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How Chicago Bulls Can Survive Their Worst-Case Scenarios in 2014 NBA Free Agency

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How Chicago Bulls Can Survive Their Worst-Case Scenarios in 2014 NBA Free Agency
Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

Chicago Bulls fans awoke on Independence Day to learn that the Bulls had helped their long-coveted, draft-and-stash European sensation, Nikola Mirotic, purchase his own independence from Real Madrid. Does that signal the Bulls' worst-case scenario has come to fruition and Carmelo Anthony has set his heart elsewhere?

Joakim Noah has doubts that Anthony will sign with the Bulls, as reported by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune

Two days removed from the high of their well-received pitch to Anthony in Chicago, the Bulls continued to grasp the long odds regarding acquiring Anthony, who also met with Knicks President Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher later Thursday in Los Angeles.

A Yahoo Sports report stated Anthony also planned to reach out to Gasol to discuss him joining the Knicks, another in a growing set of signs that Anthony may re-up in New York. Joakim Noah, intimately involved in the Bulls' pitch to Anthony, has told several people he believes Anthony will re-sign with the Knicks.

That would correlate with the news that Mirotic is coming over.

HoopsHype first broke the story.

The problem is that the Bulls are already limited in what they can offer Anthony unless they can work a sign-and-trade for him, which would entail the Knicks taking back Carlos Boozer in the trade. Chris Broussard of ESPN is unequivocal this won't happen, stating:

If the Chicago Bulls' dream scenario is to land Carmelo Anthony through a sign-and-trade involving Carlos Boozer, the Bulls will have to come up with another plan, according to league sources.

The New York Knicks will not take back Boozer in a sign-and-trade deal, the sources said.

Broussard later added, "But the Knicks, according to sources, will not cooperate with any plan that involves them taking back Boozer."

So hypothetically, let's just say the Anthony dream is dead. Does that mean the Bulls' 2014-15 season is dead before it started? How bad is their worst-case scenario?

Could this be the summer of 2010 all over again? Will the Bulls just end up with a new bench mob, good enough for the regular season but not good enough for the postseason?

There are some big differences. Primarily, the Bulls are flush with assets they can use in a tradeor just use. 

 

What They Have

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

First, the Bulls were bad on offense last year, but they weren't a bad team. They actually tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. While you can argue the East is weak, it's probably going to get even weaker next season.

Those ahead of them are getting worse.

The top-seeded Indiana Pacers may be losing a key player in Lance Stephenson and had a rocky conclusion to the season. The Miami Heat have one player under contract, Norris Cole, and no one knows what they're going to look like next year.

While the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors were either even with the Bulls or slightly better last year, neither team is making the kinds of additions the Bulls are this offseason or had their best player miss most of the season.

The Bulls were competitive last year and are in position to take over the driver's seat in the East this season. 

The Bulls were able to win because they had an elite defense, keyed by their coach, Tom Thibodeau, Defensive Player of the Year in Noah and Second Team All-Defensive wing in Jimmy Butler. Taj Gibson, who finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting, was also a key to the Bulls' stopping power.

If Anthony doesn't come, there's no imminent concern the Bulls would have to discard key players (other than Boozer). Their defense would remain intact. So the improvement would just need to come on the other end of the ball. 

They struggled offensively because they couldn't create shots or make shots. There's something about getting the ball to part the nylon that helps with your scoring. 

And the immediate improvements add to that. Derrick Rose, the former MVP, is coming back. People forget that in 2011-12, the Bulls were the fifth-most efficient offense in the league.

Yes, he's barely played in three years and has now injured both his knees, and there are question marks about him. But right now, there's also a periodas in, he's healthy, period. 

Second, Doug McDermott, whose rights Chicago traded for on draft night, is the NCAA's fifth-highest all-time leading scorer. And per Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated, he has a pretty good offensive game.

