The Chicago Bulls are approaching a fork in the road.
Is this the final shot for the Bulls to win an NBA title with their current core?
During the first year of the Tom Thibodeau era (2010-11), Rose, Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng led the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins before losing in the conference finals to the Miami Heat. Since then, they haven't had a legitimate opportunity.
Because of Rose's ACL tear, their playoff hopes were largely affected ("derailed" is perhaps a more fitting word) in both the 2012 and 2013 postseasons.
Their "core four" has rarely all played together when it counts, and so we're left wondering what type of damage it could've done.
Entering the 2013-14 campaign, this could already be this bunch's last run together. Why must it make the most out of this year?
Money Is the Main Issue
Boozer will be 32 years old in November, and he is still under contract for next season. He's slotted to make $15.3 million in 2013-14 and $16.8 million during 2014-15.
According to ShamSports.com, Chicago's estimated salary for 2014-15 is $64,940,995. The amount due to Boozer then accounts for over a fourth of that figure. The chief problem here is that the projected salary cap for 2014-15 is $62.1 million.
It only makes sense to exercise the amnesty clause on Boozer. While the Bulls would still pay him, his contract would be removed from their salary cap.
If they decide against this route, they'll not only already be over the cap limit, but they'll also have zero wiggle room (unless they're willing to deal with likely tax penalties) to bring back Deng, lure foreign stud Nikola Mirotic or simply pursue a notable free-agent acquisition.
As a result, even if Boozer has his best season yet with the Bulls, there's no way to justify keeping him beyond 2013-14.
Assuming Chicago uses the amnesty clause on Boozer, does that mean it'll most likely re-sign Deng? Not necessarily.
According to Yahoo! Sports, Deng is privately disappointed that the Bulls haven't entertained serious negotiations about a contract extension. There is thus a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Deng's future.
Will he walk at the season's conclusion? Will the Bulls deal him prior to the trade deadline? Will they re-sign him next summer?
The trouble with giving him a new contract is that he'll likely command more than he's worth. While he is still just 28 years old, he is an "old" 28. He has played nine seasons and has logged an exorbitant amount of minutes over the past few years.
His body surely has some wear and tear, and he's entering the tail end of his prime.
Plus, with the contracts recently given to Josh Smith and Andre Iguodala, other small forwards at or near Deng's level, it's doubtful Deng will have an asking price considerably lower than his current deal.
If the Bulls were to give Deng a long-term, pricey extension, then their hopes of landing a secondary superstar in the next few years would take a significant hit. The bulk of their money would be going toward Rose, Noah, Deng and Gibson, with little left over (also keep in mind that Jimmy Butler will command a new deal during that window).
If the Bulls feel like such a nucleus can win a championship, then inking Deng makes sense.
However, would the Bulls be wiser to trade Deng before the deadline and in turn create more flexibility in the upcoming summers? There is certainly reason to wonder if this would be more sensible, both from a financial and basketball standpoint.
This amplifies the fact that money is the main reason why this is the core's last shot together. Boozer is as good as gone, and in all likelihood, Deng is also nearing his departure.
Deng's status is more up in the air, but it seems apparent that the Bulls have reservations about his future since they haven't aggressively negotiated a new contract with him.
Bulls fans better hope that Deng and Boozer provide a memorable ride amid what looks to be their final days in the Windy City.
What's in Store after 2013-14?
If the Bulls bid farewell to both Boozer and Deng, they suddenly have two openings in the starting lineup.
Taj Gibson should more than adequately fill the void left by Boozer. A more involved Gibson should actually make the Bulls better.
According to 82games.com, Gibson led the Bulls in offensive rating in 2012-13 (1.07), and he and Noah topped the team's main contributors in defensive rating (1.02).
The following chart further magnifies Gibson's efficiency by highlighting his plus/minus, which also ranked No. 1 on the Bulls. Also note Boozer's inefficiency.
The bottom line is that the Bulls should have no problem moving on from Boozer. Furthermore, if Chicago can structure a contract with Mirotic, then he could also log time as a power forward.
The Bulls should be more dynamic in the frontcourt with a more active Gibson and the emerging Mirotic.
Replacing Deng will be trickier. He has been an All-Star the past couple winters and is a workhorse in Thibodeau's schemes.
With that said, Butler's development does hand the Bulls an athletic wing who is a lockdown perimeter defender, supplying the Bulls with a sufficient replacement for Deng.
Most importantly, without a hefty salary for Deng on the books, the Bulls would most likely possess flexibility in the coming summers. They could begin probing upcoming free agents who would provide them with the missing piece to the championship puzzle.
The Crux of the Matter
Overall, it will boil down to which current players should remain around Rose and which parts need to be swapped for new ones.
Boozer and Deng will likely head elsewhere, while Noah, Gibson, Mirotic and Butler figure to accompany Rose.
The questions then are:
- How much financial freedom will the Bulls have after signing Mirotic and factoring in a new deal for Butler?
- Can they persuade a superstar to join forces with Rose and company in the next few years?
If the Bulls end up keeping the long-term core of Rose, Noah, Gibson, Mirotic and Butler while also finding a way to add a second superstar, then they could potentially form a dynasty.
There are so many financial and unpredictable layers to this, so forecasting scenarios is troublesome. But the Bulls should be thinking along these lines as they examine their future outlook.
One thing is for sure: Boozer and Deng don't figure to be part of the master plan. As a result, the present group should maximize what's probably its last ride together. Its upside has always been there, and hopefully it'll have a healthy run come the playoffs.
Perhaps if it captures the Larry O'Brien Trophy next June and Deng is an instrumental component, then the Bulls' plans will change and they'll figure out a way to retain him.
The possiblity of this is slim, though, because the Bulls will most likely turn the page to a new chapter come the 2014 offseason.
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