Realistic 2014 Free-Agency Targets for the Chicago Bulls
Another emotionally draining Chicago Bulls season finally came to a crashing halt Tuesday night. The squad once heralded as the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs failed to win a postseason game at home in three tries and must now focus on 2014-15.
With a talented young core led the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year, it would be crazy to think Chicago's championship window is closing just as fast as Indiana's.
But Jerry Reinsdorf has paid Derrick Rose $34 million to sit on the bench for two years, and there's no telling how and for how long his knees will hold up going forward. Make no mistake, this Bulls team will not sniff a championship without him.
That being said, Chicago has great pieces in place next season with obvious holes that need filling, and it needs to hit the jackpot in free agency. As the roster currently stands, Reinsdorf owes a shade over $63 million in salary to eight players in 2014-15, per Spotrac. Richard Hamilton is one of them, so really the roster will be at seven before the draft.
According to NBA finance virtuoso Larry Coon, the salary cap is projected to hit $63.2 million, with the tax level jumping to $77 million. A little calculus tells us the Bulls front office will have to pull out all the roster tricks it used late in the season—like signing minimum guys like Ronnie Brewer and Greg Smith—to avoid spending Mikhail Prokhorov rubles.
Or Chicago can simply amnesty Carlos Boozer and his 16.8 million rainbow jumpers dollars. Rumored almost since the day he signed in 2010, the move becomes increasingly inevitable with Boozer's lack of fourth-quarter minutes and Taj Gibson's development into a versatile two-way player who can defend all three frontcourt positions.
Amnesty talk has cooled since the trade deadline passed, but if these reports from January are any indication, then Boozer is as good as gone:
Report: Bulls plan to trade Deng, use amnesty provision on Boozer http://t.co/7iEjJXQqPc— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 6, 2014
They got it half right, so it's reasonable to assume that the Booze Train will be plying his trade on another contender for a lot less money, and Chicago's cap number will be closer to $46.2 million.
With Reinsdorf having suggested in the past that he would foot the tax bill for a winner, Chicago could conceivably have $30 million to spend this summer. If Chicago keeps the 16th and 19th picks in the NBA draft, it will eat about $2.73 million of that space according to RealGM.
And then there's the Nikola Mirotic situation. Nate Duncan at Basketball Insiders broke down the ins and outs of bringing over the Euro sensation from Real Madrid back in March.
Duncan parsed out several complicated factors that will determine the length and amount of Mirotic's contract. But boiling the analysis down it looks as though his first-year salary would range between $4.8 million (his salary at Real Madrid) and $6.1 million, though it could climb higher depending on negotiations. We'll stick with the higher $6.1 million for our calculations.
Take away the combined $8.8 million, and the Bulls are left with about $21 million of cap space and 10 players under contract.
So where do the Bulls look? A popular answer is to chase Carmelo Anthony either via free agency or a sign-and-trade with New York involving Taj Gibson and draft picks.
That's impossible to predict and presents a host of issues in terms of filling out the rest of the roster after Anthony eats up most of that precious cap space. And it will make bringing Mirotic over nearly impossible. So we'll look at more realistic options.
One of the answers is the same as it's been since the day Rose came to town: outside shooting.
Chicago was one of the worst three-point shooting teams all season in terms of both percentage—finishing 24th in the league at .348—and attempts—only New Orleans and Memphis shot fewer. Only D.J. Augustin and Mike Dunleavy finished among the top 100 qualified players in the league in percentage.
Secondly, the Bulls will also look to replicate their success in finding cheap veteran backup point guards who outplay their contract a la Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin.
With Mirotic penciled in as a third big, general manager Gar Forman will need to upgrade from Nazr Mohammed to fill out the frontcourt.
The final piece needs to replace Luol Deng on the wing. Whether that's bumping Jimmy Butler up to Deng's spot at the 3 and sliding in a new 2-guard or bringing in a new small forward altogether, Chicago has options. Despite his heroic efforts as a surprise starter, Dunleavy needs to come off the bench.
With three or four positions to fill, let's look at 10 viable free agents who might look good in red and black next season.
