As they stand, the Chicago Bulls are the closest thing to a championship-contending team without actually being able to contend for a championship.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not down on the construction of the Bulls as a team; I'm doubting the ability of the team to come together with the problems existing among their current core personnel.
Derrick Rose's knee is still keeping him out of the lineup, injuries are running rampant, players are getting older, their financial situation is going to be in question for at least the next season and Tom Thibodeau seems hell-bent on running the starting lineup into the ground.
Individually, we've seen Rose miss the entire season, Taj Gibson miss 10 games, Joakim Noah miss 10 games and counting and Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer each taking turns on the injury list with bumps and bruises. That's just among the core group of players with the Bulls.
Obviously, the injuries are going to continue to be a question until the Bulls can prove they can stay healthy, and at some point it might be time to question Thibodeau's coaching strategy.
Basically he's become the anti-Gregg Popovich.
Deng is poised to lead the league in minutes for the second consecutive season (he was fourth in 2010) as he averages just nine minutes of rest per game. Joakim Noah is 12th in the league with 37.7 minutes, the most of any center.
Chicago's bench averages just 15.1 minutes per game, a drop from 16.6 minutes per last season. The only teams who play their bench fewer minutes are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers. One team has been decimated by injuries, and the other has a completely inept second unit.
It's quite hard to declaratively say that Thibodeau's short rotations are literally hurting the players, but it's hard to see much of this as a positive.
Chicago's financial situation has to be in the front of the mind of every Bulls fan moving forward.
They're on the hook for $74 million this season (enough to make them first-time taxpayers), $73 million next season and have to make a decision on several players that include Rip Hamilton (who has a $5 million team option), Marco Belinelli (most likely re-signed), Nazr Mohammed (meh), Vladimir Radmanovic (absolutely not) and Nate Robinson (iffy).
Throw in whatever draft picks they sign, and completing their bench could put them over the $80 million mark next season.
With an owner that is historically opposed to paying the luxury tax and the penalty on repeat taxpayers being more severe in 2014-15, Chicago's salary situation becomes something that must be addressed.
Two things can be done immediately with their salary situation; both would involve jettisoning a core piece of their team before a championship would ever become an option for this squad.
Most obviously, Chicago could use their amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer. It would immediately wipe his salary from their books but would also cost them a primary scorer while getting them very little increased ability to add players.
At the most, using the amnesty on Boozer means the ability to use the full mid-level exception on a free agent, giving them $5 million to spend this summer.
Otherwise, Chicago can look at trading Luol Deng.
Deng isn't old by any stretch, but he's old when you consider the future of this team. He'll be 29 after his contract runs out, and what he's going to want past this season is still a mystery.
At the very least, Deng is worth $10 million, and probably closer to $12-14 million per year for at least three, perhaps four seasons. I'm not so sure the Bulls can afford to pay that to a guy who will likely be declining near the end of his next deal.
This season Deng will be paid $14.3 million, but it will be the final year of his contract, so trading him for something of value would be incredibly easy for the Bulls in the upcoming season.
Of course, it seems that with one of the previous two options, the other should follow in order to achieve the maximum amount of flexibility and return on committing to a controlled demolition of a portion of their team.
As it sits right now, only Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah (who is actually older than Deng, but giving up hustling, skilled centers is a huge no-no), Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are safe bets to be playing for the team at the end of next season. Anything beyond those four guys is a mystery.
What's important to remember, however, is that this isn't admitting defeat for the Bulls, it's regrouping and reloading for a better push at a later date.
Chicago has a tremendous prospect stashed in Europe with Nikola Mirotic, who has the potential to be a tremendous stretch-4, plus they've got a draft pick coming from the Charlotte Bobcats that is top-eight protected in 2015 (entirely possible) and completely unprotected in 2016 (potentially insanely valuable).
Given the new assets from a Luol Deng trade, the additional cap flexibility from the amnesty of Carlos Boozer and the eventual health of Derrick Rose, Chicago has the ability to completely rework their roster going into the next few seasons if they really want to take a risk.
With the right moves, they could come out of it stronger than ever. Think of them as the Six Million Dollar Man, only as a team, and worth a lot more than $6 million.
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