Playing armchair general manager may be the favorite activity of the modern sports fan, the one who grew up simulating seasons of Madden to do the offseason stuff, but even the most fervent trade machine maestro likely doesn't envy the position of Gar Forman and John Paxson right now. To say the two-headed GM brain trust of the Chicago Bulls is in a tough spot seems to be underselling it. This is the same duo that turned a perennial eight seed in the East into the team with more regular season victories than any other over the last two years. For as impossible as that type of rapid ascension would appear to be, the task facing them now is even more daunting.
Derrick Rose's torn ACL didn't just ruin the Bulls' 2012 title chances, it decimated 2013, too. That Rose's injury comes just as his MVP-induced super max-level extension kicks in is cruelest of all. Chicago entered free agency on July 1 with roughly $64 million committed to eight players, with Rose taking up over 24 percent of that number. The Bulls are over the cap and dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold, which will likely be around $70.2 million. The Bulls were armed with only the tax payer's exception, good enough to net a player worth $3 million annually. In an age of wild offseason spending where Roy Hibbert's 12 points and eight rebounds a night commands a max contract, it's easy to see why Chicago didn't have tons many appealing options on its radar.
One name that was on that radar the entire time was guard Kirk Hinrich, who played his first seven seasons in a Bulls' uniform after being selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft. Hinrich was traded before the 2010 draft in a salary clearing move that put Chicago in position to sign two max-level free agents. We know how that one turned out. But with Hinrich hitting the open market and the Bulls desperately in need of another guard, it wasn't hard to connect the dots. The Bulls always loved Kirk Hinrich, and if they had their way, he would be their's once again.
Hinrich agreed to terms on Sunday, even if it meant bypassing $1 million more per year to be reunited with former coach Scott Skiles on the Milwaukee Bucks. There was a time when Hinrich would have been an ideal candidate for this particular bind the Bulls find themselves in, but then again, there was also a time when Hinrich signed a deal with Chicago that paid him three times as much annually.
It's hard to disguise that Hinrich was largely terrible for the Atlanta Hawks last season. He finished the campaign with 6.6 points and 2.8 assists per night while posting a paltry 9.28 PER. The average PER is 15, All-Stars are supposed to finish in the 20s. Hinrich shot just 41 percent from the field. He turns 32 in January. Yes, there's a reason no one was offering him the full mid-level exception. He hasn't been the same player since leaving the Bulls.
The Hinrich signing isn't a disaster, but it's surely disappointing. It's good the Bulls got their No. 1 target, as I would certainly hope they're smarter than your run of the mill basketball blogger. I'm not sure there were many better options out there for $3 million per season. Still, it again shows Chicago's long-running inability to get creative, to think on their feet, to swing for the fences to put the team back in position to become a title contender. Hinrich is a bandage over the bullet wound that is the torn ligaments in Rose's knee, nothing more, nothing less. What's most disheartening is simply that the $3 million tax payer exception wasn't the only way to improve the team, just the easiest and the cheapest. Remember: the Bulls were tying their own hands here. If owner Jerry Reinsdorf was willing to spend more money, Chicago could be looking at another All-Star.
It's been widely assumed that the Bulls will turn down team options on three key members of the "Bench Mob": C.J. Watson (at $3.2 million), Kyle Korver (at $5 million) and Ronnie Brewer (at $4.3 million). Never mind the fact that Chicago should probably bring back all three on those team-friendly one-year deals, seeing as Rose is set to miss the majority of next season and swingman Luol Deng could be out until January as he recovers from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his wrist. If the Bulls truly were serious about keeping pace with the Miami Heat and the rest of the NBA's elite, they could have traded all three for an overpaid-but-productive player from a team seeking financial relief.
Make no mistake, the Bulls piss with the big dogs. They have sold out every home game for more than two decades. A recent study by Forbes had Chicago cashing in over $59 in operating income, second to only the New York Knicks. Comparatively, the Dallas Mavericks lost $3.9 million and the Boston Celtics made just $7.7 million. This is the advantage the Bulls have as a big market team: they make tons of money, revenue that they could conceivably be put back into the team. Instead, Chicago has never once paid the luxury tax, and refuses to pump money into one of the most financially successful teams in sports. The Bulls cash checks, they don't write spend them.
You think Kirk Hinrich sounds good? How about Joe Johnson? How about Pau Gasol? How about Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph or Al Jefferson? What the Bulls should have done is take the expiring contracts of Watson, Brewer and Korver and targeted a team looking to get out of a hefty deal. Joe Johnson is wildly overpaid, but his presence makes the Brooklyn Nets a very real threat in the East next season. He was just traded for what amounts to little more than flexibility. That's what a trade involving three expiring deals could have done. The Bulls own the rights to Korver, Watson and Brewer, a new team could turn down one-year options on all three and save themselves a bunch of money.
It all comes back to Reinsdorf, the man who has brought this city seven championships. Myself and others have joked for years that Reinsdorf spends the Bulls' money on the White Sox, a team he largely does a solid job with. The White Sox fan in me appreciates it. The Bulls fan in me thinks our local basketball team needs a new owner.
Jerry Reinsdorf is 76 years old. How many more years must he insist on making $60 million in revenue instead of focusing his resources back into the team? Most owners don't even think about the money they make in operations, they focus on the value of the franchise. Oh yeah: that same Forbes report had the Bulls as the league's third most valuable club, with their assets totaling $600 million. Look over that list: the Bulls make insane amounts of money. It is abnormal for a pro sports team to be this profitable. The fact that Reinsdorf doesn't catch more shit for managing the Bulls like a mid-market team is mind-blowing. The Bulls' profit margin doesn't just justify becoming a tax paying team, it justifies going deep into the tax. That's what the Lakers do. Then again, the Lakers only made $24 million in operations last season.
As Malcolm Gladwell once detailed, owning a sports team is about physic benefits for so many. For Reinsdorf and the Bulls, it's about cold, hard income. Yes, the luxury tax becomes far more punitive after next season. Yes, the Rose-less immediate future of the Bulls hardly positions them as a title contender. It's still all bullshit. Why does a man nearly 80 still prioritize tens of million in his pocket instead of on the payroll? The Bulls should be a big market bully, not a team resigned to signing Kirk Hinrich for $3 million.
For what he is, I suppose Hinrich is fine. Just don't let the Bulls paint themselves as a victim. Don't let Jerry Reinsdorf tell you he's poor. This team could have done bigger and better things, but they won't allow for it.
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.