Will Chicago Bulls Finally Be a Major Player in NBA Free Agency?

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Will Chicago Bulls Finally Be a Major Player in NBA Free Agency?
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Chicago Bulls fans are wondering if this offseason will finally be the year that the team will bring home a major signing through free agency.

It has been 16 years since Michael Jordan last suited up for the team, and the number of free agents worth mentioning who have come to the Bulls in that span are hardly worth writing about, but there have been signings.

Chicago is a major market, the team has a strong core and a great coach, so why is it that free agents aren't clamoring to pay in the Windy City?

 

The Recent History of Signing Free Agents

There are only two “splash” signings the current front office has made, and neither of them panned out well.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Ben Wallace signing came in 2006, and it was a surprise. Chad Ford (ESPN Insider) of ESPN wrote,

The signing clearly upgrades the Bulls' front court, albeit at an exorbitant price. The Bulls will have to use roughly $14 million of their projected $16.7 million in cap space to secure Wallace.

Remember this was the 2006 pay scale, not 2014. I want readers to pause and linger on the word “exorbitant” for a moment. Say it out loud. Swish it around in your mouth. Savor it like a fine wine. You can say a lot of things about that contract, but “cheap” is not one of them.

While Wallace, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year, did make it on the NBA’s All-Defensive Second team his first year as a Bull, his defense was not what it was in Detroit.

Statistically he gave the Bulls 10.7 rebounds and 6.4 points per game, which are not anywhere close to exorbitant numbers.

Midway through his second season with the Bulls, Chicago dealt Wallace as part of a three-team, 11-player deal that brought back Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and change.

Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

The second signing of significance came in 2010, when they made headlines signing Carlos Boozer.  Retrospectively viewing ESPN’s John Hollinger’s (ESPN Insider) comments, the contract was described in what are now surprisingly glowing terms.

Signing Carlos Boozer to a five-year, $80 million deal is a pretty solid move on its own merits, especially considering the market. I would take Boozer over Joe Johnson, who is getting $40 million more from the Hawks, in a nanosecond. I viewed Boozer as essentially even with Amare Stoudemire -- less risky, but with less upside -- and Stoudemire is getting $19 million more from New York.

In fact, beyond the holy trinity of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the aforementioned Stoudemire, I would take Boozer over every other player on the market. On that alone, this was a strong maneuver by the Bulls -- it was one of the best value plays in this year's market, as crazy as that sounds.

It's easy to laugh that off now, but before dismissing Hollinger’s praise out of hand, it’s worth viewing the article in its entirety and seeing how prescient his other observations were. He predicted Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson to the Bulls and that the signing could help vault the Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Hollinger called the Boozer singing, "One of the best value plays in this year's market" at the time, and he did so with his finger on the pulse of both the Bulls and the league. 

Since then, Boozer’s years in Chicago have been tumultuous to say the least. He’s the proverbial scapegoat in Chicago. He takes up almost all the criticism from fans that’s directed at the team. His lack of quality defense on a team that defines itself by defense and his disappearing act in big moments make him an easy target.

His overall numbers in Chicago, 16.0 points and 9.2 rebounds a game, are significantly lower than the 19.3 points and 10.5 rebounds he averaged in Utah. They aren’t horrible, but they aren’t what the Bulls were paying for.

In both cases, hindsight shows the signings were disappointing, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t signed, and it doesn't mean they weren't viewed as major signings at the time. One contract was viewed as exorbitant, the other as a value, but they were both viewed as major. 

 

The Recent History of Retaining Players

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The problem isn't that the Bulls don't acquire free agents, it's that they won't spend over the tax to keep them. 

There is a festering idea that owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago White Sox, is only concerned about his beloved baseball team and indifferent towards the money-making Bulls. So, he uses the latter to pay for the former. As SB Nation columnist, Ricky O’Donnell, wrote in the 2012 offseason,

I've joked for years about the Bulls subsidizing the White Sox, and the joke becomes easier and easier every season. The Bulls always find a way to skirt a tax payment. Reinsdorf has long maintained he'd pay the tax for a "winner", but he's the one who decides what constitutes that.

