Mistaken Assumptions About Chicago Bulls' Future

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Mistaken Assumptions About Chicago Bulls' Future
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As the Chicago Bulls’ season hurls like some smoldering kamikaze meteor towards the sun, taking with it any chance of postseason success, many self-designated fake GMs have put forth ideas that would solve all the Bulls' problems, but these solutions are based on mistaken assumptions.

Being a GM is not that easy. If it were, it would be a lot easier to win an NBA title. There are things that get in the way of winning it even once, such as salary cap rules, injuries, player limitations and the other 29 teams.

The biggest mistaken assumption by NBA fans in general is judging if GMs are doing their jobs based on whether or not they are winning titles. By that definition, only one GM is doing his job each year, and none does his job every year.

Their job is to do the best they can to work towards winning a championship by building a team, and that process varies from one team to the next. There's no "cookie-cutter" path to optimal GM performance. It's something that takes time and patience. 

One year can’t define the success or failure of any GM, but that doesn't stop uninformed/misinformed fans from rushing to opine on how management is doing.

Specifically, with the Bulls front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson, there are a number of mistaken assumptions. These assumptions fall into three broad categories: cap management, replacing players and acquiring a star. I’ll detail each of these and explain why, while “GarPax” might not be perfect, they’re hardly worthy of the criticism meted out by some Bulls fans.

 

Cap Management

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There are so many flaws in how Bulls fans (and fans of every team) understand the cap that it would take a book to address them all. Generally speaking, the biggest one is that any dollar you don’t spend here is a dollar you could spend there.

So, for instance, they look at Luol Deng’s salary ($14.3 million) and Carlos Boozer’s salary ($15.3 million) and think that if they just let Deng walk through free agency and amnesty Boozer, the Bulls would have all kinds of cap space to rebuild. But that’s not the way the cap works. Teams can spend money over the cap, but only if they use exceptions.

An exception is exactly what the word implies: It’s making an exception to the cap for signing players that would put a team over it, or for teams already over it. In order to do either of those things, teams have to be eligible for the provided exceptions.

There is no “I-just-want-to-spend-more-money” exception. They are specifically laid out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and they are the only way you can spend money over the cap.

Without going into tons of detail, those exceptions are basically lumped into three categories: those which allow you to retain your own players, those which allow you to sign your draft picks and flesh out your roster with minimum-salary players and those which allow you to sign fairly impactful players (but not stars), which includes variations of the mid-level exception and the biannual exception.

In each case there are specific rules including the number of times on which you’ve already used the exceptions, players still on your roster and how much money you’re already spending. Each of these limits is based on a percentage of the cap. In short, it’s not a simple plus-minus ledger here. Money not spent doesn’t equate to money available to spend.

For example, the Bulls are so far over the cap that amnestying Boozer last summer would have only meant a difference of about $2 million in how much they could offer in their mid-level exception.

The other thing that many fans don’t realize is that the CBA also calls for “cap holds.” There’s a reason for this. Let’s imagine a hypothetical team has a free agent they want to re-sign and it has $20 million in cap space.

But, rather than just extend its existing player, it gets clever and signs another max player first. Then, it extend its existing player using the Bird Exception. Have you ever wondered why teams don’t do that?

The answer is because you can’t.

There are “cap holds” which prevent this sort of thing from happening. That’s money set aside from whatever cap space you have.

For example, if the Bulls did have $20 million in cap space, a $19.1 million “hold” would be put on them for Deng’s salary. That’s money that they can’t spend until they either renounce their rights to Deng or sign him for less.

Holds are put on a team for every player with an expired contract, for draft picks (depending on what their draft position is) and for what are called “Incomplete Roster Holds.”

The bottom line here is that the Bulls will not have nearly the cap space that many fans think they will. If Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls’ draft-and-stash sensation, comes over, they’ll actually have about $3-5 million to spend in free agency (depending on where they draft, and whether they get the top-10 protected Charlotte Bobcats pick they’re due, which seems increasingly likely).

This changes the whole discussion about whether it’s worth it to let Deng walk. It’s not so much a question of whether he’s worth $12 million a year as it is about if they replace him for $5 million a year. That leads us into the next category.

 

Replacing Players

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I often hear fans say things like, “Just replace Boozer with Taj Gibson," or, “Just slide Jimmy Butler over to replace Deng.” The basic problem with this logic is that you can’t just replace a player on your roster with a player on your roster.

You can replace Boozer in the starting lineup with Gibson, but who replaces Gibson as the backup? And can Gibson really replace Boozer? You can slide over Butler, but can he really reproduce everything Deng does, and who steps in as the new starting 2-guard?

The reason you can’t replace a player on the roster with a player on the roster is that they’re already on the roster. Sorry for the tautological nature of the explanation but that’s the only way to explain it. You’re still losing something.

You have to replace players with other players.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

On the power forward front, if Mirotic works out, then there could be a net upgrade. Boozer is past his prime and is becoming more consistently bad than just inconsistent lately. He’s averaging 13.6 points on 39.4 percent from the field since Derrick Rose tore his meniscus.

By contrast, Gibson is averaging 13.3 points on 50 percent shooting in two fewer minutes. Boozer is supposed to be the better offensive player, but Gibson has been out-performing him of late.  

Gibson’s defense is to Boozer’s as the WWE’s Big Show's size is to Danny Devito's. According to NBAwowy, the Bulls give up 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Boozer on the court without Gibson and only 102.6 with Gibson on the court without Boozer. That’s a difference of 9.3 points. It’s safe to say that the Bulls can "recover" from the loss of Boozer on defense.

