The One Free Agent the Chicago Bulls Must Land This Offseason

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The One Free Agent the Chicago Bulls Must Land This Offseason
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Strap on your fake Chicago Bulls’ GM hat and pretend you need to sign one free agent this offseason. Who is it going to be? While many are going to propose Carmelo Anthony, allow me to introduce a better alternative: Lance Stephenson.

I understand the thought that the Bulls need a second superstar to help Derrick Rose carry the team. I get the appeal of Anthony. He’s a great player. Over the last two seasons, the only three players with a higher player efficiency rating (PER) than Anthony’s 25.0 are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.

In a perfect world, where the Bulls could just add Anthony to the roster without any subtraction, it’s a great idea to bring him on board. But that’s not the case. There would be a heavy cost to acquire him.

Stephenson would meet all the needs the Bulls have, fit better in the Bulls system and come at a much cheaper price.

This is a case where Plan B needs to be promoted over Plan A.

 

How Stephenson Meets the Bulls Needs

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

During the Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks broadcast, February 27, on TNT, Steve Kerr initiated a discussion that Joakim Noah is now a top-10 player in the league. The other broadcasters agreed.

On February 28, Sekou Smith, who compiles NBA.com’s Race to the MVP Ladder, had Noah in the 10th spot for the second week in a row, saying,

The Bulls have won seven of their last eight games with Noah driving them from end to end. He's the backbone of this franchise now, having assumed that leadership role during what has been a trying time for Derrick Rose, the franchise, the entire city of Chicago and the legion of Bulls fans worldwide. Noah does whatever the Bulls need him to do -- scoring, rebounding, defending, blocking shots. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau knows that Noah helped keep this team together after the Luol Deng trade and acknowledges that Noah has become its driving force.

Noah is literally in the discussion as a top-10 player in the league. One can debate whether he should be or not, but he is being discussed. That makes him a star.

No, what the Bulls “need” is not a “second star.” They have two stars. Their need is a second “scorer.”

The two things are not synonymous. Anthony is a star because he’s a great scorer. Noah is a star in spite of the fact that he’s not a scorer. Stephenson is not a star, but he’s a solid scorer, particularly where the Bulls need help—a second player who can handle the ball, create shots and get to the rim.

This one table convinced me Stephenson was the best way to go. Look at what Anthony does inside the restricted area in comparison to Stephenson.

Carmelo Anthony vs. Lance Stephenson Inside the Restricted Area
Player FG FGA FG% Asstd Unasstd
Carmelo Anthony 157 272 0.577 50 107
Lance Stephenson 175 251 0.697 70 105

basketball-reference.com

If one just looks at production, Stephenson is actually better at the rim than Anthony. He is more efficient and just as good at getting there on his own. He has more assisted field goals, nearly as many unassisted ones (he’s tied for 10th in the NBA) and has a higher field-goal percentage.

And, for those who think that stats don’t tell you everything, here’s the visual.

Stephenson might not be a superstar like Anthony is, but in terms of filling the Bulls’ need for a player who can create shots off the dribble, drive to the rim and take some of the pressure off of Rose, he would be just as effective as Anthony.

Now granted, Anthony is a better scorer in other aspects, but those aren’t needs the Bulls have. Those are niceties, not necessities. The point here isn’t to argue that Stephenson is just as good of a scorer, but that he’s just as good in the area they need scoring the most.

You don’t need a bazooka to shoot a bothersome squirrel. Would it do the job? Sure! But so would a pellet gun, and the pellet gun is cheaper and wouldn’t risk as much collateral damage. Anthony would fill the Bulls’ needs, certainly, but so would Stephenson.

 

Stephenson Fits Better

Anthony is a better overall scorer and rebounder, but Stephenson is better in some areas, too.

The completeness of Stephenson’s game—a triple-double threat who plays both ends of the ball—makes him a better fit for the Bulls.

Stephenson is averaging 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Players who can beat those numbers this season are limited to LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Stephenson is not the scorer those two are—and I’m not going to even try to pretend he is—but he gets the points where the Bulls need them. And, he does it as an all-around player who facilitates and doesn’t stop the ball.

One argument I get on twitter about Stephenson is that he’s just playing well because he’s in the right system, but how is that going to change in Chicago? If anything, that should be a plus. He’s a proven system player. Chicago is a system team.

Stephenson is thriving in a one-star system predicated on sharing the ball. The concern should be whether Anthony can play in a system when he’s not actually the system.

Stephenson, unlike Anthony, has shown that he can have an impact on games without being a ball-dominant player. He is sixth in win shares among players who have a usage percentage below 20 percent. He leads all shooting guards in that regard.

Furthermore, he’s a much better defensive player who has shown a commitment to play in a defensive system. Per 82games.com, Stephenson’s opponent’s PER is 10.6. Anthony’s opponents post a PER of 14.1. While such defensive measures are, in part, an issue of team defense, a reputation for bad defense is one that has followed Anthony through the years.

Lance Stephenson is a round peg filling a round hole. Anthony might be a prettier, glossier, gold-layered, diamond-crusted, platinum-set peg, but he’s a square one.

Why bother trying to force him in when you can just fillthe hole with right-shaped peg?

