The Chicago Bulls' cost saving moves this offseason were hardly out of character given the franchise's annual refusal to pay the luxury tax, but the team's long-term plan remained clouded in mystery. At least until yesterday, that is, when the Tribune's K.C. Johnson corroborated what several other beat reporters had been saying: the Bulls' end game is to clear out as much salary cap space as possible for free agency during the summer of 2014 in hopes of pairing Derrick Rose with another star.
Bulls fans know the plan all too well. Chicago tried to do the exact same thing at the turn of the decade, only to be spurned by Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and Eddie Jones. It happened again in 2010 when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh chose the Heat over the Bulls, though Chicago's consolation prize of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson did help the team win the most regular season games in the NBA over the last two seasons.
So just like in 2009, Bulls fans are again set to play the waiting game. It made sense to sacrifice a season or two leading up to free agency in 2010: the LeBron-led class was historically strong, and Rose was still learning on the job. Does it make sense for the Bulls to go the same route now? I'm not so sure. A preliminary look at the 2014 free agency class doesn't appear too promising.
HoopsWorld has a list of the players slated to become free agents in the summer of 2014, and it isn't pretty. There isn't a savior in the bunch, aside from a group of players holding early termination options they're unlikely to exercise. Assuming James, Wade and Bosh stay in Miami and Rudy Gay realizes he isn't making more than $17.9 million to pay anywhere else, the Bulls will be left with a horde of aging stars and members of an underwhelming 2010 draft class to choose from.
If the free agents available in 2014 were available in, say, 2006, the Bulls might be in business. Kobe Bryant will be an unrestricted free agent, so will Dirk Nowitzki. Paul Pierce is available, as are Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph. The problem? All of these bros are old now, and that will only be exaggerated by 2014. The best free agent on the market actually looks like Luol Deng, and getting his $14.3 million off the books is apparently part of the Bulls' long-term plan.
The 2010 draft class could also hit the market. Seeing as the Bulls will likely be targeting a shooting guard or small forward, some appealing names include Paul George of the Pacers and Evan Turner of the 76ers. But are you really wasting two years in hopes of throwing a max deal at Paul George? At least as it stands now, there isn't a solid option in the bunch.
One player the Bulls -- and let's be honest, every other team -- could really use is set to hit the market in 2015: Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge could also be available that summer. So after playing it safe for two seasons in the a row, will the Bulls kill a third straight season once they realize their 2014 options are piss-poor?
Even getting max cap space in 2014 won't be easy. At the moment, the Bulls have $48.8 million committed to five players heading into that summer, a number that includes a $2 million team option on Jimmy Butler and does not include Deng. Even if we're to assume Boozer's $16.8 million salary will amnestied, the Bulls will still be at around $33 million. Do you want to keep Taj Gibson? Me, too. Given the way frontcourt players have been getting paid in recent offseasons, let's conservatively peg Gibson as a $10 million per season player. That moves the Bulls up to $43 million in salary without Deng, and no one on the roster but Rose, Noah, Gibson, Marquis Teague and Butler. Who knows where the salary cap line will be in 2014, but it's been around $56 million for the last two seasons. Basically, the Bulls are cutting it very close to acquire one max-level player in 2014, and that would come at the detriment of the rest of the roster.
This is why we detailed yesterday that the 2014 plan pretty much sucks. The Bulls are certainly in a very tough spot at the moment, and they did great last time they were in this position. The pieces they signed in 2010 after missing out on James, Wade, Bosh were pivotal in making them one of the league's best teams. But remember: Rose was on a rookie contract then, now he'll earn more than pretty much any player in the league thanks to hitting those hard-to-reach contract incentives. They also had enough space for two max players in 2010, and had hit the jackpot on Gibson, a late round pick who blossomed into the best player on the bench. Will Marquis Teague similarly take off? Will Butler? The Bulls better hope so. A lot went right for them the last time around, and it seems foolish to bet that it will all happen again.
My biggest problem with the 2014 plan is that the Bulls seemed far too eager to accept it. Clearing out max cap space is not the only way to get good. Given the way Chicago struck out the last two times they had max cap space, you would think they'd learn their lesson. Perhaps this really is the best way for the Bulls to become a championship contender once again, but a healthy bit of skepticism never hurt anyone. Let's assume the Bulls have this all planned out, because if they really are set to roll with Kirk Hinrich as a starter for the next two years, basketball season in Chicago won't be much fun without a light at the end of the tunnel.