Lance Stephenson, SG
2013 salary: $930,000
Free-agent type: Unrestricted
In a Carmelo Anthony-less world, Lance Stephenson has emerged as the free agent most commonly linked to Chicago.
The enigmatic guard put together a breakout season in 2013-14 by all accounts. He posted the best per-36-minutes numbers of his career in every major offensive category and developed into a playmaker who dished nearly five dimes per contest. He hit the three at 35 percent and showed an ability to create his own shot—something Chicago has sorely lacked in all players not named after a flower.
Stephenson would give Chicago two legitimate triple-double threats, and pairing him with Butler on the wings immediately makes the Bulls an even better defensive team, though it means Chicago would still need to address perimeter shooting.
Had the season ended in February, the 23-year-old would have easily commanded an eight-figure salary, per Sean Deveny of Sporting News. He pointed to the contract recently signed by Tyreke Evans at $11.3 million per year as a comparable deal.
But then, perhaps to Chicago's and every other suitor's benefit, the Pacers went through their tremendous late-season slump. Stephenson was certainly part of Indiana's meltdown. His numbers dipped slightly, but his contribution was more qualitative due to his unpredictable temperament. This led Deveney to revise down his prediction of Stephenson's value in April:
One league executive said the problems that have arisen—the public ones, remember, not the behind-the-scenes ones—with Stephenson will cut deep into his value on the free-agent market, and that a deal worth $7 million-$8 million per year is more likely to be Stephenson’s range now.
The Cincinnati product's off-court problems raise a red flag, and Chicago tends to shy away from that kind of character. But then again, he was just voted runner-up for Most Improved Player this season, so it's a true balancing act in terms of pluses and minuses.
If there's one coach and one locker room that can mitigate those problems it's Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, but there's no guarantee based on his erratic behavior.
Assuming the bidding war for Stephenson's services escalates back to pre-All-Star levels, Chicago could still foot the bill and have over $10 million to fill out the bench with impact players.
Imagine a starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Stephenson, Gibson and Noah with Mirotic coming off the bench. That's four above-average-to-stellar defensive players, a former MVP and a Euro stud.
Trevor Ariza, SF
2013 salary: $7,727,280
Free agent type: Unrestricted
The entire city of Chicago will not soon forget Trevor Ariza's 30-point explosion in Game 4 of these playoffs. Sure, his counterpart, Mike Dunleavy, snapped off for 35 points the previous contest. But I've got a beach house in Siberia for sale if you think the Bulls are set at the wing with Dunleavy and Snell next year.
Ariza was a terror for the Bulls all series long, hitting over 46 percent behind the arc and shutting down the smaller D.J. Augustin with his long defense.
He also had his most productive season since leaving the Lakers in 2009. Given that Ariza is only 28, just finished his 10th season in the league and had something of a career year, the UCLA product should see at least a slight bump from his $7.7 million salary.
As with Stephenson, Chicago has room to enter a bidding war if it wants to make Ariza the big free-agent prize after bringing in Mirotic. And a bidding war there certainly will be. Washington will look to retain his services—complicated by Marcin Gortat's own free agency and a max contract for Bradley Beal in a couple years—while NBA.com's David Aldridge reported he has the West Coast on his mind.
CSN Washington's J. Michael believes Washington's cap situation in the near future will prevent it from bringing Ariza back. "The Wizards will offer to pay him," Michael writes, "though the length of the deal could be more of the issue than the dollars per year for the 29-year-old."
Though Ariza has likely hit his ceiling at this stage of his career and he isn't the shot-creator Stephenson is, the veteran winger doesn't carry any baggage. In fact, he's been instrumental in John Wall's maturation from a superstar into a franchise leader, as Wall told Aldridge:
One thing that Trevor has brought to me, and helped me out as much is, that extra effort," Wall said. "If you gamble [defensively] and don't get it, the extra effort to get back into the play. I think Coach lets us get by once or twice in a game if we're willing to come back and contest [shots], and that's something I learned from Trevor.
But there's also that frustrating "contract year" argument to consider. As noted above, Ariza had his best year since 2009, the final season of his previous contract. He never lived up to the five-year, $34 million deal he signed after a spectacular playoff run in Los Angeles, was subsequently traded twice and is finally making good.
