The offseason overhaul of the Chicago Bulls has been swift and dramatic. The team that won the most regular season games in the NBA over the last two years will only be partially recognizable next season. No, Chicago certainly hasn't 'reloaded', and they're not entering a rebuilding phase, either. Instead, the Bulls have retooled in what amounts to the most passive-aggressive way possible: they're committed to biding their time until superstar guard Derrick Rose can return fully from a torn ACL, and won't even try to win until he comes back. The Bulls have proven with their actions this offseason that they do not care for regular season victories. They do not care if they finish in seventh in the Eastern Conference next season instead of third. The Bulls will tell you they're in it for the long haul, and they'll save as much money as possible until the team decides it's once again ready to compete.
Of course, the Bulls could have put together a contender for next season -- at least in a world of best case scenarios -- but that would have required this bulging cash cow of a basketball franchise to pay a hefty luxury tax bill. That arrangement doesn't fly for Jerry Reinsdorf, who has no problem committing financially to the far less lucrative Chicago White Sox. Disregard that the Bulls make more in operating revenue than any franchise this side of the New York Knicks, and that they were equipped with the type of assets that could have expedited the process of becoming a contender once again. Instead, the Bulls dissolved the same "Bench Mob" that contributed to so much of the team's success during the first two seasons of Tom Thibodeau's reign only so they could sign less expensive replacements.
It didn't have to be this way. The non-guaranteed contracts of bench stalwarts Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer all could have been traded for an overpaid-if-productive player on a team seeking financial relief. This is the advantage the Bulls have a cash-infused big market team, though they chose not to use it. The Bulls are slow playing this one, but for how long?
'Treading water' is becoming a buzz phrase for the current state of the Chicago Bulls. It might as well be the team's marketing slogan for next season. But on Monday in the Chicago Tribune, beat reporter K.C. Johnson says the Bulls may be treading water longer than some fans anticipate. Johnson hypothesizes that team is really playing for the 2014-2015 season.
That's right, the Bulls are ready to give up on the next *two* seasons. Says Johnson:
Management will say its financial decisions are cloaked in basketball reasons. With Rose out until likely March, next season is a treading-water season. So instead of depth being the secondary star, the Bulls hope to add a legitimate one alongside Rose.
With Hinrich, Belinelli, Radmanovic and Mohammed all signing short-term deals, the plan to clear major salary-cap space in 2014 will remain intact. That's also when Luol Deng's contract expires, Nikola Mirotic could come over from Real Madrid and Carlos Boozer likely will be a victim of the amnesty provision.
There's a lot of information in those two paragraphs, though it's hard to put any real stock in the projection on Rose's return. The bit about the timetable to execute the amnesty clause on Boozer also appears to be more 'connect that dots' logic than tangible reporting. What's most distressing is how the Bulls are using Rose's injury as a crutch and a brilliant excuse to save millions. If Derrick Rose was alive and kicking next season, what would Chicago have done? Would they still have cut ties with Watson and Korver and center Omer Asik? Would they have been more proactive with the would-be trading chips of the non-guaranteed deals? It's a perverse way to think about it, but Rose's injury actually did a lot of good for Reinsdorf and co. It's much easier to sell a cash-saving retooling job when your championship window has been interrupted by what might be the most serious injury in sports.
So this is what Johnson is proposing: Chicago will clear out cap space and try to sign another superstar in free agency 2K14. How does that sound, Bulls fans? While the thought of teamming Rose with another leading man is surely attractive, the Bulls have been down this road before. It's often fruitless. The Bulls swung and missed on Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan once upon a time, they did it again in 2010 when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh each spurned Chicago for Miami. Pitching 'max cap space' is all well and good, but that's also exactly how the Bulls ended up with Boozer, the same player every living, breathing Bulls fan can't wait to get rid of.
If the Bulls weren't going to be progressive enough to do something with the three non-guaranteed deals, they should have just brought back Watson and Korver by exercising those one-year deals. They *still* could have added guard Kirk Hinrich, seeing as he signed for the tax payer's exception. Yes, the Bulls did get a $5 million trade exception in return for Korver, but they also had one they never used for P.J. Brown a few seasons ago. The trade exception allows a franchise to take on money without matching contracts. The Bulls have proven they will never take on money.
The Bulls will say it wasn't worth it to go deeper into the luxury tax for Korver and Watson when a championship is likely off the table thanks to Rose's injury. Considering both were one-year deals that wouldn't have hindered future flexibility, I think the Bulls owed it to the fans to win games instead of saving money. I think there's value in finishing third instead of seventh. The Bulls do not. Haven't the fans been through enough with Rose's injury? Paying a bit of the tax to bring back the "Bench Mob" cogs would have equated to throwing the fans a bone, if nothing else. The Bulls weren't about to do that. Now, they'll border on being unwatchable next season.
So now, apparently, the Bulls wait. The light at the end of the tunnel will be free agency in 2014, just like how free agency in 2010 was always the long-term plan for the two years the team was guided by Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro's teams came in eighth in the Eastern Conference for both of his seasons at the helm. While Thibodeau is clearly a far superior coach, the end game may be the same. The Bulls will have a hard time finishing in the top half of the East next season, only because it doesn't concern them. It didn't have to be this way, but this is their choice. The Bulls are essentially waving the white flag for the next two seasons. It's up to the fanbase to call Chicago out on its own bullshit, though I doubt it matters much. The Bulls will stay afloat competitively and prosper financially until the summer of 2014 mercifully arrives. The wait will not be fun.