Mirotic meanwhile could be a star in the making. He’s currently obliterating the completion in Euroleague. His Index Rating (their single-number metric) leads everyone, and his per-minute rating of 34.11 is almost five points better than any player in the top 100. He’s the best player in Europe by a comfortable margin right now.

Therefore, using the amnesty clause on Boozer and singing Mirotic makes sense. It’s reasonable that a Gibson-Mirotic combination would be better than a Boozer-Gibson one.

However, even there we end up with a difficult question, and the answer may have a lot to do with the meetings the Bulls had with Mirotic earlier this season. Is he willing to settle for the mid-level exception of $5 million?

That could also impact the decision over what to do with Deng.

If Mirotic will play for $5 million, the Bulls could extend Deng using the Bird exception, amnesty Boozer and use the mid-level exception to sign Mirotic—all while staying bellow the tax.

While we could debate all day about what Deng’s value actually is, we can agree that he’s not going to be replaced for $3-5 million, which is what would have to happen if they let him walk. Again, this requires understanding of the real decisions management has to make.

They don’t have $12 million in cap space they can use however they want. They have two options: spend $12 million and keep him, or spend $5 million and lose him. They also could potentially work out a sign-and-trade, but that requires getting another team and player involved.

Deng has his flaws, but he has more strengths, and replacing him isn’t nearly as simple as some would propose.

There is also the possibility of replacing him with one of the players they draft, but first-round picks are a lot more valuable than rookies. That’s why I’ve said before that they are like new cars. As soon as you drive them off the lot they lose 20 percent of their value.

First-round picks are shiny, glossy and flawless because they aren’t players with specific weaknesses. The moment they become players, they’re real and flawed, and the reasons they fell to late in the lottery or out of it entirely become apparent.

They can eventually become stars, but it’s no guarantee and even when they do it takes time. By then, other roster issues develop as other players need to be replaced or extended and so on.

 

Acquiring a Star

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Probably the most common rant you hear from Bulls fans is that they need to go and get a second star, as though the notion of doing so would have never crossed the collective minds of the Bulls front office.

Getting star players is what every front office in the league wants to do. The problem is, depending on how you define "star," there just aren’t that many of them. Deng and Joakim Noah are All-Stars, but not superstars.

Those just aren’t that easy to acquire, though. You can’t just log into “WeGotSuperstars.com” and order one up. That’s why they're superstars; they’re rare. There are, at most, 10 of them in the league right now, and that’s being generous. Of those players, the teams they are on aren’t looking to trade away their superstar, they’re either trying to get another one or keep the ones they have.

Furthermore, trading for superstars isn’t a guaranteed success story. Let’s look at the teams that have recently traded for superstars, and how they’re doing right now. I omitted James Harden because he wasn't really a "superstar" as much as a "rising star" when the Rockets traded for him. He didn't require a "superstar" haul. 

Teams Who Have Traded for Superstars Since 2011
Team Wins Losses Existing Superstar Player Traded for Status First Round Picks Lost
Brooklyn Nets 9 17 Brook Lopez Deron Williams Under contract 2
New York Knicks 8 17 Amar'e Stoudemire Carmelo Anthony May leave this summer 1
Los Angeles Clippers 18 9 Blake Griffin Chris Paul MVP candidate 1
Los Angeles Lakers 13 13 Kobe Bryant Dwight Howard No longer with team 1

Original Research

You might argue that the Bulls aren’t doing any better, but I’d respond that the Bulls' struggles are because their MVP is injured. The two New York teams have the prize they traded for healthy, and the the Lakers losing their superstar only proves the tenuous nature of such deals.

There’s this mistaken notion that trading for a superstar automatically makes you better. That’s simply not the case. None of the teams has made it past the the second round of the playoffs, and they've won a grand total of two playoff series between them. 

Yes, it’s very hard to win a championship without at least one superstar, but that doesn’t mean that having one, or even two, assures you of being a contender, especially if you end up trading too much to acquire them.

You can’t just get two superstars, fill up the rest of the team with veteran-minimum “bondo” and expect to contend for a title. Recent history has established that. The top matters, but the quality and depth of the rest of the team matters, too.

The objective of any trade the Bulls make shouldn’t be to land a second superstar, it should be to make the team a better team. If they can do the former without doing the latter, they lose the trade.

And therein lies the other half of the problem. As shocking as this may be, the other 29 GMs in the league are not out to make the Bulls better. The Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t going to trade Kevin Love for Carlos Boozer and parts.

There might be some yesteryear stars like the Lakers' Pau Gasol whom the Bulls could give up way too much for and pay way too much money, but who won’t even make the Bulls better.  They’d get that star name and a worse team. Names don’t win titles, play does. And Gasol no longer plays at a superstar level.

The only way to trade for a superstar is to overpay for a superstar. Bulls management is wise for not doing so.

 

***

There’s a kind of reaction that comes with any defense of management which says, “I guess they can do no wrong!” That’s not true. They’ve made mistakes. For example, instead of signing Kirk Hinrich for the mid-level exception and trading Kyle Korver to Hinrich’s old team for a trade exception in 2012, they should have traded Korver for Hinrich in a sign-and-trade.

Making occasional mistakes doesn’t mean you’re incompetent, though. The problem normally isn’t the move, or the lack thereof.

Most of the time the problem is that a fan is making mistaken assumptions. Couch GMs need to understand the rules before dealing harsh criticism.

 

All salary information is derived from information provide by Sham Sports

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