From a production standpoint this signing has just as many questions as Stephenson's, though for different reasons. Ariza's name has yet to surface on Chicago's radar, but then again the free-agent rumors won't begin to truly swirl for another month.
Avery Bradley, SG
2013 salary: $2,511,432
Free agent type: Restricted
Like Ariza, Bradley's name is nowhere near the forefront of free agency and has no link to Chicago.
But the 23-year-old provides an interesting mix of skills, one Chicago wants and one it needs. He is a stout 2-guard defender who has proven he can harass and gamble on the perimeter with a guy like Kevin Garnett behind him, which he'd have in Noah and Gibson. That fills the want.
Bradley also vastly improved his pull-up jumper as a starter, hitting nearly 40 percent from the three-point line. There's the need.
Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling reported back in December that the four-year veteran has a steep asking price:
...The team's biggest personnel question this season revolves around Avery Bradley, who they feel is their starting shooting guard for the future.
In fact, that's why, according to a source, the Celtics offered him a four-year, $24 million deal (with a team option on the fourth year) this past offseason, but he turned it down. That's because he wants at least $8 million per year, which another source confirmed. Bradley will be a restricted free agent next summer, so things could get "tricky," as one source said, for the Celtics to keep him.
It's hard to argue that Bradley fetches a similar value to Stephenson, who as mentioned earlier should fetch somewhere between $7-9 million per year this summer. But with Dwyane Wade likely staying in Miami and Evan Turner becoming a poor man's Rudy Gay, Bradley becomes one of the top two or three available shooting guards by process of elimination.
Bradley's improved outside shot makes him a great candidate to play alongside Rose in the backcourt, as he'll likely see a lot of open looks as defenders rotate to help stop the former MVP from getting to the lane. It worked with Rajon Rondo, who, like Rose, prefers to drive over shoot from outside.
His status as a restricted free agent gives Boston the ability to match any offer, but the fact that he already turned down the team's previous deal suggests there could be a parting of the ways unless one or both sides makes a concession.
Though Bradley's offense remains a work in progress, it's only gotten better, and Thibs would likely salivate at the idea of pairing him with Butler on defense.
Ray Allen, SG
2013 salary: $3,229,050
Free agent type: Unrestricted
The first three wingers on the list are meant to be brought in as starters. Ray Allen, at 38, is long past that point in his career.
The NBA's best three-point shooter in history still has the stroke. Despite playing the second-fewest minutes per game of his career, Allen hit multiple threes in 35 games mostly off the bench.
Though he is probably nearing his last legs in the Association, Chicago desperately needs someone who can step in for a few minutes each night and drain shots from the perimeter after it averaged just 6.2 made three-pointers per game during the regular season (fourth lowest) and 6.4 in the playoffs.
For a guy approaching 40, Allen would fit perfectly into Thibs' system of giving huge minutes to a smaller number of players:
They care... now. They just couldn't get into this season. Even Ray Allen, ever the diplomat, admitted "it dragged a little."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 15, 2014
Butler plays around 38 minutes a night, giving Allen just enough time to step in and knock down some outside shots while not being asked to exert himself too much.
The real reason to bring Jesus Shuttlesworth to town? The playoffs. Sure, he had a rough go of it against Charlotte in Round 1, shooting just 3-of-11 from behind the arc. But having a guy who can hit a game-winner on the biggest stage is worth a few million by itself.
And for a team that averaged an even 90 points per game against the Wizards, it could use the 10.2 points and 40.6 percent three-point shooting he produced throughout last year's playoffs.
If anything, Allen's production dictates a salary lower than his $3.2 million this year, which benefits a reunion in Boston or staying in Miami, but the Bulls have the cap space that could entice him to join in on their championship run.
Chris Andersen, PF
2013 salary: $1,399,507
Free agent type: Player Option
The market for backup bigs is surprisingly flush this summer, but few fit Thibodeau's mold. Birdman surprisingly might be one of the closest to what the Bulls coach desires. He doesn't care much for stats and gets hyped by making the small plays that allow his star teammates to do their work. This says it all:
Birdman's in playoff mode. Super active.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 12, 2014
Andersen was a vital piece of Miami's second championship run last year. And as Bleacher Report's Tom Sunnergren advocates, he was one of the most efficient players stats-wise this season, even if stats aren't his racket:
Consider this remarkable bit of information. By measure of win shares per 48 minutes, Andersen ranks seventh in the NBA among players who have logged more than 1,000 minutes on the season, according toBasketball-Reference. The only guys ahead of him are Kevin Durant,Chris Paul, LeBron, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis and James Harden.
