Despite well knowing Rose will be out at least through the All-Star break, Bulls' brass failed to bulk up the team and keep 2013 NBA title hopes alive. Therefore, GM Gar Forman, VP John Paxson, and even team owner Jerry Reinsdorf are tanking the season. They must be. Right?
After all, they let Omer Asik—Omer Asik—get away!
But as convenient as it may seem to spend well beyond the salary cap in order to “keep the team afloat” for some 50 games, there’s simply no cause for alarm.
Forman has stated all along—and emphasized more since the new collective bargaining agreement shifted the playing field for teams—that he sees a wide window of opportunity for the Bulls to win now, without sacrificing long-term growth or entering into an excruciating, stripped-bare rebuilding effort. Nothing he’s done this summer indicates he’s swerved away from that goal.
Think about it: The Bulls haven’t lost anyone of core value over the summer, and the clever maneuvering of Forman has actually built a bench stronger than that which led Chicago to NBA-high wins in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
The five key departures include John Lucas III (with a 16.3 Player Efficiency Rating in 2011-12), Kyle Korver (13.6), Asik (13.4), C.J. Watson (13.3) and Ronnie Brewer (12.3). Total PER for the group was 68.9 in 2011-12, which is a tick above their collective 65.6 career PERs.
Presumably, there will be no huge divergences in performance for any of the departed Bulls. Given his sketchy career up to 2011-12, it’s unlikely Lucas can produce a 16.3 PER in his new Toronto Raptors digs. But with Asik jumping to an $8.4 million salary, it’s safe to say the young big man will offset any drop from Lucas.
Chicago has brought in five replacements: Kirk Hinrich (9.2 PER in 2011-12), Vladimir Radmanovic (11.7), Nazr Mohammed (11.0), Nate Robinson (18.0) and Marco Belinelli (11.9). Their total PER was a paltry 61.8 in 2011-12, but that’s a product of both Hinrich and Mohammed falling well below their career marks. Anticipating regression to their averages, it’s safe to expect a collective 69.4 PER from these new additions in 2012-13.
Factor in Rip Hamilton’s likely uptick in this less-compacted campaign (he hit a career second-worst 13.2 PER in 2011-12, quite a tumble from his 16.7 career mark), and the supporting cast could take an even healthier jump forward.
What’s clever in Forman’s reformatting of the supporting cast in Chicago is that he’s essentially replaced everyone—possibly improving the cast a tick—at around half the price. The old Bulls will be cashing in to the tune of $17.1 million in 2012-13, while the new Bulls will make just $9.8 million.
Well, well, well, Brett, that’s just the point, you might argue. The Bulls are cheap!
C’mon, really? There is a difference between fiscal responsibility and sheer thriftiness. The Bulls have always been guilty of the former, never the latter.
Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah are all locked up for at least the next two seasons (11 collectively), all at eight-figure salaries per season. Carlos Boozer, love or hate him (it's easy to see the wisdom of the latter, particularly given that handcuffing contract), is wrapped up for three more, also at eight figures per season.
Taj Gibson is the big question mark on the horizon--it was never Asik. And if the Bulls were to break cheap on Gibson, the admitted fourth piece of the young Bulls corps, criticism is warranted.
But the Bulls have made no indication that Gibson will walk; quite the contrary, in fact. Forman told me directly that the key goal for him this fall is to lock up Gibson, and failing that, to secure him long-term after 2012-13, when the young hop-frog is still merely a restricted free agent.
In short, Gibson isn’t going anywhere. The savings garnered in paring bench salary—particularly in not matching the overblown, $25 million deal the Houston Rockets extended Asik and then surely regretted—was a crucial step toward comfortably accommodating the fourth foundation piece in Gibson.
Gibson himself will likely grab at a deal in the four-year, $36 million range, which is well within the short- and long-term budget of the team. Worst case, Gibson breaks against his nature and holds out for a heftier package. In that case, Forman will still have flexibility aplenty, either by making Boozer an amnesty case (and eating $32.1 million when the power forward has come off a strong, full season isn’t wise fiscally or competitively) or using the looming savings when the similarly-overpaid Deng’s deal expires to dip into luxury tax penalties for just one season.
There are harsher restrictions than ever for teams that bust the salary cap—ramifications that impact trading, sign-and-trades, and other maneuvers that GMs like to have in their pockets when the trade deadline approaches. For Forman to willingly surrender his future ammunition just to have O.J. Mayo starting at 2-guard for twice the price of Belinelli, for example, is pound foolish.
The Bulls aren’t in an ideal position, certainly not with their heartbeat watching the first 50 games of the season on the sidelines. But Forman has made a stirring effort to upgrade the weakest spot on the club—shooting guard—on the cheap, all the while keeping the key pieces together. He’s secured a core that’s won more games in the past two years than anyone, without sacrificing the long-term health of the franchise.
Nobody is looking forward to the 2012 portion of the 2012-13 season being Rose-free. But the window of opportunity for this Bulls team is just now opening wide, and it’s been set up as nearly foolproof.