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What the Bulls’ Summer Could Look Like

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The so-called 2014 Plan has taken its place alongside the phrase “basketball reasons” among bitter Chicago Bulls fans who decried the team’s failure to retain Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer in the summer of 2012. But a key reason for letting Asik walk to Houston was the massive near $15 million cap hit the Bulls would have taken for his salary in the upcoming 2014-15 season if they had matched the Rockets’ offer sheet. Time has proven the wisdom of letting Asik go, especially considering how the success of Joakim Noah playing big minutes would have continued to render him somewhat superfluous. With the possible amnesty or trade of Carlos Boozer this summer, the Bulls go into the offseason as major players in the free agent market. So what should they do with their newfound flexibility?

Where the Bulls are Now

Under the most likely scenario going forward, the Bulls should open the 2014-15 cap year on July 1 with about $69 million in salaries committed for 2014-15. If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer’s $16.8 million, that would leave them approximately $52.7 million in salary and cap holds, or approximately $10.3 million in cap room under the projected $63 million cap.*

Bulls Salaries

*For the nerds, the analysis makes the following assumptions: 1. Joakim Noah’s and Taj Gibson’s cap numbers increase by $500,000 and $250,000, respectively, due to incentives reached or probably reached this year which are then included on next year’s cap as “likely” bonuses (scroll down). 2. Kirk Hinrich is renounced. 3. D.J. Augustin is renounced to reduce his small cap hold even further to the rookie minimum. If he’s re-signed, it will be through cap space or an exception anyway, as the Bulls do not have Bird rights for him. 4. Nikola Mirotic has a cap hold at the level of this year’s 23rd pick, unless he and the Bulls sign a letter saying he will not play in the NBA this year. If he does not actually sign a contract, the cap hold stays on the books until the parties sign such a letter or the first day of the regular season. 5. The 16th and 19th picks are retained and used, providing cap holds of 100 percent of the Rookie Scale amounts for those picks. Teams typically sign rookies to 120 percent of the Rookie Scale amount, but the Bulls could wait to do this until after other transactions were complete.  Also, the Bulls have the non-guaranteed salaries of Lou Amundson, Mike James, and Ronnie Brewer that total approximately $4 million that could be used to facilitate a trade, after which they would be released by the acquiring team, but for simplicity they were not included.

Also key to the discussion is 2011 draftee Nikola Mirotic. We dealt with his situation extensively here, and I recommend reading that piece as a companion to this one.

How much would it take to get Mirotic at this point? Because Mirotic is limited to negotiating with the Bulls, they should be able to get him far more cheaply than on the open market. The best figures I have found on Mirotic’s current salary indicate he makes approximately $1.4 million per year, with a buyout of approximately $3.4 million. The Bulls can pay $600,000 of this buyout. It might then be realistic to sign Mirotic to a three-year contract starting at $3.5 million per year with the maximum allowable 4.5 percent annual raises. For this contract, his maximum 15 percent signing bonus of approximately $1.6 million, the maximum allowable salary advance of 25 percent of his $2.9 million base salary at signing and then another 25 percent on the earliest allowable date of October 1 would enable him to pay his buyout with Real Madrid assuming some modicum of flexibility from the Spanish club on the payment date. He would still keep about $1.5 million for 2014-15, followed by $3.1 million and $3.2 million the next two years. That would exceed his Real Madrid salary and allow him to move up the timeline on a second contract.* Moreover, he could likely deduct his buyout against income for tax purposes.

*Hopefully for Bulls fans, Real Madrid’s upset loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague Final would not leave Mirotic reluctant to leave Europe due to unfinished business there.

On the court, Mirotic’s shooting would be nearly unparalleled at the power forward position. He also brings excellent passing, the abilities to attack off the bounce on closeouts and post up smaller players.* His defense and rebounding will not be a strength, but he is tough and shouldn’t be any worse than, say, a younger Luis Scola in those facets. He is worth perhaps as much as $8 million a year on the open market, so securing his services for only $3.5 million a year to start is probably the most efficient possible use of the Bulls’ cap space short of acquiring a true superstar.