That’s pretty elite company. And it's a fraternity Andersen was able to join largely because of his efficiency as a scorer. The man simply doesn't miss.
Among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes, Birdman's .683 true shooting percentage was second only to Brandan Wright, per Basketball-Reference.com. Sunnergren also points out that Birdman hasn't recorded a PER below the 15.0 league average since 2007-08.
Andersen's 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes are sixth among regular rotation players, and the stat-keepers at NBA.com tell us his 47.8 percent field-goal percentage allowed at the rim was on par with Dwight Howard's this season.
So you have a 35-year-old (with only 12 seasons under his belt) defensive disruptor who doesn't waste possessions on the offensive end—something Chicago's anemic offense can't afford. Yet somehow he made a paltry $1.4 million this season and has a $1.45 million player option for 2014-15.
While he doesn't possess the ball-handling or distribution capabilities of Noah, the offense should go back to running through the point guard next year, making that a non-issue.
The more I write, the more I think Birdman will get a significant pay raise this summer.
Trevor Booker, PF
2013 salary: $2,350,820
Free agent type: Restricted
Trevor Booker is another Washington Wizard who killed Chicago in the playoffs. While his 5.6 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting in the series won't impress anyone, he was an interior presence on defense.
Booker grabbed nearly seven rebounds a night and blocked three shots apiece in Games 4 and 5. He's the true hustle player Thibs salivates over, a guy who, like Noah, will make the plays that don't always show up in the box score:
It's crazy how #wizards just stood there & watched Trevor Booker block a shot & dive to save ball. Nobody else moved after all that hustle— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 30, 2014
And some feel he resembles another Bull:
Turnover, Trevor Booker goes coast-to-coast, Bulls down 8 early. Maybe @TheBullsShow wasnt insulting saying Booker was 80% of Taj.— BullsBlogger (@BullsBlogger) April 30, 2014
Booker may still be relatively unknown to the casual NBA fan, but the four-year veteran has earned some big minutes this postseason, per The Washington Post's Michael Lee on Booker's performance in Game 2:
He matched Ariza with a game-high eight rebounds and scored nine points and played all but eight seconds in the fourth quarter and overtime. Coach Randy Wittman opted to go with Booker over Marcin Gortat, who had a rough night trying to contend with Gibson and Joakim Noah.
Wittman went on to laud Booker's grit and toughness, two qualities Thibs wants in spades. Booker is certainly earning himself more dollars with every solid playoff performance, and his restricted status gives Washington the right to bring him back. But big men tend to fetch a higher price on the free-agent market, and we've already laid out the financial handcuffs Washington has going forward.
Adding Booker to the frontcourt represents a huge upgrade over Nazr Mohammed and might actually force Thibs to play a four-man rotation. Mohammed only played seven minutes a night in spot work this season and 11 minutes last year. More minutes to Booker would allow Noah and Gibson, so important to the Bulls' system on both ends of the floor, to stay fresh over the course of the 82-game schedule.
Josh McRoberts, PF
2013 salary: $2,652,000
Free agent type: Player Option
Josh McRoberts, affectionately known as McBob, rivals Noah and Marc Gasol as the bigs with the most deft passing touch. His 4.3 assists per game trailed only Noah and Kevin Love among centers and power forwards. Not to mention his 4.1 assist-to-turnover ratio was second in the NBA to Chris Paul.
McBob has enough outside touch—.361 from deep this year—to help Chicago spread the floor and keep defenses honest, enough to draw an impressive comparison:
McRoberts is basically a homeless guy's Kevin Love who dunks right now.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 28, 2014
He is capable of incredible things, yet it’s almost impossible not to dismiss them as inexplicable novelties. There aren’t many guys his size who can match his explosive vertical leap. There are even fewer guys his size who could (and would) make a pass from one edge of the baseline to the other.
