Bulls

Remedial Chaos Theory: The NBA cap spike and how it impacts the Bulls

Remedial Chaos Theory: The NBA cap spike and how it impacts the Bulls

There is an iconic line from "The Matrix" where Morpheus tells Neo, “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” That line also applies to this year’s NBA free agency. You’ll read dozens of articles over the next few days talking about the salary cap spike and how it’s going to impact the league, but none of us really know what to expect on July 1. We’re going to have to see it for ourselves, and that includes the front office of every team in the league.

Gar Forman told CSN Chicago on Thursday night after the draft, “I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen come July 1 because there’s never been anything like this where there’s been such a spike in the cap.” The salary cap is going to increase from $70 million in 2015-16 to $94 million in 2016-17. That’s a nearly 35 percent increase in one season -- by far the biggest in league history.

The Cauldron's NBA salary cap expert Nate Duncan says to expect chaos for not just one, but two years: “I expect it to be completely insane, not only since there is a ton of space this year but because with the cap spiking to a projected $107 million next year (pending a new CBA) these ridiculous contracts could actually end up looking good by comparison with what is handed out a year from now.” (1)

Nate makes a fantastic point because we’re in store for two years of a completely unknown market. The best teams will plan for 2016 and 2017 simultaneously. How many free agents this year will opt for a two-year deal with a player option on the second year? We could witness a situation in which many top tier free agents this year go through the same process again next July.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the cap spike is the sheer number of teams that will have room to sign a player to a max salary. (2) RealGM.com projects that 13 teams will likely have space to sign a Tier 1 free agent to a max deal. In addition to the 13 teams that will likely have that amount of cap space, BasketballInsiders.com projects that up to 25 teams could hit that mark.

 In 2010, the year of one of the greatest free agents classes in history, just eight teams had space to sign a max player. Outside of Kevin Durant, this year’s class is not particularly strong, and there will be 20+ teams looking to spend a lot of money. There is no way a player is going to meet with 10 teams, let alone 20. There are going to be many teams who can’t even get a sitdown with a player they are interested in.

We were already going to see eye-popping contracts this summer just based on the cap spike. A player who would have made $12 million per season before is projected to make $16 million per season just based on the percentage increase. But the real wild card is the sheer number of teams with cap space. Duncan says the most intriguing part of free agency for him will be the secondary market: “I want to see what some of the role players get. How low do you have to get in the market before the money finally starts running out?” And to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, this is the biggest known unknown. What happens when teams start to panic? You may see players eighth in a rotation get $10 million+ per season.

Think of it this way: Let’s say you and 20 of your friends have brand new iPhones and gift cards to get the premium versions of apps. But in this scenario, each app is only available to download once. Furthermore, that gift card expires after one week. Waze, Spotify, and Snapchat are going to go early and kudos to those of you who downloaded them. Then Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest get downloaded. At some point, one of you is going to get desperate, panic, and download the Meow Meow Beenz app you really didn’t want. (3)

Mentally prepare yourself for seemingly outrageous contracts. Harrison Barnes, despite struggling mightily in the playoffs, is going to get a max deal. Kent Bazemore is probably going to get $15 million per season, and E’Twaun Moore is probably going to get $7 million a season. I may even be low on those numbers. This is part of the "unintended consequences" that Adam Silver referenced in his annual All-Star address last February.

Let’s narrow the focus on how this impacts the Bulls. I’m projecting them to have approximately $24 million in cap space to spend.

That number could increase if they are aggressive in trying to trade Mike Dunleavy Jr, Tony Snell, or Taj Gibson (4).

The Bulls will be looking to add an impact player to the roster this July, but they face several challenges.

The Bulls will go after top-tier players, but a more realistic expectation is to sign two rotation players. Forman said this about his team’s strategy July 1: “My guess would be as opposed to one guy we’ll probably look to fill some holes and look for some guys that fit the plan moving forward.”

The key part of that quote is the “fit the plan moving forward” line. Forman has to plan for 2016 and 2017. Overpay for a marginal free agent now and that could greatly limit flexibility next summer. The 2017 free agent class may be better than 2010 and the 2017 draft will be one of the most talented in nearly a decade.

