Yeah, Thibs, you're on the list.
No trades of consequence were commenced. What did happen were salary-slashing moves such as shipping Kyle Korver off to the Atlanta Hawks essentially for a lesser, older Vladimir Radmanovic. There was a curious re-signing of the fan-favorite, dead-wheeled Kirk Hinrich.
Most egregiously, Omer Asik was allowed to sign with the Houston Rockets, after the Bulls front office had spent the past year indicating that the defensive standout would be a Bull for many years to come.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so this look back at what the summer could have been for Chicago will put into crystal-clear focus just how many opportunities were lost.
The absolute no-brainer of the offseason would have been to pursue a deal—any deal—for Carlos Boozer.
Now, on one hand, in a perfect world, this would be a needless and punitive measure. Boozer, for his part, was better than the Chicago Bulls could have expected. He played in every game of the 2011-12 season, a task he had never accomplished before in his career. His 19.7 PER ranked second on the team behind Derrick Rose, his 7.6 win shares were second behind Joakim Noah, and his .187 win shares/48 was third behind Rose and Noah. So it’s safe to say that Booz was no worse than the third most valuable player on the Bulls in 2011-12.
Why should he have been traded this summer, then? There are a few schools of thought.
One is the simple fact that the very strengths of Boozer’s 2011-12 are extremely unlikely to be repeated again, including a statistic as simple as games played. In his career, even counting last season’s perfect attendance, Boozer has played in just 79 percent of games, which means it’s fair to anticipate Boozer logging around 65 games in 2012-13.
Two is that Boozer is in decline, no matter how valuable he was to the Bulls in 2011-12. Last season proved he’s learned to increase his efficiency, making the most of his time on the floor. Booz's post offense is undoubtedly important to a Bulls team with offensively-challenged big men like Noah and Taj Gibson. But Boozer has dipped to less than 30 mpg for the first time since he was a rookie and shouldn’t see minutes north of 30 for the remainder of his Bulls career.
Third, Boozer’s stock, as low as it may be around the league, can’t possibly get higher. The idea that he could be sent to a contending club in dire need of frontcourt scoring—say, the Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers—is not a stretch, especially if the Bulls take back a lesser, short-term contract shackle.
It’s far from certain it would have been possible to trade Boozer this summer, no matter what the Bulls demanded or were willing to take back in return. But Boozer needed to be gone, one way or another.
The doomsday option of Chicago making Boozer an amnesty case—paying him to go away, while no longer suffering his weighty, $15 million contract against its tight salary cap—isn’t the best decision in the short term or even from a basketball standpoint. But for Chicago’s future, it would have been the right one.
After exhausting all trade suitors, the Bulls needed to bite the bullet and take the hit of paying off the power forward.
Chicago brass has said in the past that the Bulls would pay a luxury tax, but due to the even more dire circumstances of doing so under the new CBA (the escalating penalties for “repeat offenders,” for example), the team would have to be stuck right in the middle of a title run to do so. In other words, had a luxury tax existed in the title contention years of 1990-98, Jerry Reinsdorf would have forked it over. But to do so in mere hopes of reaching a conference final or NBA Final? Not gonna happen.
Clearly, the Bulls have no choice to but view 2012-13 as gravy. If Rose can come back to the Bulls at close to full strength and push them deep into the playoffs, scaring or upsetting a Finals favorite along the way, all the better for 2013-14. But the coming season, for all planning purposes, is a…gulp…wash.
With the Bulls playing for the future, a move to eradicate dead weight and retain fresh meat—say, amnestying Boozer and matching the offer on a solid asset like Asik—would have been a better move for both the present and the future.
You get the sense that Chicago is holding the amnesty of Boozer as a trump card—that is, if they can sell a member of the 2013 or 2014 free agent class on Chicago, then and only then will they pay Boozer to go away. For a team that’s been burned a few times in free agency, you can’t blame the Bulls for playing it close to the vest.
But Boozer is going to be gone at some point before his contract is up. He’s not going to earn that $15 million in 2012-13, even if he matches his lofty 2011-12 performance. Jettisoning him this summer would have been the right move.
There’s a lot that could have been done before this summer to retain a valuable asset in Asik.
His initial contract, the one bringing him to Chicago from overseas, could have run a year longer and given the Bulls another “bargain” season. The team could have attempted to extend Asik at this time last year, effectively buying out his initial run at free agency in much the same way a restricted free agent (like Gibson is in the process of becoming) would be retained/extended.
At worst, the Bulls could have attempted to foresee the market getting hungrier for Asik in summer 2012 and swapped him for a similarly undervalued asset, or draft picks, at the 2012 trade deadline. Anything would have been better than the empty locker stall the Bulls got in return for Asik heading to Houston.
But that’s all hindsight. Once the Rockets inked Asik to the “poison pill” deal, the Bulls needed to swallow hard and keep an asset they’d always insisted was crucial to their future. The $14.9 million salary in 2014-15 for Asik would have been deathly, yes—but no different than paying Boozer the same salary in 2012-13—and even more in 2013-14.
If Boozer had been moved out of the picture, there’s no reason Asik couldn’t have been retained. There’s also no reason to believe Asik couldn’t have assumed, along with Gibson, a bigger minutes load to make up for the loss.