But they aren’t strung together with regularity. Really, he’s just one of the guys. He has self-imposed limits. It’s what made him a bummer at Duke, and why the Bobcats were able to sign him in the short term for cheap.
Indeed, $2.65 million for a starting power forward feels low when a guy like Dunleavy, originally brought in to come off the bench, gets over $3 million.
Though McBob has a Sam's Club price tag, he is a starter and would have to be convinced to return to a bench role he hasn't filled since leaving Orlando midway through 2011-12. But as Charlotte News & Observer's Rick Bonnell wrote, everyone from owner Michael Jordan to former teammate Jameer Nelson acknowledges McBob's character and "glue" factor.
With McBob pretty much guaranteed to opt out of his $2.8 million option, a Winston-Salem Journal report (via The Associated Press) acknowledges that he is the one player coach Steve Clifford doesn't want to lose. It may take a number double his option amount to secure McRoberts' services next season, but he's well worth it.
Boris Diaw, PF
2013 salary: $4,310,625
Free agent type: Unrestricted
Weight and height concerns have followed Boris Diaw everywhere in his four-team, 11-year career.
That hasn't stopped him from being the defensive force that effectively "shut down" LeBron James in the 2013 NBA Finals until the end of Game 6.
That prowess has continued for the French Magician. San Antonio Express-News' Dan McCarney points out that the 6'8", 250-pound Diaw limited the taller, slimmer Anthony Davis and the athletic Rudy Gay on separate occasions this season. Diaw uses his size and long arms to keep quicker players at bay, baiting them into long jumpers or slowing them down enough to let his help defenders get in place.
And the Frenchman has a penchant for showing up offensively in key moments.
Boris Diaw gets game-winning hoop in Game 4 win for Spurs. Diaw had 17 points in Game 4, totaled 15 points in Games 1-3— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 29, 2014
A far cry from the high-flying guard who ran with Steve Nash in Phoenix, Diaw continues to evolve offensively. His points per 36 minutes are the highest they've been since the 2008-09 split between the Suns and Bobcats, per Basketball-Reference.com. According to Hoops Habit's John Lugo, Diaw has become a more aggressive scorer recently:
Boris Diaw has been hearing all his career that he needs to shoot the ball more. His scoring has now gone up to 10.8 points per game, compared to 5.8 points last season.
Countless times he has left Spurs fans curious and upset when he passes a clearly open shot up to give a teammate the scoring opportunity. Considering that he entered the league as a guard, isn’t that what he’s supposed to want to do?
Diaw’s field goal attempts have nearly doubled since last season, going from 4.4 to 8.5 attempts per game in this young season
Granted, this was written in November after just nine games, but Diaw finished with 7.3 attempts per game for 9.1 points. The fact that Gregg Popovich trusted him enough to start 24 games speaks volumes about Diaw's positive impact on games.
He might cost more than most other backup bigs, but Diaw has the flexibility to guard multiple positions like Gibson and enough playoffs experience not to let big moments overwhelm him.
Isaiah Thomas, PG
2013 salary: $884,293
Free agent type: Restricted
Another approach to free agency Chicago could (read: should) consider is making a more significant investment in a third guard (read: Rose Contingency Plan Part III).
Management struck gold with D.J. Augustin this season and to a lesser degree the one before it in State of Nate. The former was left for dead by Toronto 10 games into his tenure in the North, and a $755,459 "gamble" turned into 61 games (52 of them off the bench) of nearly 15 points and five assists.
In 2012, Nate Robinson did crazy Nate Robinson things on and off, including going for 15 points and six assists in 23 starts and some incredible hero ball in the playoffs. And all at the cut rate of $1.2 million.
Those were serious shots in the dark. Though they certainly outplayed those contracts, Bulls fans deserve someone whose expected value starts at those levels—think Reggie Jackson or Jamal Crawford—so that in the event he is thrust into a situation where he can overperform, the reward will be Goran Dragic-sized. I'm talking 20 points, six assists, 50 percent from the field and 40 from three.
Isaiah Thomas is the closest thing available to a backup point guard of that caliber. He moved into Sacramento's starting lineup a quarter of the way through the season when Greivis Vasquez left California's capitol, and he'll probably be looking to keep it that way with his next team.
