And by a conundrum, I mean Carlos Boozer. As of right now, he's as prime a candidate to be cut loose via the amnesty provision as any since Baron Davis and Gilbert Arenas both bit the dust last December.
On the one hand, the soon-to-be-31-year-old two-time All-Star (enough hyphens for you?) is clearly on the decline and has a hefty helping of cash coming his way over the final three years of a regrettable deal he signed during the summer of 2010. He's still a productive player at power forward, though he's no longer the double-double machine he once was with the Utah Jazz while playing alongside Deron Williams.
As pleasant as his 15 points and 8.5 rebounds may look on paper, those numbers are far less impressive when considering Booz's subpar defense at power forward, his lackluster intensity, and of course, his bank-breaking salary. Boozer's set to earn $15 million this season and another $32.1 million after that through the end of the 2014-15 season.
Meanwhile, Chicago's payroll isn't getting any cheaper. The Bulls have three other players—Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah—under contract with eight-figure salaries beyond the 2012-13 season.
That's not including Taj Gibson, who's likely to earn a lucrative extension to stay in the Windy City before the Halloween deadline.
The Bulls already have $70.6 million in salary committed to just nine players for 2013-14 before even factoring in Gibson. That leaves Chicago slightly over the current luxury-tax line and, in turn, with only a few narrow avenues through which to improve its roster.
The Bulls will dip into the luxury tax this season for the first time in franchise history, a fact team owner and notorious penny-pincher Jerry Reinsdorf can't be too happy about.
On the other hand, simply stripping Boozer's income from the team's salary cap may not be a complete slam dunk. Yes, Boozer is overpaid, and yes, the Bulls could use the additional financial flexibility.
But Reinsdorf may be more reluctant to pay Boozer not to play for the Bulls than he would be to keep him on board.
Also, even if the Bulls dispose of Boozer, they're likely to be stuck over the salary cap again, albeit outside of tax territory. In that case, GM Gar Forman's most effective tool for adding players—aside from the draft, the veteran's minimum and trades—would be the $5 million mid-level exception for non-tax-paying teams as opposed to the $3.09 million exception for tax-payers. Not exactly a massive difference as far as the market is concerned.
For all the bellyaching over Boozer's poor production-per-dollar ratio, the Bulls would be hard-pressed to find someone in free agency who'd be both capable of filling his shoes and willing to do so at a relative discount.
Which is precisely why Gibson is such an important part of this particular equation. The 27-year-old is an absolute bruiser who's younger, tougher, more versatile and better defensively than Boozer. He'll have every opportunity this season to prove that he can play multiple positions and that he deserves to start, especially in the wake of Omer Asik's departure.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau said in praise of Gibson to Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com:
His strength I think is his versatility. Of course, defensively he has the ability to guard, in some cases, all five positions and I think he's gotten more comfortable offensively playing the five and he's certainly very capable at the four and we may even take a look at him at the three. I think he's done extremely well; this is the first summer in the last two years in which he's been healthy. He's had a very productive summer. He's really added a lot to his game.
Clearly, Thibs likes what he sees in Gibson. If the big fella can make good on his considerable promise this season and force his way into the starting five, the decision over whether to drop Boozer will be made that much easier for the Bulls' front office.
Though the question of how best to do it would remain. Cutting Booz may be the quickest and easiest way to go about it, but doing so would essentially forfeit whatever value Carlos has left as a tradeable asset. With or without Booz, the Bulls will need pieces to improve their roster for 2013-14, when the team will be ready to contend again with Rose (fingers crossed!) back up to speed.
It might behoove the Bulls, then, to package Boozer with a draft pick or two (to entice potential trade partners) in a deal for more parts.
To be sure, there's more to The (Boozer) Decision than just Gibson's emergence or Carlos' own tradeability. Noah's ability to rebound from a poor 2011-12 campaign could factor into Chicago's thinking. So, too, might the continued development of Nikola Mirotic overseas.
But, as with everything Bulls-related, Chicago's Boozer exit strategy will ultimately depend on Rose. His prolonged absence will provide the team with a unique opportunity to re-evaluate how to go about building a title contender around the former MVP.
Once he returns, the Bulls will have a better idea of what Rose can do and, in turn, what sorts of players would best accentuate his strengths and mask his weaknesses. It's entirely possible that the front office determines that Boozer accentuates Rose's strengths.
Or not. The Bulls will enter the 2013-14 season as a Rose-centric squad, one way or another. Boozer's future as a planet in that orbit—while partially contingent on his salary, his productivity and the development of Gibson—will ultimately depend on how Carlos meshes with Chicago's superstar upon his return from injury.
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