*Mirotic’s shooting could conceivably allow him to play together with Gibson and a center in an arrangement where Mirotic plays small forward offensively and Gibson guards 3s on defense.

This analysis will also assume, as the Bulls must, that Derrick Rose will be healthy and a reasonable facsimile of his former self. Rose’s contract is so large* that the Bulls have little other choice. Counting on Rose may be high-risk, but such strategies are often how championships are won.

*He cannot be amnestied since his contract was signed after the 2011 CBA entered into effect.

With all that in mind, let’s move on to the potential realistic* options, presented in order of desirability.

*This assumes Dirk Nowitzki and the Miami trio stay put.

Trade for Kevin Love

As Kevin Pelton noted at ESPN.com there is an argument that Kevin Love might be the most desirable player traded in nearly 40 years this offseason. Love’s shooting, passing, rebounding, post-scoring, and age (25) should make him the Bulls’ number one target. If he is willing to opt-in for the last year of his contract as a condition of a trade, the Bulls should move nearly any asset needed to pair him with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. They obviously will start by offering much less, but Chicago can put together a very attractive package featuring some combination of their two first-rounders this year, any future first-rounders, a top-10 protected pick from the Sacramento Kings, and Taj Gibson. They could also take back bad salary from the Wolves like Kevin Martin or Chase Budinger to make things more palatable. Boozer would of course be included for salary matching.

This package would probably be the best of any team with which Love might actually want to re-sign once he is traded. Other potential suitors might include Houston, Phoenix, and Golden State, but none feature the combination of Love-appeal and assets that the Bulls possess.

Trading for Love could be a risk if Derrick Rose suffers through another injury-plagued year or is ineffective, because he could end up leaving as a free agent. In effect, the Bulls would be doubling down on Rose’s health, and be bereft of assets if he cannot deliver and Love leaves. That, however, is a risk worth taking.

Sign-and-Trade Carlos Boozer and Assets for Carmelo Anthony

Of the non-Love options, this is by far the best. They shed the salary of Carlos Boozer—included for salary matching purposes–while staying over the salary cap. This would enable them to keep and use their bi-annual exception (BAE) of up to a two-year contract starting at $2.1 million and the mid-level exception (MLE)* consisting of up to a four-year contract starting at $5.3 million. The latter could be used in whole or in part on Mirotic (he must sign a minimum three-year deal if he signs anything above a rookie contract) while the remainder could be used to fill in holes at backup point guard and big man.  Staying over the cap would also facilitate using the non-guaranteed $4 million salaries of Amundson, James, and Brewer to trade for additional salary or promulgate another smaller sign-and-trade for a mid-level free agent.  If the Bulls get under the cap, they would have to release these players and forfeit the option of using them in a trade to acquire more salary.

*The BAE and the MLE may be used in the same year, in whichever order. Both can be split up to sign multiple players if the team so desires. Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that to use both the BAE must be used first.

A starting lineup of a healthy Rose, Butler, Anthony, Gibson, and Noah with Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy and other exception-added depth off the bench would certainly be a championship contender. While assets such as some of the Bulls’ first-rounders and Tony Snell would likely be necessary to induce New York to agree to the trade, it would be worth it to be able to attract Anthony by paying him the over $20 million he would likely demand. Meanwhile, the ability to stay over the cap and use the exceptions would be worth giving up some future assets, especially if it enabled the import of Mirotic.

While Anthony would be making a king’s ransom for his 34 year-old skills in the last year of the approximately 4-year, $96 million contract the Bulls would give him in this scenario, there would be little cost in flexibility due to the fact that his contract only runs one year longer than Rose’s. Overpaying for Anthony in the last years of his deal would be worth it to put together a clear championship contender early on.