 

Stephenson Comes at a Much Cheaper Price

According to Amin Elhassan of ESPN Insider, the cost of Carmelo Anthony would be 23.5 million per year, and the cost of Stephenson would be $9.5 million per year. For the math-challenged, that’s a difference of $14 million.

That’s not just a difference in the accounting book. That’s a difference on the court, because that’s $14 million in one player that can’t be filled by others as a result of Anthony’s contract.

For the Bulls to afford Anthony, it would require losing Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and the Charlotte pick (No. 16 projected). They would be able to add Anthony and their own pick.

For the Bulls to acquire Stephenson, it would require amnestying Boozer and trading Dunleavy. In addition to Stephenson, they would add the Charlotte pick, and, believe it or not, Mirotic, while keeping Gibson.

So, it’s not a question of Anthony or Stephenson. It’s a question of Anthony or Stephenson, Gibson, Mirotic and the Charlotte pick. Here’s how I got that.

If we work out max raises for Stephenson, his first year would cost the Bulls $8.9 million to reach the four-year, $38 million projected by Elhassan (who uses DeMar DeRozan’s contract as a gauge).  

Stephenson, contrary to what some have him listed as, is an unrestricted free agent, so the Indiana Pacers couldn't match. And, they will be limited in what they can offer him. 

However, they are already committed to $66.8 million and, after accounting for cap holds, they would be over $77 million if they matched. This doesn't include Danny Granger, Evan Turner or LaVoy Allen. That’s well over the tax limit and even over the apron, where the tax becomes more punitive. 

That could be further complicated if Paul George qualifies for the "Rose Rule" (he probably will), which will raise the value of his contract. The Pacers will owe $71.9 million. Giving Stephenson a market-value contract would have them well over the tax threshold. 

They haven’t paid the tax since 2005-06. It’s unlikely they would pay such a hefty bill to keep Stephenson.They are still a small market team after all.

So, if Stephenson takes $8.9 million out of the Bulls cap space for the first year of his contract, it leaves $6.4 million after cap holds to offer Mirotic in the first year. Once again, using max raises, that would come out to a four-year, $27.2 million deal to offer him.

Also, according to Eurohoops, Mirotic is ready to come to Chicago for $20 million. Some expect that won’t be enough. However, the Bulls can pay up to $27.2 million over four yeasrs. Either way, it’s enough for Mirotic to buy out his Real Madrid contract with the 2.5 million Euros ($3.4 million US) he owes—and make more money than he is now.

Mirotic’s best friend, Hector Fernandez, says that Real Madrid is preparing for his departure, per Jon de la Presa, who covers the ACB. That suggests that Mirotic isn’t planning to play hardball in negotiations, especially since he doesn’t have much to bargain with, other than staying in Spain.

Chicago doesn’t have to outbid the NBA free market, they only have to pay Mirotic enough to buy out his contract in Spain and still make at least what he is presently earning.

And he’s worth it. He was named the ACB MVP for the second season in a row. He shot 53.8 percent. And then there’s this form Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com,

One executive, after seeing Mirotic play, said the power forward originally from Montenegro would go “top two or three for sure” if he was in the 2014 draft and “maybe even one.” Mirotic could be in Chicago next season.

“Maybe even one.” In a draft that is possibly the deepest in a generation of players, Mirotic might go first if he were available. The Bulls may very well be sitting on the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year.

This is a team that has played surprisingly well after their awful start. Since January 1, no team in the NBA has won more games than the Bulls. And it’s not just because they’re beating Eastern Conference pushovers, either.

Over the last 25 percent of their games, they are tied for the eighth hardest schedule, with their opponents boasting a .519 winning percentage.

I’m not trying to make an argument that they’re the best team in the NBA, but I will argue they aren’t in dire need of an overhaul.

Intentionally mixing metaphors here, if you go all in for Anthony, you’re not just filling the hole with the wrong peg, you’re digging other holes in order to do it.

 

***

Remember, you’re the GM. You have a team that has won as much as anyone over a two-month period. Next season you can upgrade Dunleavy to Stephenson and Boozer to Mirotic. You can fill the two biggest needs in doing so—driving and three-point shooting.

You can also add a No. 16 pick and a No. 19 pick.

Who should the Bulls put a higher priority on this offseason?

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And, just for giggles, you have a former league MVP returning.

That would give you a deeper roster with a starting five all under the age 30, and three of your premier players, Rose, Stephenson and Mirotic, all under 26.

Or, you can gut your roster and rebuild around a 30-year-old Anthony.

The responsibility of a GM isn’t to get a team a second star, it’s to improve the team. The Bulls could land Anthony, win the battle and lose the war.  The aggregate cost of him, in terms of both players and money, could end up being greater than the reward he provides.

On the other hand, the relatively cheap cost of Stephenson could allow the Bulls to flesh out a younger, deeper team that maintains its chemistry, has a defensive mentality matching the coach and fills out its weaknesses.

The Stephenson signing would make the Bulls a better, younger, more complete team, and that’s why he’s the one player they have to get in this year’s offseason.

 

All stats, unless otherwise noted, are obtained from Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of February 27. 

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