The best guess of most beat writers and bloggers covering the Chicago Bulls is that the 2012-2013 season will be one in which the team "treads water". Which is to say: factoring in a payroll that is already pressing against the luxury tax threshold and injuries that will keep superstar Derrick Rose sidelined until at least the All-Star break and Luol Deng out through December, the Bulls don't have much flexibility heading into this offseason. Their best plan of attack would appear to be bringing everyone back, pray Deng and (more importantly) Rose can eventually return to their former selves with the hope of entering the playoffs as a particularly formidable six-seed, or something.
Unfortunately, even the idea of bringing back the same 2011-2012 roster that was robbed of a chance to compete for a title is far-fetched. The Bulls already have $63 million committed in guaranteed salaries, without counting free agents Omer Asik, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. The luxury tax should be around $71 million, a penalty owner Jerry Reinsdorf never seemed interested in incurring in previous seasons that became even more imposing under the new CBA.
So, is this the end of the 'Bench Mob'? It appears so.
Asik is a restricted free agent and likely the Bulls' top priority. As a second round pick with only two years of service, Asik cannot be offered more than the full mid-level exception in the first year of a contract by any club trying to attain his services, which should be around $5 million. The Tribune's K.C. Johnson asserted today that Asik is "likely" back on a $3.5 million salary, which strikes me as shaky given the way big men are always in demand. Some team with cap space will probably try to pry him from Chicago, potentially even getting creative to backload the contract with big money in years three and four of the deal. So let's peg Asik at $5 million for next season, moving the Bulls' payroll to $68 million.
That leaves Watson, Korver and Brewer. Brewer is most likely to be dismissed because of the presence of last year's first round pick Jimmy Butler. Fine by me; fine by most.
Watson at $3.2 million strikes me as a no-brainer given his the way he's flourished at times in Rose's stead and his familiarity with the system. Still, there's been whispers that Watson could be on his way out, with Johnson writing today:
management has given signs they are pursuing less expensive options, discussing internally the prospect of re-signing John Lucas III as an alternative to Watson. A draft pick also could plug the point-guard hole until Rose returns from knee surgery.
Still, $3.2 million for Watson seems awfully reasonable. Perhaps the Bulls are uncharacteristically thinking even bigger?
We heard rumors last week that the Bulls were interested in future Hall of Fame point guards and free-agents-to-be Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. While I don't believe the former would even be an upgrade over Watson (though potentially cheaper), Nash certainly would be. But Nash will surely be in high demand, and the Bulls can't offer more than the full mid-level exception, which they're only granted if they cut loose Watson, Brewer and Korver. While you can make the case it would be worth it to add Nash, it still strikes me as unlikely that he couldn't find a better offer, especially knowing he'd be relegated to the bench once Rose comes back.
There's also the draft, where the Bulls are being very public with the that fact they're looking for a ball handler and shooter with the No. 29 overall pick (Johnson's previously linked story today has proof).
What this all means is that the 'Bench Mob' that proved so vital to Chicago's success under the first two seasons of coach Tom Thibodeau's reign is probably set to disintegrate, at least partially. Korver is probably gone. Brewer is probably gone. Watson's status is up in the air. Asik will likely be back, but who knows. They'll be a more proper obit here once things start happening for certain, but for now, it looks like Chicago might have had its last taste of hot sauce, and a few of the other players that helped make the last two seasons so special.
For more on the offseason, check the wonderful primers being put together at Blog-a-Bull: