When the Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng, it signaled that they were going into tear-down mode. However, they didn’t complete any more significant trades at the deadline, triggering the question: Why not?
Why would the Bulls only go halfway in on rebuilding mode? If you’re going to start something, finish it!
Sometimes we ask these types of questions rhetorically rather than honestly. Are we asking, “What were they thinking!?" or “What were they thinking?”
After doing the latter myself, it seems there are at least three things the Bulls’ front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson might have been considering.
This isn’t an apology or excuse. It’s just laying out what their thinking probably was. Everyone can draw their own conclusions on whether it makes sense and whether they agree with Forman's and Paxson's decisions and motives. It’s just important to look at their thought process before judging.
They Were Doing Just Enough to Get Under the Tax
Why trade Deng and start the whole process if you were never going to finish it? That’s the first question that people are going to ask.
But that presupposes the end objective was rebuilding. If that was the goal, their subsequent actions indicate they only went halfway. If the target was to get under the tax though, the rest of their behavior makes a lot more sense.
The first thing the Bulls did after trading Deng was to trade Marquis Teague. Trading away young players doesn't mesh well with the idea of going into rebuilding mode, but it did save money.
As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, the Teague move "saves the Bulls just under $300,000 this season and creates an additional $600,000 of salary cap space this summer.”
Additionally, the Bulls have been playing musical chairs with their 13th player since the Deng trade, waiting, literally, as long as possible between 10-day contracts to save more money. Mark Deeks of Sham Sports does an excellent job of explaining why.
Because of how good Gibson has been playing, the Bulls are worried. Initially, after the Deng and Teague trades, they signed Martin and James to their ten day contracts to fill out the roster, content in the knowledge they now had some wriggle room under the tax with which to do so. However, it seems they have now had pause for thought. Standing pat with only 12 players now for a week, including Rose and the never used Murphy and Toko Shengelia, the Bulls really could use some extra bodies on the roster (and will be mandated to do so next week to meet the 13 player requirement), yet are abstaining from signing any for as long as possible.
This is a problem because of Gibson's contract. Calling for a $7,550,000 salary this season, Gibson's contract also provides for a $250,000 bonus if he makes the all-defensive second team, and a further $250,000 on top of that if he makes the all-defensive first team. These bonuses are currently regarded as unlikely - for cap calculations, bonuses are deemed likely or unlikely during the season based on whether they happened in the previous season, which it didn't. Yet if they meet the bonus at season's end, then an unlikely bonuses is applied retroactively, and thus if Taj does make the team this season, the Bulls must pay him an extra $500,000, an amount charged to both their cap and tax calculations.
In other words, the Bulls are safe now, but if Gibson is named to the All-Defensive team, they could still stumble into the tax.
Considering there’s very little possibility that Gibson is named over LeBron James or Paul George to the team, I asked Deeks, via Tiwtter, when the Bulls would be safe to sign Gibson if they were only guarding against the second team.
So, the Bulls are free to sign a player now for the rest of the season if that’s the extent of their concern, and it appears to be. They are interested in adding at least one among several of the recently bought out players.
In essence, from management’s perspective, they got back a first-round pick and two second-round picks while getting under the cap by making the Deng trade. That’s better than getting nothing for a player who wasn’t going to be part of the team for financial reasons next year anyway.
And, while cries of, “Cheap!” might seem called for, remember that the repeater tax exists now. The Bulls did pay the tax last season. Even if it's only one dollar over this year, they'll trip the repeater tax if they go over again in either of the next two.
It’s just not prudent to pay the tax on a team that doesn't have a realistic chance at a title. At the time of the Deng trade they had a snowball's chance in hell. Since then, those hopes have progressed to a Sno Ball’s chance in my hand (yummy!), but the odds are still slim (unlike me after eating the sno balls).
If the Bulls were trying to “tank” by trading Deng they would have done more. Based on the other actions surrounding what the front office has and hasn't done, it seems the goal was to get under the cap while remaining competitive, not tear down and rebuild.
Keeping Kirk Hinrich Was Keeping the Peace
Kirk Hinrich was assumed to be the next player who would be moved after Deng, but there is a very good reason why the front office might have avoided pulling that particular trigger. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reveals why,
Hinrich has generated the most interest, according to league sources. Several contenders, including Golden State, have inquired about the veteran guard on an expiring contract. However, rival executives believe that with Chicago in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race the Bulls are unlikely to deal Hinrich, if for no other reason than the further gutting of the roster could deepen the divide between coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office.
The ongoing story of the tensions between the Bulls and the front office are probably not as extreme as some suggest, but there’s enough smoke to suggest that if there isn't a fire, there are at least some very hot coals.
Anything that can be done to pour water on that is a good thing. If it means forgoing another second-round pick to appease Thibodeau’s Hinrich fetish, then by all means, forego the second-round pick. They weren't getting a lot back for Hinrich anyway, so why not keep him?
A future second-rounder might be fine, but Hinrich and Thibodeau is way too high a price for a meaningless salary dump, especially when they’re already under the tax.
There’s No Rush in Trading Mike Dunleavy
Mike Dunleavy is the other Bull who was in the trade-rumor mill. Johnson reports for the Chicago Tribune, “Despite some rumors, the Bulls showed no desire to move Mike Dunleavy because he’s an affordable rotation player who fits next season.”
Dunleavy is averaging 10.9 points and 4.0 boards with a .511 effective field-goal percentage. That’s not superstar production, and no one is going to pretend it is, but it’s solid. Add in that Dunleavy fills minutes at the 2, 3 and 4, and you can see it’s a high-value contract. You don’t dump those for the sake of dumping them.
Furthermore, with Deng gone the Bulls are already a little light on wings, having just Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell who can play the small forward.
There’s no rush to trade Dunleavy, either. He’s still under contract for next season. So, if the Bulls want to clear up cap space for the Carmelo Anthony chase during the offseason, they still can. Nothing is accomplished by trading Dunleavy now that can’t be accomplished later, but if he is traded now, it can’t be undone later.
For that reason, it makes no sense to trade Dunleavy unless your goal is to tear down and rebuild the team. Ergo, his not being moved indicates that wasn't their goal.
If the Bulls were trying to tear down the team and go into rebuilding mode, they did a very poor job of it. However their subsequent actions, combined with their inactions indicate that they probably weren’t doing that.
Recognizing that they had little chance to win a championship this year, they took measures to get under the tax level without sacrificing any future options available to them this offseason or next season. They did so while remaining competitive this season.
If that was their goal, then their moves have to be measured as a resounding success. It’s all a matter of perspective, and it’s best to evaluate their performance based on their perspective, not our own.