Harrison Barnes has been an open secret, given his ties with Doug McDermott, Hoiberg and now-Olympic teammate Butler. But as a restricted free agent it leaves any suitor in limbo for three days while the Warriors decide if they want to match—or if Kevin Durant decides to join the juggernaut.
And given Barnes’ underwhelming performance in the postseason, teams should be wary of Barnes not being able to play above the level he’s been at in Golden State, where he was a fourth option.
Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore is an example as a quality player who’ll be in high demand, but his ceiling isn’t too much higher than his reality.
The Bulls would be wise to resist making a splash in multiple areas, as more than a few teams will commit big money to players who can’t change their stripes no matter what the price tag is.
But if the Bulls are able to resist the trends, they can emerge from Parts Unknown and find themselves in a few years on a road marked “May”—and if they’re geniuses, “June.”