The Chicago Bulls already have contractual agreements with eight players heading into the NBA offseason. Aside from explosive point guard Nate Robinson, who is now an unrestricted free agent, the Bulls are returning all of their critical assets from a season ago. Oh, and Derrick Rose will be back on the hardwood once more.
Are the Bulls one or two quality offseasons away from contending for the NBA title?
Unfortunately, due to Chicago's current financial situation and the stipulations of the new collective bargaining agreement, free-agency options are limited to who the Bulls can sign with their mini mid-level exception.
We're here to examine those options, but first, let's get comfortable with the numbers.
The Bulls' eight guaranteed contracts—Rose ($17.6 million), Carlos Boozer ($15.3 million), Luol Deng ($14.3 million), Joakim Noah ($11.1 million), Kirk Hinrich ($4 million), Taj Gibson ($7.55 million), Jimmy Butler ($1.1 million) and Marquis Teague ($1.1 million)—total a team salary of over $73 million, which far exceeds the salary cap at $58.5 million.
Further, the Bulls will certainly break the luxury tax threshold of $70.3 million and owe a steeper sum than ever in penalties. This is a problem today, but could turn into a much larger obstacle for the Bulls if they do not rein in their spending in the next two years. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement calls for a repeat-offenders penalty (starting in 2014-15) that will ravage the bank accounts of teams consistently paying the luxury tax.
Luckily, the rotation that the Bulls expect to take them to the championship is already designed. All starting positions except shooting guard (Marco Belinelli is now an unrestricted free agent, Rip Hamilton has an unguaranteed cost of $5 million next season) are definitively filled.
Now we'll see where Chicago can add some talent with their mini mid-level exception, which allows for a maximum of a three-year contract paying just over $9 million in sum.
Behind Derrick Rose at the point guard position will be Hinrich for one more season, as well as 20-year-old Marquis Teague. The Bulls could use another ballhandler to replace the departed Nate Robinson and relieve some pressure from Derrick Rose.
Of course, I only say departed assuming that Nate might be able to command a heftier-than-$3 million salary after his dazzling postseason play. Ideally, the Bulls would retain Robinson to be the bench creator he was originally designed to be behind Rose.
If that doesn't work out, other budget choices are available. Pablo Prigioni and his pesky press defense will be a free agent from the New York Knicks. Considering Pablo was paid less than $500,000 a year ago, the Knicks may think it a bargain to retain him at a cost less than $1 million.
Former Bull C.J. Watson may become available again, and would be useful for Chicago's bench depth.
At the two, many more options are available if the Bulls part ways with Belinelli, including but not limited to the San Antonio Spurs' Gary Neal (if they don't retain him, which I imagine they will after a stellar NBA Finals performance), Ronnie Brewer or potentially Randy Foye from the Utah Jazz.
Jimmy Butler played in all 82 games last season and showed great promise in the 2013 postseason at the small forward position. Fortunately for the Bulls, they retain Butler on his rookie contract and have another full season of Luol Deng.
I think it is safe to say that Chicago will be searching to improve other areas before committing more money to such a well-staffed position.
At power forward, the Bulls are committing a bit too much money to Carlos Boozer, whose contract is on the books until the end of 2015. Given that Chicago also plans to pay reserve forward Taj Gibson in excess of $7 million this year, the Bulls probably won't seek to add too much at the four either.
Cheap options for the bench include Matt Barnes, Xavier Henry, or, if the Houston Rockets make a big splash and can't afford to retain him, Chandler Parsons.
The Bulls have enough size between Boozer, Noah and Gibson to look to add more versatile players at the four.
In the center of it all is Joakim Noah, whose usual low-budget backup Nazr Mohammad became a free agent when Chicago was ousted by the Miami Heat. Noah is an absolute warrior and plays with high energy. In order for the Bulls to be in peak condition when next season's playoffs roll around, Noah will need his rest throughout the regular season.
As I've suggested for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls should look into signing a cheap big man to eat up minutes and preserve the starting center. Chicago, like L.A., could afford to hire Cole Aldrich, could pursue Chris "Birdman" Andersen from Miami, or even Gustavo Ayon from the Milwaukee Bucks.
The bottom line is, if the Bulls are looking to compete in 2013-14, they will need to have a quietly efficient free-agency season (supported by two NBA draft choices) to bolster the starting rotation.
The bank is already broken, and the Bulls have little opportunity to get around the CBA laws other than to use their one taxpayer's mid-level exception. Will it be enough?
All salary and cap information came straight from HoopsWorld