At worst, Asik’s looming contract in 2014-15 would have been something to get out from under. The Bulls wouldn’t have had an amnesty option with Asik to rid themselves of the deal, but to convince another team to take that final, balloon season in a trade with plenty of sweeteners is not out of the realm of possibility.
Would retaining Asik have taken the Bulls out of the running for more than one 2014 free agent? Yes. Could it have endangered the retention of Gibson? Possibly. But bailing on Asik after insisting otherwise was bad sense on the floor and in the minds of fans.
Deng is a beloved member of the Bulls. It’s hard to imagine him ever suiting up for another team. He is a darling of John Paxson, who while GM brokered the deal that stole him from the Phoenix Suns in the first place. And for his eight seasons and 539 games, Deng is still just 26 years old, theoretically just reaching his prime.
The reality tells a far different story. In spite of his leadership and continually improved defense (earning him All-Defensive Second Team honors in 2011-12), Deng is no All-Star. Debatably, he’s not even a star, at least by common measures of PER (14.1 in 2011-12, 16.0 career) or win shares (5.8 last year, fourth on the team and a hair ahead of Kyle Korver).
Deng being generally overrated isn’t even a problem in and of itself. But for a cash-strapped Chicago team, the fact that he is paid like a superstar ($13.3 million in 2012-13 and $14.3 million in 2013-14) is.
There were hot rumors of Deng being on the trading block around the 2012 NBA draft, but nothing came to fruition. It’s hard to imagine that, with Deng’s stock as high as ever, legitimate offers weren’t fielded in Chicago.
Dealing Deng—who would be eligible to return to Chicago as a member of the free agent Class of 2014—was a no-brainer for a team trying to get young and less expensive entering a “wash” season (and preparing for those fat 2013 and 2014 free agent classes). Jimmy Butler or Marco Belinelli could have moved into the starting lineup (or Korver never leaves), Gibson would have seen a smidge of increased 3 time against big lineups, and overall the Bulls wouldn’t have missed a beat for 2012-13, all the while getting a lot healthier on the balance sheet.
Undoubtedly the Bulls attempted to entice Steve Nash to Chicago and were rebuffed or outbid. And indeed, for a team that boasts a former MVP in Rose as its forever point guard, pouring almost $28 million over three years to another point guard like Nash is Mark Cuban-crazy.
But Nash is still an amazingly high performer who is desperate to bring a team back to the Finals. He is a great shooter/scorer, one who could man the 2-guard as easily as Rose himself could. Chicago needed to pitch Nash hard, offering a fourth year, or his own indoor soccer team franchise, unfettered Twitter privileges, use of a private jet in-season—whatever it took to have him strongly consider Chicago over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Besides, the Bulls ended up pouring $6 million into Hinrich and Belinelli, two guys who are expected to man the shooting guard position once Rose returns, anyway. Giving Hinrich a relatively rich two-year deal was somewhat suicidal for a cash-short team; Belinelli comes at a better price, with better upside, but is still a lark.
By the way, it’s often posed as a dual swing-and-miss, that the Bulls should have gotten either Nash or Jason Kidd for 2012-13, as if the two players are equivalent. But Kidd, though much cheaper to sign, is also very much at the end of the road. Nash remains a legitimate superstar.
For all we know, this could have happened already, privately and behind closed doors, as it should. If not, it had better happen sooner than soon.
Two factors seemed to push apparent former cornerstone Asik out the door in Chicago. One was the more punitive measures of the new CBA, making it ever-harder for a team to opt for year-in, year-out luxury tax penalties. The Bulls aren’t necessarily at fault for that.
But the other, undervaluing Asik to the degree that Houston could sneak up and snatch the center away, was wholly preventable. Yes, NBA players will always opt for the juicier deal, even if it comes from out of nowhere, from a lousy team, at the 11th hour. It’s doubtful that happened with Asik, however.
Gibson is an even more important member of the Bulls and one sure to be more popular come his restricted free agency in 2013. Chicago needs to gauge his contract desires right now and do their very best to meet them before creeping another day closer to being blindsided by another out-of-the-blue offer sheet.
Gibson knows the Bulls are in hot water cap-wise and will balance his personal needs with those of the team. He’s still likely targeting, say, $40 million over four years. Chicago must find common ground with Gibson and make a firm offer; if Gibson demurs, or ups his demands, the team has its answer and should deal him.
If Chicago blindly assumes Gibson is in the bag and lets the 2013 trade deadline slip past without the power forward already in tow for several more seasons, it’s going to be fooled twice in consecutive years. Those types of flubs quickly dial up to fire-able offenses.
Captured in his native habitat: a rare shot of Thibs in mid-smile.
Every day that passes with Tom Thibodeau’s status uncertain makes it clearer that top brass don’t want him coaching the Bulls. There’s no reason to let one of the most successful coaches in Bulls history dangle.
If the club sees danger signs—burnout, inflexibility, an unwillingness to smile—or is adopting some novel coaching strategy where the top man is rotated out every four years, fine. It's possible that could be what’s going on here, with Adrian Griffin swooping in to take Chicago to the next level once Thibs burns out, or some such skullduggery.
But if the Bulls want Thibodeau, he should have been locked up already, period. If Thibs wants Phil Jackson Lakers money and the Bulls are balking, there’s no need to draw things out—cut him loose and use this “wash” of a 2012-13 campaign to season in a new head man.