Sign Anthony With Cap Space, But Only If He Comes Cheap

This scenario would start with a Boozer amnesty. The Bulls would then need to perform some additional gyrations to get to about $15 million in cap space, likely in the form of trading Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy, and one or both of their first-rounders this year for future assets. Getting Anthony for that price would clearly be worth it.  However, he might not be particularly interested in signing for a contract starting at that amount given the fact he could get as much as about $22 million to start in other scenarios.

Unfortunately, if the Bulls cannot trade for Anthony getting to the point where they can offer Anthony his full $22 million starting salary via cap room is not worth it. They would have to trade away Taj Gibson to clear that kind of space, but would then have only the two-year, $2.7 Room Exception and the league minimum at their disposal to fill in the roster around Rose, Butler, Anthony and Noah. They would have no means by which to acquire Mirotic this year either, because even if he were willing to take the Room Exception and Real Madrid were willing to reduce his buyout, it would not work because he must sign at least a three-year contract if he is to exceed the Rookie Scale.

This option would be great if Anthony is willing to reduce is salary demands enough to allow the Bulls to keep Gibson, but that would entail him taking a massive paycut that seems unlikely.

Sign Kyle Lowry

Assuming Anthony does not work out, the Bulls would have their potential $10 million in room without a seemingly great fit in free agency.. Their greatest need is on the wing, but the top wings Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng are not worth that kind of money. Nor do they provide the outstanding shooting the Bulls desperately need.*

*Ariza shot well on threes this year, but that is an outlier for his career. And Bulls fans are well-familiar with Deng’s limited touch from outside.

To find a $10 million a year type of player, the Bulls will need to think outside the box by looking at a point guard. Kyle Lowry would be the best player available. Admittedly, he seems a poor fit with Derrick Rose defensively, as one of them would have to take shooting guards. But that problem would be mitigated by having Butler, Gibson, and Noah behind them. Butler could guard any truly threatening wings, allowing Rose to hide out on the other team’s worst wing.

Meanwhile, Rose and Lowry could make a great pairing on offense. One of the two would have the speed advantage against an opposing wing, and they could both handle the ball and run multiple pick and rolls off ball reversals. Rose is much more effective shooting set shot threes on kickouts than off the dribble, while Lowry is an excellent threat from behind the arc. He took 46 percent of his shots from there and drilled 38 percent. Finally, Lowry would offer great insurance if Rose misses time again.

The Bulls could potentially offer Lowry up to a four-year contract starting for as much as $12 million per year and totaling $51.2 million with a few of the cap methods mentioned in the Anthony section. This would be a pretty big overpay, but less so than offering a wing player their available cap space.

This plan does have flaws. Lowry may not want to play with Rose, as he has been prickly about splitting time in the past. On the other hand, with Rose he would still be a clear starter, and Rose doesn’t shoot any more often than Demar DeRozan in Toronto.

An alternative Lowry scenario also offers some reason why the Bulls would want to trade away Carlos Boozer with an asset into the cap space of a team like Philadelphia rather than amnestying him. I have previously said there was no possible reason to do this other than cost-cutting by the ownership, but on further reflection there is a scenario in which such a trade makes sense.

For example, it is unlikely Toronto would take back Boozer in a sign-and-trade for Lowry without significant concessions, but if the Bulls attached an asset to trade Boozer elsewhere it would create a giant trade exception. This exception would enable the Bulls to stay over the cap even once Boozer was gone, because exceptions count against the cap unless renounced. With the threat of cap space (which would not actually be realized until the trade exception were renounced), the Bulls could induce Toronto to sign-and-trade Lowry into the Boozer trade exception and create their own useful trade exception*, with the Bulls potentially throwing in a small asset as well to obtain Toronto’s compliance. The advantage to the Bulls of staying over the cap would be retaining the BAE and MLE.* If they signed Lowry outright with cap space, they probably could not bring over Mirotic without dumping further money and would be limited to the $2.7 million Room Exception just as if they signed Anthony with cap space.

