Late last week, a bizarre bit of news emerged from the NBA predraft camp: the Chicago Bulls had a meeting with North Carolina small forward Harrison Barnes. Given that Chicago holds the No. 29 overall selection in the 2012 draft and Barnes is a consensus top 10, probable top-five, pick, the meeting raised a few eyebrows. What could the Bulls, patently conservative in the way they go about roster construction, possibly be thinking by meeting with a player who will clearly be long gone by the time it's their turn to pick?
Here's one far-fetched idea I don't feel even a little guilty about running with during these notoriously slow summer sports months: maybe the Bulls want make a run at Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard James Harden with a max contract offer after the 2012-2013 season. Would be cool, right?
Here is how this (kind of) works.
Trade Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Luke Walton, Daniel Gibson and the No. 4 pick.
There's no guarantee Cleveland would take this, and Deng's torn wrist ligaments and insistence on playing in the Olympics certainly complicates matters. The Cavs are also rumored to like Barnes, who's close with Cleveland's emerging star Kyrie Irving. Still, Barnes' best case player comp is often listed as Deng, and after a relatively underwhelming two seasons in Chapel Hill and an unceremonious bow out in the last NCAA Tournament, it's not like he's being touted as an elite pro prospect. I think Cleveland, who isn't far off from crashing the playoffs again in the East and likely wants to expedite that process as much as possible, might take it.
Now, swamping Deng for Barnes would be a trade that would signal a white flag for the Bulls in 2012-2013. Since many team beat reporters and bloggers have already made "treading water" the buzz-phrase of choice post-ACL Apocalypse, blowing it up shouldn't be a thought too wild for consideration.
Sure, there's an optimistic school of thought that Derrick Rose could be back on the floor by March next season, and Bulls could head into the 2013 playoffs with the whole gang back in tow. Well, minus most of the "Bench Mob". But, you know, even MJ couldn't win a championship in his half-season, and pushing Rose too hard to come back early is probably the worst thing Chicago can do for the long-term well-being of the franchise. So: white flag! Hey, Reinsdorf has green-lighted it before.
Which brings us to Harden, the bearded, eminently likable 22-year old shooting guard of the Thunder. His contract expires after next season, when Oklahoma City could very possibly have back-to-back titles. Serge Ibaka's contract expires the same time as Harden's, and it's going to be very hard for the Thunder to keep their young nuclear in tact for a few reasons. Oklahoma City already boasts two players with max contracts, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The new CBA also made going into the luxury tax even more imposing than it was before. For such a small market, it seems pretty unlikely they'd be able to pay three dudes big money. Even if they can find a way, it would come at the expense of the depth that has keyed this year's run to the finals.
I think Harden might be able to be pried away for a max offer. Now, to get him to Chicago....
Let's talk numbers, with a little help from Sham Sports. Deng is gone, meaning you're clearing his $14.2 million contract off the books in 2013/2014. Last year's No. 4 pick, the Cavs' Tristian Thompson, is scheduled to receive $3.7 million in his second season, so we'll pencil Barnes in for that. The next step, quite obviously, is amnestying second team All-Defense vote-getter Carlos Boozer.
For the uninitiated, here's how the amnesty clause works: after a player has been cut, a blind auction is held with the winning team and old team splitting the difference to make sure the player receives every penny he originally signed for. Boozer is slated to make -- wait for it -- $15.3 million in 2013-2014. For fun, let's assume the winning bid is around $8 million, meaning the Bulls would be on the hook for $7.3 million.
UPDATE: From Bulls Blogger: "The Boozer amnesty would mean $0 on the cap. The bidding process is just to offset the money owed in salary. So it affects any unofficial payroll budget (like a tax payment would I'd guess) but not the cap figures."
Here's what the payroll is looking like in Chicago now after next season: $7.3 for Boozer's corpse, $3.7 million for Barnes, $11.1 million for Noah, $16.6 million for Rose. Wanna keep Taj Gibson around? Me, too. Let's assume the Bulls can re-sign him for $7 million per season. Jimmy Butler will probably be back as well at $1.1 million. That brings us to a total of $46.8 million.
A max contract to Harden would probably pay the player $15 million in year one. The salary cap for the last two seasons has stayed at $58 million, but it's reasonable to assume that could go up a few million dollars before we enter the 2013-2014 season.
The proposed $15 million for Harden would bring the Bulls to $61.8 million in payroll. It would leave you with a lineup of Rose-Harden-Barnes-Gibson-Noah, with Butler and some cheap veteran depth off the bench. This would be a long way from the depth + defense design that has carried the Bulls during Tom Thibodeau's hyper-successful two-year reign, but Chicago might not have a choice.
* * * * * *
So, OK, this scenario is admittedly very far-fetched. If you want to put a percentage on the likelihood of the Rose-Harden backcourt coming to fruition, you should probably start with a decimal point instead of a number. There's simply too many variables and not enough wiggle room with the numbers. The larger point here is that the way things are shaping up for the Bulls, it could be in their best interest to think progressive with the roster moving forward. Something like trading your heart-and-soul small forward for freaking Harrison Barnes. Such nerve simply is not hardwired into the Bulls' nature, but I'm not sure how standing pat even qualifies as an option.
We've been over this before, but: the "Bench Mob" is probably about to dissipate. The lone problem with having quality young depth is that eventually you have to pay those players real money. Taj Gibson will get paid; the $7 million I projected him at for this little exercise may not even be enough to retrain his services. Omer Asik is in for a raise, too. These Bulls were always greater than the sum of their parts, but the parts mattered. The formula also only really worked with Rose at his most athletic, destructive and able-bodied. Who knows if that will be the case ever again. This team that provided us with so much joy over the last two seasons doesn't look like it's going to get another chance. Sometimes, I feel like it's better to blow things up with some semblance of foresight than hold onto everything for too long.
The sad reality is that this was the Bulls' year. Who knows if they could have defeated the Heat in a seven-game series, but Miami certainly looked vulnerable at times during their run to the finals. Now the Bulls have to consider a new reality: how to take the ashes of a hard-working, overachieving roster that won the most regular season games in the NBA over the last two seasons and turn it into something that can take shape going forward.
With Noah signed through 2016, Deng making big money through 2014 and Boozer cashing nearly max-level checks through 2015, the Bulls aren't going to have much room in the payroll to make the team better. They just aren't. It also seems unlikely Noah and Deng will improve much. Perhaps the Bulls will hit on a late draft pick again like they did with Gibson, but it's hard enough to catch that sort of lightning in a bottle once, let along twice. The best thing to do really might be trading one of 'em for a high draft pick who could come in and develop at a much cheaper rate. The rookie scale is almost embarrassingly team-friendly.
It's not an easy situation, or even a fun one, as much as I like armchair GM'ing. Fortunately, Rose is so young and so determined. The Bulls' window isn't closing, it's just evolving.
Rose may come back a changed superstar, but I'm confident enough his status among the league's elite will remain unchanged. He might not be capable of shouldering the world on offense anymore, though, so it should be in the Bulls' best interest to find him a new top-dog as a running mate. A real co-headliner.
The Boozer-Noah-Deng Era has been fairly great, I just don't know if it can be relied on going forward with the uncertain future the Bulls now face. Perhaps we will be sitting here laughing about such thoughts a year from now, when a largely similar roster gets healthy and goes from a middling seed to a contender. Banking on it almost strikes me as foolish, though. The Bulls should be thinking big, creative thoughts. It might take some ingenuity to get this team back where it was: among a handful of tropes with a real shot at a title. Whether they'll have the fortitude to try it or not remains to be seen. I just want someone to tell me why they were meeting with Harrison Barnes.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.