When Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were vying for their first title, there was one thing in their way—the Detroit Pistons. Now the Bulls face a similar dilemma in the Miami Heat. They are close, but that last obstacle is proving tough to clear. Here’s how they can do it.
The first thing the Bulls, and their fans, are going to have to do is acknowledge that it’s going to take time. Rebuilding a team isn’t a one-year thing—it takes time and planning. Even when you have things mapped out, fate can throw a wrench in the works, such as your superstar point guard going down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
A championship is not going to happen this year. That’s obvious because of Rose’s injury, the all-around demigoddery of LeBron James and the Heat’s 26-game winning streak. Right now the Heat are on a different planet than Chicago or anyone else in the league, plain and simple.
But right now isn’t an immutable constant that will be true two years from now. In two years, LeBron James will be 30—admittedly still young enough to dominate—but Dwyane Wade will be 33, and an old 33 at that. The Heat might not be quite as untouchable.
And that’s if they stay together. With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and extremely harsh tax penalties, even the Los Angeles Lakers have concerns about escalating costs. Keeping the “Big Three” of James, Wade and Chris Bosh is going to get extremely pricey.
Depending on what they’re spending in the 2014-15 season, it could mean forking over $4.25 in taxes for every dollar they are over the cap, provided they are spending $85 million again. That would mean about $63.8 million in taxes or a total of $148.8 million in total salary costs to keep the Big Three together.
That could mean that the Heat might try and trade one of the Big Three away, but with each of them having an option on their contract that year, that’s unlikely to happen. One, two or even all three could walk.
(In case you’re wondering, if a player opts out of his contract, he cannot be extended, meaning that the Big Three could not, by rule, all agree to opt out and extend for less money.)
“Not six, not seven” and so on might not be a reality for economic reasons. Part of getting past the Heat could be letting the economic erosion do its job. But even if they keep just LeBron James, they’ll still be a contender; he’s the most dominant force in the NBA since Michael Jordan.
That’s why while they’re watching and waiting for that to happen, the Bulls must be priming themselves to be ready to pounce when it does. They will need to manage their cap, develop their young players and add a superstar to compliment Derrick Rose.
Manage Their Cap
The Bulls have to keep their own economic situation under control. They’re paying the tax for the first time this year, albeit minimally. But regardless of how much they are paying, going over could have ramifications down the line. The repeater tax doesn’t care how much you were over two years ago, it just cares that you were over.
The Bulls need to let their financial window of opportunity compliment their championship window of opportunity. Fans can gripe and groan about this, but it’s the new NBA. It’s a reality. The NBA is a for-profit business.
It forced the Oklahoma City Thunder to break up their Big Three too soon, and it’s going to force Miami to break up theirs. The Bulls need to tread carefully.
It appears that the current mindset in the Bulls' front office is to set up for the 2014-15 season, when Luol Deng’s contract expires and when amnestying Carlos Boozer could pay dividends in return for a free agent.
That coincides with a couple of things.
First, and most importantly, it will be Derrick Rose’s second full season back. Typically when coming back from severe injuries, it takes a season to get back to where you were before the incident. For Rose, this also is when he should be entering his prime—at 26.
Second, it coincides with when draft-and-stash Euroleague star Nikola Mirotic is expected to come over and join the team. Mirotic could potentially be the second superstar that Rose needs to compliment him, but you can never tell with European players until they’re in the NBA.
Additionally, while they're waiting, they need to avoid making any more panic moves.
Signing Kirk Hinrich is a prime panic-move example. The Bulls were rushing so quickly to replace the injured Rose that they put themselves into a bad situation to get him.
Rather than sending Kyle Korver to Atlanta in exchange for Hinrich, the Bulls signed Hinrich, gave Korver away for nothing and locked themselves into a hard cap by doing so. Had they merely swapped the two in a sign-and-trade, they wouldn’t be up against the hard cap they are now and would've had more freedom in securing more depth in the frontcourt.
The timeline works, but only if they don’t tinker with it too much. The Bulls would have a fairly young (but not too young) roster to vie for a title with their cap space having some wiggle room.
The Bulls have done a decent job in the draft recently, signing players whose talent exceeded their draft position. Mirotic was too far away, Jimmy Butler was too old, Marquis Teague was too young, and as a result they were all drafted too late and Chicago reaped the benefit.
They need to develop Butler and his jump shot. In limited starts this year, Butler has been looking like he can be true starter in this league. When he’s started, he’s averaged 15.3 points, 8.9 boards and 2.4 assists.
Butler has a tremendous ability to get to the line and make his freebies, as evidenced by his .38 free-throws-per-field-goal-attempt average. His jumper is an issue though, hitting only 30 percent. The Bulls need Butler to spend the summer shooting jumpers all day and night.
If he hones his jumper, he will be a legitimate starting two-guard for the Bulls.
Teague has shown an ability to manage the offense in spurts. He has good speed and handles, but his shot needs to improve before it's even considered bad. He also needs to improve his vision and court-awareness, though he’s progressed those abilities in limited minutes.
In both cases, playing time is essential. Tom Thibodeau needs to let Butler and Teague clock minutes so they can grow.
They also have another couple of draft picks between now and then (and that excludes the potential Charlotte pick).
While many fans fret over letting Omer Asik walk, it’s understandable why they did so, even if it hurt the team in the short-run. The poison-pill nature of the contract would have been due during the 2014-15 season, precisely when they didn’t need it to.
Yes, they could've traded him, but that would mean taking $15 million in salary back without any improved flexibility in the free-agent market. Like it or not, the decision to not match on Asik is defensible.
But now they do have a hole at backup center and rather than annually fill it with the next version of Kurt Thomas/Nazr Mohammed, they should draft someone. This year would be a prime time to do that.
Rudy Gobert is intriguing and seems to be rated around when the Bulls would be drafting. He has a 7’9” wingspan and is noted for his rebounding and shot-blocking. That should make Tom Thibodeau salivate enough to actually play him.
Of course, once Mirotic arrives, they need to let him play as well.
Developing their younger core is an essential aspect of the Bulls' future.
Add a Second Superstar
Assuming they amnesty Carlos Boozer in 2014-15 the Bulls would have a fairly young team consisting of Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gbison, Butler, Mirotic, Teague, Gobert and a rookie to be determined. Noah would be the oldest at 29.
That group would cost about $50 million, which includes $5 million for Mirotic, plus about $3 million for the two draft picks in 2013 and 2014. Depending on the cap, they should have around $10-15 million to spend on a free agent.
Additionally, rather than just amnestying Boozer, his contract would have a certain value by then in the form of an expiring contract, and Luol Deng could be used in a sign-and-trade since the Bulls would be below the cap.
The key for the Bulls would be to couple either player with that cap space to get another superstar-caliber player like Kevin Love, who would also be about to enter his prime. If they were lucky enough to pawn Boozer off on some poor schlub like David Kahn (particularly if Love is trying to force his way out), the Bulls may very well be able to even keep Deng at a hometown rate.
Of course, by that time the Charlotte pick would have much more value than it does now, and the Bulls would have to factor in some of their own draft picks as well.
A young core led by a pair of superstars in their mid-20s combined with seasoned veterans like Deng and Noah would be sufficient fuel to jettison them to the championship.