The Chicago Bulls have been on the edge of contention ever since Derrick Rose won an MVP and the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. It seemed that with a young core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and a newly signed All-Star in Carlos Boozer that the Bulls would be at the top of the NBA landscape for years. Now, a couple of knee injuries to their hometown hero, a declining center, and a use of an amnesty clause on that All-Star have placed the Bulls in a completely different situation.
The Bulls are still on the edge of contention, but probably not the way the envisioned back in 2011. Right now, Chicago is second in the East, a game back of the powerhouse Cleveland Cavaliers. The same team has still managed to stay relevant through the winds of change in the windy city. Jimmy Butler has now emerged as the team’s go-to All-Star, and Pau Gasol was the big name free agent signing last summer. Even as the previous building blocks have faded away, new ones have emerged for Chicago.
That core, however, is in jeopardy of being shaken up yet again in the summer of 2016. Gasol is reportedly very likely to opt out using his player option following this season. Pau is getting old; he is 35 and isn’t the same player he was even three years when he played on a stacked Los Angeles Lakers team. He is still productive even if he is on the wrong side of 30; he didn’t get voted second team All-NBA for nothing last year. This season, he is averaging 14.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and two blocks per game through 17 games.
Unfortunately for him, the Bulls are still 5.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court. New head coach Fred Hoiberg has brought with him an offensive style that encourages a faster pace, something that doesn’t fit well with Gasol’s current physical abilities and skill set. He can still be an effective low post player and even rim protector in the right situation, even if that place doesn’t end up being Chicago next year. A guy averaging a double-double in the salary cap climate we are about to enter into is worth much more than the $7.7 million his player option would pay him next season.
This just adds more to the intrigue for the offseason in Chicago. In addition to Pau Gasol, current backup center Joakim Noah and his $13 million expiring contract also come off the books, as well as a few other smaller salaries. In all, not including any of the cap holds for the free agents (those are placeholder salaries for players whose contracts have expired), the Bulls with have as much as $24 million in cap space next summer. All salaries come via BasketballInsiders.com.
The green numbers are the player’s cap holds, the blue number is Pau’s player option, and the red numbers represent the non guaranteed contracts of Cameron Bairstow and Cristiano Felicio.
Next summer, a max contract for a player with 7-9 years of experience in the league under an $89 million salary cap will be approximately $25.15 million. The Bulls don’t quite have enough room to fix that, but if they somehow sense that they are in the hunt for guys of that max tier like Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, and Al Horford, then it might be worth maneuvering to get more space. If they got greedy enough, they could retain core players such as Butler, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic, and Bobby Portis while also going and grabbing two max players.
This would all have to start with not only the departure of their own free agents, but also trading away Taj Gibson as well. Gibson is a fine player and would be sought after by a lot of teams. He is a high end backup power forward who plays great defense, protects the rim, and rebounds well. The Bulls have Nikola Mirotic who should be starting at power forward ahead of him, a young intriguing player in Bobby Portis who plays the same position, and Doug McDermott should log some minutes at power forward each game as well. Moving Gibson is both sensible and practical.
The final tricky part to all of this would be what to do with Derrick Rose’ behemoth $21 million salary. In no way has Derrick Rose performed to the level of money that he will make next season. He is shooting 34.3 percent from the field, 18.8 percent from three, and the Bulls are 5.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the floor. As much as he has done for the city of Chicago, it might be time to move on from Rose. The first option would be to try and trade him, but there really isn’t a market for a guy with those types of stats and that big of a contract. Waiving and stretching him would create an additional $14 million in room for the Bulls, should they choose to go that route. They can divide his salary over three years using the stretch provision and create an enormous cap boost for this summer.
It isn’t enough to fit in two players of the 30 percent max criteria, but it is enough to fit one of the Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley superstars and then add another lower tier max player such as Hassan Whiteside, Jordan Clarkson, or Harrison Barnes. The 25 percent max tier for players with less than seven years of experience starts at around $20 million, making it easy for the Bulls to fit in another young budding star.
They’ll also have even more cap room in the summer of 2017, when the cap is expected to balloon all the way up to $108 million and the free agent class is a lot shinier. The Bulls could just hang out to Rose and let him walk without having to eat his salary for a few more years, which would create even more cap space with them. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent then, but even still they should have more cap room so long as they don’t clog up their roster with bad contracts this offseason.
Going for it this summer is an interesting plan for a Bulls team that still isn’t quite the contender they’ve always hoped to be. At some point, they need to make the decision to go all in with the flexibility and resources they have in order to increase their chances of winning a title. We’ve seen from teams like Phoenix and Sacramento this last offseason that moving heaven and earth to create cap space can prove futile, but Chicago is a much better desired destination than those two places. As Jimmy Butler continues his prime, it might be wise to go all in and pair him another star or two this offseason.