But Sheridan Hoops' Michael Scotto has intel from the inner circles that nobody wants to give him that kind of money:
...What type of deal can Thomas land on the market as a restricted free agent?
“He’ll get between $4-5 million,” one Eastern Conference general manager told SheridanHoops.
“Depending on fit with the rest of the team, the most I would give him is the full mid-level exception,” one scout told SheridanHoops.
“Point guard is the toughest position in the NBA right now,” one league source told SheridanHoops. “The NBA discriminates against undersized point guards as well. Nate Robinson never made more than $4.5 million per year in his whole career. I’m not saying they’re identical, but just getting my point across.”
That's a harsh reality when Scotto reports that Thomas wants to surpass that MLE amount—although I wouldn't put it past Milwaukee or Los Angeles to throw more money his way if either misses on other options.
Signing with a contender like the Bulls to be the first guard off the bench after spending three seasons losing—even if the Kings do appear to be on the upswing—might be a prudent move. Chicago is likely to have learned its lesson about easing Rose back into full minutes, so Thomas would get his tick. And who knows how well he'll hold up over the course of a full season?
ESPN insider Amin Elhassan (subscription required) included Thomas on a short list of trade targets for Chicago when Rose went down back in November and agreed with Scotto's unnamed GM in suggesting he wouldn't fetch too high of a price on the open market.
Thomas then went on to average over 21 points and six assists the rest of the year and the fourth-best PER among point guards, albeit on a losing team.
Thomas' value seems to be limited by concerns about his playmaking ability despite all those assists, but I agree with his own assessment and wouldn't mind giving him a four-year contract close to Kyrie Irving's $23.2 million or Kyle Lowry's $23.5 million. (Side note: Those seem extremely low...)
It would certainly take some massaging of the ego, but Thibs loves to keep small rotations, which means significant minutes for the bench players who do get to run.
Greivis Vasquez, PG
2013 salary: $2,150,188
Free agent type: Restricted
On the other hand, Chicago could opt for a more traditional distributor to supplant Rose, because after Thomas, the scoring punch in free-agent point guards drops off significantly. (I'm not touching Rodney Stuckey or Jordan Crawford with a 10-foot pole).
Think of it as upgrading over Kirk Hinrich rather than D.J. Augustin. In Greivis Vasquez, Chicago has a point guard who started almost 44 percent of games in his career. So Vasquez has the option to take bigger dollars from a lottery team or play backup to a contender on a bit of a discount.
Stephen Brotherston wrote on Pro Bball Report that Toronto won't be able to match an offer significantly larger than his $3.2 million qualifying offer if it wants Lowry and Patrick Patterson back in purple. Logic says you take the money and run. And while Vasquez seems happy north of the border, that could just be code for he likes winning after losing 100 games the last two years.
Vasquez has been a revelation for the Raptors down the stretch of this season while spending half his time on the court with Lowry:
Greivis has avg. 14.5 PPG, 8.0 APG in just 27.0 MPG in this series. @Raptors are a +21 in his 53mins ON the floor, -23 in 42mins w/ him OFF— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 25, 2014
Though his stats aren't as gaudy as Thomas', Vasquez posted a solid 2.52 assist-to-turnover ratio this season that beats John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague and Stephen Curry. The Venezuelan will likely have a number of suitors, and if Chicago decides to pass on Augustin, it should consider throwing its name in the hat.
A number of questions need answering before we can realistically assess what Chicago will do with this crop of players. Boozer, Melo and Mirotic come first, and each has the potential to set off his own line of dominoes.
I like the idea of Birdman backing up Noah on a cheap deal. His crazy efficient numbers suggest he truly understands the game and where he fits within his system.
Booker spelling Gibson at the 4 means the energy won't dip when Gibson sits. He's got great instincts and is only improving with valuable playoff experience.
Thomas is certainly affordable, but having two score-first point guards is a dangerous balancing game. Vasquez is the more prudent option and could be had for something close to the mid-level exception while leaving room for Mirotic.
The most important thing is that Chicago addresses its bench better than the underwhelming job done last summer.