It's difficult not to look at the team the Bulls have put out the last two seasons as a "winner". After all, they've won more regular season games than any team in the NBA over that period. Still, when superstar guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers, ending Chicago's title hopes on contact, Reinsdorf had backed into another out. The moves the Bulls have made this offseason have been about one thing: the bottom line.

Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik each could have been retained this offseason by an owner more committed to his basketball team. All but Asik would have been back on one-year contracts, giving the team plenty of flexibility moving forward. Instead, the Bulls let all of them walk for nothing in exchange, save for a $5 million trade exception the Bulls likely won't use acquired from Atlanta in the Korver deal.

Ironically, the following season was the first and only time Reinsdorf has paid the tax. Still, it’s an astute and perfectly logical argument that O’Donnell makes, and it’s far more relevant than the question of whether the Bulls are “willing to pay for a max free agent.”

It’s not about whether the Bulls are willing to pay to get a free agent, it’s whether they’re willing to pay to keep the players they have. Now some would (falsely) add Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson to that list. (The Bulls spent the money, just not on those two). 

After all, by rule, you can’t sign a new free agent and be over the cap. With the sign-and-trade no longer in the picture as a loophole, teams over the cap aren’t going to cheat the system either.

Getting free agents comes by being frugal, not spendy—to a point.  

 

The Near Future of Signing Free Agents Depends on the Willingness to Keep Players

Willie J. Allen/Associated Press

Signing superstars comes through being thrifty, but winning championships comes by being a spendthrift.

Accruing multiple stars certainly helps win championships, but it comes a long way from guaranteeing it. The rest of the roster matters too, and that’s where being cheap, or not being cheap, can make an impact.

Superstars want to get paid, but they also want to win. They're looking at how their legacy will be shaped and how history will remember them. They want to see what kind of team you’re going to put around them. 

Look at the recent big moves in free agency (not trades). Dwight Howard went to Houston to be with James Harden, but he also went there to be with Chandler Parsons. Miami's big three didn't win a title until they added Shane Battier. Money matters, but so do the teammates.

Potential free-agent targets are going to be curious what will happen after they sign. 

If the Bulls sign a player like Carmelo Anthony, will they use the Bird Exception to keep Joakim Noah? Will they use their biannual exception or their mid-level exception to land new players? Will they match any offers on Jimmy Butler? Will they keep D.J. Augustin with the room exception (if they can)?

Granted, just spending money doesn't guarantee you anything. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are proof of that.

However, avoiding spending money almost assures you don’t win championships. Here’s the tax bill, per Mark Deeks of Sham Sports, of every NBA Champion since the tax was implemented in the 2002-03 season.

Tax Bills for NBA Champions
Year Champion Tax
2013 Miami Heat $13,346,242
2012 Miami Heat $6,129,340
2011 Dallas Mavericks $18,917,836
2010 Los Angeles Lakers $24,430,778
2009 Los Angeles Lakers $7,185,631
2008 Boston Celtics $8,218,368
2007 San Antonio Spurs $196,082
2006 Miami Heat $0
2004 Detroit Pistons $756,627
2003 San Antonio Spurs $187,000

Sham Sports

The San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title in 2005, but there was no tax that year, which is why it is not included here. Note that only one other team, the Miami Heat in 2006, won a championship without paying into the tax. They did it with a player on a rookie contract, Dwyane Wade, playing at a superstar level but not getting superstar money. That isn't something you can duplicate in free agency.

It’s understandable, then, why a player looking at Reinsdorf’s history of not paying the tax would be reluctant to come sign with the Bulls. He might fear coming to Chicago because, though at first he would play alongside Rose, Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler, two years into his contract, the only one left could be a hobbled Derrick Rose.