*Because it would be a sign-and-trade, the amount of this exception would be the greater of 50% of Lowry’s new salary or the $6.2 million in his last contract.

**This is a similar model to what Golden State did last summer with Denver and Utah after agreeing to terms with Andre Iguodala. They never went under the cap so they were able to retain their exceptions.

By all accounts Lowry is happy in Toronto, but they might not be willing to match an offer of four years, $51.2 million. More money in a situation more likely to win than Toronto with lower taxes could well appeal to Lowry.

Sign Isaiah Thomas

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Thomas is an even worse fit defensively with Rose than Lowry. He is undersized at 5’9 and struggles to close out on shooters, and of course can be posted up in the wrong matchup.* But much more importantly, he is also the best scorer of any free agent that is likely to be available aside from Anthony, scoring 21.1 points per 36 minutes while posting an above-average .574 True Shooting Percentage. His overall usage rate of 26.3 percent is perfect for a secondary scorer. Thomas is also a good enough shooter to open things up off the ball, taking 36 percent of his shots from downtown for his career and hitting 36 percent of them. IT2 likewise excels at getting to the rim–the layup master shot .685 within three feet last year—and the free throw line. The Bulls’ biggest need, even with Rose, is scoring. Thomas provides that in spades. Like Lowry, Thomas provides more of what the Bulls need as well as more bang for their buck than the available wings.

*One way to think about it: Thomas is probably no worse than D.J. Augustin on defense, and Rose is approximately the same size as Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls were able to make it work defensively with the Augustin/Hinrich pairing in extensive minutes last season, so Thomas/Rose could work. And the Bulls could always go bigger with Rose at the 1 if Thomas were really getting torched.

Even more importantly, the Washington product is only 25. A four-year contract would lock him up during his prime years without the back-end overpay likely required for nearly any other free agent on the market as he reaches his decline years.

The biggest problem is that Thomas, as a third year player selected in the second round, is a restricted free agent, allowing the Kings to match any offer. The plan with Thomas should be to bring over Nikola Mirotic at the same time, which as we discussed would likely require at least a $3.5 million starting salary to make it worth his while. That would leave approximately $8 million as a starting salary for Thomas.* Would a four-year contract totaling $34.2 million with the maximum allowable annual 4.5 percent annual raises be enough to dissuade the Kings from matching?

*The Bulls could also attempt the same strategy from the Lowry scenario of trading Boozer and trying to trade for Thomas using the trade exception.  Or, they could throw in an asset to convince the Kings to sign and trade Thomas in the same fashion as the Pelicans did with Tyreke Evans last year.

Thomas has always seemed somewhat ancillary to the Kings’ plans, as each year saw them bring in a player to try to unseat him, only to have Thomas clearly beat him out. His size and draft position have resulted in perhaps a lower esteem from management than was warranted. Nevertheless, players with 20 PERs don’t grow on trees, and Kings’ management seems inclined to try to compete as soon as possible.

The fate of Thomas may be intertwined with Rudy Gay and the Kings’ draft pick. Gay has a $19 million player option for 2014-15. If he exercises it, the Kings will be at approximately $68 million in salary even without Thomas. Add in their number eight draft pick, and an $8 million a year starting salary for Thomas brings them perilously close to the luxury tax of approximately $77 million.* It seems unlikely Sacramento ownership would be willing to go into the luxury tax for what is looking like a very mediocre team. If they trade the eighth pick for an established player, the salary could creep even higher. It is also quite possible Sacramento drafts a point guard, which would theoretically make Thomas expendable.*

*Incidentally, what a shame for Sacramento fans if the money spent signing Carl Landry and trading for Derrick Williams ends up costing them Thomas.

With such uncertainty, a run at Thomas is worth a shot for the Bulls, despite some disadvantages. The Kings could match the Bulls offer sheet and tie up their cap space for three crucial July days while deciding to do so. And, ironically, signing Thomas could make the Kings worse and mean the Bulls do not get the top-10 protected pick from Sacramento that they are owed from the Luol Deng trade until later on.  But Thomas’ scoring and playmaking would be worth the gamble.