I think the smart play for the Bulls is to either overpay on a one-year deal for a starter, or sign two rotation players to a relatively team-friendly deal. They will want to maintain cap flexibility next summer.

The challenge for the Bulls (and every team) is finding the right player without getting into a bidding war that causes a team to overpay. I actually think the second and third wave of free agents signings will cause more people to be shocked than the “who got a max deal?” signings.

Teams have to be flexible and be willing to adjust course instantly. As long as the Bulls don’t remain rigid and treat free agency like Rickon running from Ramsey, they should be able to add quality depth to the roster. (5)

Footnotes

1. There is an opt-out in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows either side—the owners or players—end the current CBA next July.

2. NBA free agents max salaries are based on their years of service in the league. Tier 1 free agents are 0-6 years. Tier 2 is 7-9 years. Tier 3 is 10+. First year max for Tier 1 in 2016-17 is $22.2m, Tier 2 is $26.6m, and Tier 3 is $31.1m. Please visit Larry Coon’s amazing CBA FAQ for more info

3. Downloading Meow Meow Beenz is only done on the Darkest Timeline.

4. The Bulls could also save a small amount of cap space but waiving two players with non-guaranteed contracts: Spencer Dinwiddie or Christiano Felicio. They could also save the salary of second-round pick Paul Zipser by entering an agreement that he play in Europe next season.

5. Don’t even get me started on why he was running in a straight line. I could write 1,000 words on that scene alone.

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

MINNEAPOLIS — The misses have come wide, long and short for Lauri Markkanen in the last couple games, perhaps a sign he’s hit the popular but unseen “Rookie Wall.”

Since coming back from the All-Star break, Markkanen has hit the same amount of jump shots as a dead man, only scoring with two dunks and missing all seven 3-point attempts.

He’s hit the point of the season where the legs turn to spaghetti as the grind of the season catches up. Last year at Arizona, he played 37 games and then went through Summer League following the draft before playing for the Finland national team. The Bulls have been careful with his minutes, particularly early on in the season when they didn’t have the depth at power forward, but Markkanen is still adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

After seemingly peaking in January, averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting and 43 from three-point range, he’s averaged just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting and hitting just four of 27 from deep.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg tried to pump Markkanen up recently, comparing his shooting to a golfer who’s lost his stroke. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to Markkanen, who looked at his coach as if he grew a third eye.

By the time Hoiberg compared it to curling, he wound up confusing the press corps last week.

And yet, Markkanen hasn’t broken out of his slump. It’s been quite a while since Markkanen’s devastating performance on Broadway where he nailed eight 3-pointers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10 for a career-high 33 points.

“It’s been a long season, I’m not denying that,” Markkanen said Saturday night following the Bulls’ loss to the Timberwolves. “I just gotta work through it. At times I feel it. I felt good today. As the game went on, a little tired.”

Consistency has been a hallmark of Markkanen’s season to date. He scored in double figures 21 straight games before the last two, where he scored three points in the last two Bulls losses.

As a whole, he’s only scored fewer than 10 points six times. To compare, rookie of the year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell (nine) and Ben Simmons (six) are right around the same number.

Hoiberg boldly predicts Markkanen will burst out in a big way soon, but the rookie wall takes no prisoners, especially in the dog days of the season.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

His looks have been relatively clean, although one can’t discount the difference between playing alongside Cristiano Felicio compared to Robin Lopez. Lopez assisted on 39 field goals, tied with Jerian Grant for second-highest feeds behind Kris Dunn.

Both Lopez and Grant are out of the rotation, while Dunn is still getting his legs back after missing nearly a month in concussion protocol. Lopez was used in a lot of dribble handoff offense with Markkanen, while also setting solid screens to free him.

Felicio doesn’t have that level of experience in this offense, and the Bulls are also running more through Zach LaVine as a primary ballhandler.

“He’s had a lot of really good games. It’s never gonna be an 100 percent season,” LaVine said. “It’s so many games you’ll eventually run into some slumps so I just think he needs to get into a rhythm. We’ve gotta help him with that too. Help him find easier shots on the floor. He’s cool, he’s good. We tell him to shoot the ball every time.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”