The Bulls have the core that should attract free agents, but does the ownership give free agents the confidence that core will stay together? Recent history gives ample reason for pause.

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

There are a few reasons to think that the tide is turning, though. The Bulls did pay $3.9 million in tax last season. They were ready to spend heavily into the tax this season before Rose went down. They even signed Mike Dunleavy using the taxpayer mid-level exception last summer.

Most importantly, Jerry Reinsdorf’s son Michael has been taking over the reins because, in Jerry's own words, per Melissa Harris and Jared S. Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune,

I found that I was unable or unwilling to devote the time to the Bulls that needed to be devoted. He was fully ready to step into that position. And I always felt that I undermanaged the Bulls by not being there on an everyday basis.

The transition to Michael has coincided with looser purse strings, and that could be a selling point to pending free agents, “Yes, you’re right, Jerry was cheap, but Michael is running things now. He’s different, and here’s the proof.” The mere fact that the Bulls signed Dunleavy might mean more than anything Dunleavy ever does with the Bulls.

 

You Still Need Cap Space

Of course, whether they get a free agent of any magnitude still depends on how much cap space they have. The latest figure by Larry Coon puts next year’s cap at $62.9 million. The most rumored free agent target for the Bulls is Carmelo Anthony, who is eligible to receive $22,458,401, per Coon.

If the Bulls trade away Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy in salary dumps, give up on bringing Mirotic for another year and don’t get the Charlotte Bobcats’ or Sacramento Kings’ protected picks, they would free up about $22 million in cap space after roster holds.

So, if the Bulls essentially gut the team and don’t add anyone else of significance, they can sign Anthony. And let’s face it, the only realistic free agent that would be considered a genuine “superstar” who could move is Anthony.

LeBron James isn't moving, and Pau Gasol isn't worth gutting the team over.

At that point, you have to ask: Is it worth it? That question is genuine, not rhetorical. That’s a lot to give up, but it’s a lot to get back. The trio of a healthy Rose, Noah, and Carmelo Anthony would make an intriguing big three, especially if it’s coached by Tom Thibodeau.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

On the other hand, they have high-value contracts in Dunleavy and Gibson, and giving them away for nothing might not be prudent.

Mirotic has superstar potential. Adding him, and maybe two first-round picks would make the Bulls a deep team.

And this is a group which owns the fifth-best record in the NBA since trading away Luol Deng.

Strong arguments can be made both ways, and due consideration is a must.

 

***

The best thing the Bulls have going for them right now is time. There are many questions they can’t answer until summer, such as whether Mirotic wants to come over or whether Anthony is even interested and/or willing to take less.

If one of the players is interested and the other’s not, it makes a lot of decisions easier, but the Bulls can’t engage in contract talks with either until then.

Additionally, the Indiana Pacers will be a good litmus test to see if a team with one superstar (Paul George) and depth can upend the Heat. If that happens, it makes more sense to strengthen the core. If the Pacers fall again, the superstar route seems more viable.

Will Carmelo Anthony be a Chicago Bull next season?

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Finally, there are questions as to whether the Heat will even stay together another year. Five of the six players they have under contract for next year have either early-termination options or player options. The entire team could walk, or more likely, just one of the big three doesn't come back—most likely Chris Bosh.

That could impact how the Bulls approach free agency, and who they might target either way. If the Pacers beat the Heat and win the title, and the Heat break up, does Lance Stephenson become more of a target because they're also taking a big piece from their rival? That one signing could push the Bulls past the Pacers and the Heat.

Will the Bulls be a player in free agency? They can be, perhaps, but ultimately they won’t be. There are too many pieces that would have to fall into place in order for them to sign a major player.  It won’t be for lack of willingness to spend money, though.

The irony is that they will probably spend more money by not acquiring a superstar, and the notion will be perpetuated that the reason they didn't get one is that they were too cheap.

 

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