Keep the Powder Dry for the 2015 Plan

If none of these free agents are receptive to the Bulls’ overtures, the best option is likely to just bring Mirotic over, make their selections at 16 and 19 in the draft (or combine them in an attempt to move up) and make changes at the margins. The Bulls would also have to wait on extending Jimmy Butler if he were unwilling to agree to a very cheap extension starting at below $5 million per year. This 2015 plan would include either A) amnestying Boozer in the summer of 2014 and using any remaining cap space and the room exception on one-year deals for veteran wings and a backup scoring point guard, or B) retaining Boozer and his expiring salary as a potential trade chip. The latter becomes a more palatable strategy if Love is not traded in the offseason. Another player who could become available by trade in-season is LaMarcus Aldridge if the Blazers were to regress next year and he makes it clear he does not plan to stay by the trade deadline.

Failing such an in-season deal, the Bulls could still be a potential contender in the Eastern Conference with the additional depth if Mirotic becomes an immediate contributor. Next summer, the Bulls could make a play for Aldridge, Love, or any other 2015 free agent such as Goran Dragic or Wesley Matthews. As the chart below shows, they would have about $7.9 million in cap space in the summer of 2015,* and could easily open up maximum cap room by moving some combination of Mirotic, Tony Snell, one of the 2014 draftees, the 2015 first-rounder, renouncing Butler, or trading Gibson. The Bulls could benefit from waiting in that free agents might be much more interested in the Bulls if Rose can make it through an entire year healthy.

Bulls 2015 Plan Salaries

*This assumes 1) Mirotic signs for about $4 million a year originally with 4.5 percentage annual raises; 2) Jimmy Butler is not extended and his cap hold will be $5 million (250 percent of his 2014-15 salary because he is coming off the fourth year of a rookie contract with a contract less than the Estimated Average Player Salary), 3) nobody signed in the summer of 2014 has a guaranteed contract longer than one year; 4) The Bulls will get approximately the 23rd pick in the 2015 draft; and 5) the 2014 rookies will sign for 120 percent of the rookie scale amounts. The analysis also assumes 6) a projected cap of $67 million for the 2015-16 year, but it could well be higher given how well the league has done of late.

Keeping the powder dry is a far superior option to overpaying for one of the available wings in 2014 and greatly complicating any attempt to add a second star going forward. Much as it may vex Bulls fans, the 2014 Plan could well become the 2015 Plan.

Addendum: Why No Lance Stephenson?

A few commentators have asked why Lance Stephenson was not included in this analysis, so a short explanation is in order.  I certainly should have at least mentioned him along with Ariza and Deng, but I do not think he would be a good signing at all. First off, I believe he is almost certain to be retained by the Pacers because they will be over the cap and have no ability to replace him.  The new higher cap and tax figures should help them get to a market value contract for him.  But more importantly, I think he is an awful fit for the Bulls.  He is a much worse shooter and scorer than Lowry and Thomas, taking only 28 percent of his shots from downtown.  While he has hit 35 percent this year, his shooting form is not the best and the playoffs have shown he is not respected enough by defenses to create spacing for a Pacers team that desperately needs it.  Stephenson also is not a good enough shooter to really pull up behind the arc with consistency off the pick and roll, which Thomas and Lowry have no problem doing.  Stephenson also rarely gets to the foul line, and his usage rate is pretty average on a Pacers team that desperately needs scoring.  While his signing would help the Bulls defensively more than Lowry or Thomas, he simply is not really an above-average offensive player.  That is what the Bulls need.

Finally, Stephenson does not fit the Bulls’ culture at all and he appears to be responsible for at least some of the ups and downs the Pacers have experienced this year.  He isn’t worth a big contract for the Bulls.

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About Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.