There will be no digital banners welcoming LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol to the United Center this July.
There will be no late-night dinners, and no drama over who did or did not attend.
This isn’t 2010, or even 2014 when we followed every visit and handshake on Twitter. No, this Bulls roster is about as flexible as a steel door — but there are moves that the front office can make to bolster a team that hopes to make a championship run before undergoing significant change in 2016.
Let’s start with the obvious question, and it’s really a rhetorical one: Will Jimmy Butler be a Bull next season? The short answer is yes, there is absolutely no chance that he plays for another team in 2015.
The real question is: How long will the contract be that Butler signs? There are reports that last year’s Most Improved Player is looking for a two-to-three year deal instead of the five-year max offer that the Bulls could give him. From a financial perspective, this would make a lot of sense. At 25, he could sign a three-year deal now and then sign a four-year max offer when he is an unrestricted free agent at 28 in 2018. The salary cap will see an unprecedented increase next summer, and if Butler continues to play at the level he did last season, he stands to make tens of millions more long-term by signing a shorter contract now.
Barring an unlikely trade, the Bulls will enter free agency with no cap space. Re-signing Butler was always the team’s top priority. After that domino falls, Gar Forman and John Paxson have to make a decision on free agent Mike Dunleavy Jr. Here is where the Salary Cap Exceptions come into play, and why the Bulls absolutely have to re-sign MDJ.
The salary cap for the 2015-16 season is projected to be $67.1 million. The luxury tax line is projected at $81.4 million, and the tax ‘apron’ is projected at $85.4 million (1 - below). These last two numbers are very important, and not just for Jerry Reinsdorf’s bank account. There are two main ‘exceptions’ that teams above the salary cap can use to add players: The non-taxpayer mid-level exception or the taxpayer mid-level (also called the mini mid-level) exception. Teams cannot use both and there are rules on which one can be used.
The non-taxpayer (full) MLE can be used to sign a player to up to $5.5 million; the mini-MLE can be used up to $3.4 million. The advantage is obvious, you can spend more, and hypothetically get, a better player using the full MLE (2). Re-signing Butler puts the Bulls into the luxury tax which mean's the Mini-MLE is the only exception available for them to use. It also means that they would have to choose between re-signing Dunleavy or signing a free agent at the veteran’s minimum. They are not going to get a player better than Dunleavy at the minimum. It’s a no-brainer from a roster and financial standpoint (3). They have to offer Dunleavy a more-than-fair deal because quite frankly, they can’t afford to let him walk.
OK, boring CBA talk out of the way. We’ve established that the mini-MLE is the Bulls' only option and after drafting a ‘big’ in Bobby Portis, the team’s glaring need is backcourt depth. $3.4 million is not going to get the Bulls an impact player that will put them over the top in the East, but it will get them a good rotation player that solidifies them having one of the deepest teams in the league.
Let’s go over some of the top players who will be available (4). There are a lot of options for players that might be in the Bulls' price range. It is very important to keep in mind though that any player’s value is completely based on the market. If one team views Player A as worth $3 million a season, another team may have a need and view him as worth $7 million a season. It’s an agent’s job to get the best value for his client, and it’s the team’s job to get the best player at a fair price. On to our list, focusing only on the backcourt:
Rodney Stuckey, SG, unrestricted free agent (UFA) - Pacers
Our Bulls insider Vincent Goodwill does a great job breaking down why Stuckey may be the best player at the right price for the Bulls. Summary: He’s an efficient scorer that can also handle the ball. Prob-a-Bull odds: High.
Cory Joseph, PG, restricted free agent (RFA) - Spurs
Joseph is intriguing for several reasons. He’s improved in every aspect each of his four seasons in San Antonio and new Bulls associate head coach Jim Boylen is very familiar with Joseph having coached him the last two years. The Spurs are also unlikely to match an offer because they are pursuing LaMarcus Aldridge. Fun fact: Joseph was picked one spot before Butler in the 2011 draft. Prob-a-Bull odds: Very high.
Jameer Nelson, PG, UFA - Nuggets
The 33-year old is coming off his worst season as a pro. He was traded twice last year and that certainly hurt his ability to get comfortable in a system. He posted good numbers as a starter for the Magic in the 2013-14 season and he could still be a productive member of a playoff team coming off the bench. He declined his player option for this season, but that likely had more to do with location than salary. Prob-a-Bull odds: Average.
Nate Robinson, PG, UFA - Clippers
This of course would be a popular pick with the fan base. The Seattle native was ironically traded for Nelson to the Celtics but was waived immediately. He signed on with the Clippers late in the season and he can still score in bunches, but does he fit in with Fred Hoiberg’s new vision of the Bulls? Prob-a-Bull odds: Very Low.
Gerald Green, SG/SF, UFA - Suns
Green can flat out score. Like Butler, he can play the 2 or 3 spots and he has great size at 6-foot-8. If he was unhappy with limited minutes in Phoenix, would he accept a reserve role in Chicago? The Bulls may also find themselves getting outbid by a significant amount to land him. Prob-a-Bull odds: Low.
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Alan Anderson, SG/SF, UFA - Nets
Anderson has a player option for next season that he expected to decline. The 32-year old is a decent outside shooter who could provide some good bench scoring. Prob-a-Bull odds: Average.
Arron Afflalo, SG/SF, UFA - Blazers
Afflalo was linked to the Bulls last summer but like Green, could be outside of their price range. He declined a player option for $7.75 million. Even putting him on this list is a stretch, but I think he’d be a great fit here in Chicago. Prob-a-Bull odds: Very low.
Leandro Barbosa, SG, UFA - Warriors
The 12-year NBA veteran was a good bench contributor for the NBA champs last season. He’s a good perimeter shooter and would certainly fit the Bulls budget. Prob-a-Bull odds: Above average.
This is certainly not an extensive list, so feel free to add your own ideas or questions in the comment section. And for those of you wondering, the Bulls will likely have roughly $30 million in cap space in the summer of 2016, so get those digital banners of Kevin Durant ready.
1 - We’ll know the exact cap and luxury tax numbers when the league releases that information in early July.
2 - Larry Coon has a wonderful CBA FAQ explaining all of this in detail.
3 - Eric Pincus has very accurate league salary information at BasketballInsiders.com.
4 - NBA.com has an extensive list here.