A quick glance at McDermott's shot chart makes clear that he is a diverse scorer. According to data from Synergy Sports Technology, 24.7 percent of McDermott's possessions in his senior season were post-ups – the largest percentage of any play type. McDermott deploys a vast arsenal of fakes, drop steps and body feints to throw defenders off balance. He is also particularly adept at getting his shot off quickly; he posted an excellent 1.31 points per possession on catch-and-shoots last season.

And then there's Mirotic. There is a misconception that he struggled in the Euorleague playoffs. He had a couple of games where he didn't play well, but to suggest he struggled the whole time is not true.

In his five games against Olympiacos Piraeus, he shot just 25 percent from three and only averaged 10.6 points, but he also shot 61.5 percent from two. And it was just five games out of his career.

In the Final Four (which followed that series), he averaged 15.5 points, shot 54.5 percent from two and 42.9 percent from three. He was second in index rating (their equivalent of player efficiency rating) at 22.0. He was second during the regular season with 20.5. He also shot a league-best (and ridiculous) 64.3 percent from deep.

Putting all that together, he's not a bad offensive player, either.

The nice thing about adding the two rookies is they are additions without subtraction. The Bulls can keep their defensive core and Mike Dunleavy Jr., whose $3 million contract has tremendous value. Both would take hits to make room for Anthony, as Dunleavy would have to be traded and possibly Butler as well. 

In addition to the rookies, the Bulls can still get more help. They can do that in one of two ways: sign-and trade or amnesty. 

 

Sign-and-Trade

The best option for the Bulls remains a sign-and-trade where someone is willing to take on Boozer's contract.

Pau Gasol, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers, could be an intended target there. Marc Stein of ESPN reports the Bulls were in L.A. to pitch him on July 3: 

K.C. Johnson reports: 

A source said the Bulls would hope to engage the Lakers in sign-and-trade possibilities should they get a verbal commitment from Gasol. The Bulls would dangle the expiring $16.8 million contract of Carlos Boozer and likely would have to include sweeteners, possibly in the form of draft picks.

The Bulls could send Boozer and a future first-round pick to the Lakers, with Gasol agreeing to a three-year, $30 million contract.

That would be sufficient for the Bulls to retain their mid-level exception and biannual exception to use on Mirotic and whomever else they want, perhaps Kirk Hinrich or D.J. Augustin.

So why would they add two more power forwards when they already have two (Gibson and Anthony Randolph)?

Well, that's where things could get interesting. Per Mark Deeks of Sham Sports, the rules forbid trading Mirotic until 30 days after they sign him.

That's confirmed by question No. 94 in Larry Coon's FAQ. But remember, it's the offseason, so it doesn't much matter. The Bulls could still execute a trade well before camp opened.

After the appropriate passage of time, they could send Minnesota Gibson, Mirotic, the protected 2015 first-round Sacramento pick, the Bulls' 2015 pick (along with the rights to switch spots with the Cleveland Cavaliers), another future first-round pick, Tony Snell and the three non-guaranteed contracts of Mike James, Ronnie Brewer and Louis Amundson, which total $4 million (and which the Wolves would just waive).

The Wolves would send back Kevin Martin and Kevin Love.

The Wolves get a bevy of assets and young players, a starter to replace Love, are relieved of a contract they seem to want to shed and cut about $7 million in salary. 

The Bulls could start Rose, Martin, Butler, Love and Noah and have Augustin, Dunleavy, McDermott, Gasol and Greg Smith coming off the bench. Then, they round out the roster with their other rookie, Cameron Bairstow, and a minimum player. That's a deep team with a lot of scoring punch it didn't have last year, though the defense would take a slight hit. 

Dare to dream. Maybe that doesn't happen, but it's enough to realize that all is not lost. The Bulls still have moves they can make.

 

The Amnesty Route

The other possibility is the Bulls, unable to get a taker for Boozer's super-sized contract, just amnesty him. On this point, there is understandable credulity from many that Jerry Reinsdorf will pay Boozer to not do his job, but Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reports:

A source said Wednesday that Boozer's departure is a "done deal," adding that Boozer's camp already has been informed.

There haven't been any takers on a sign-and-trade for Boozer, and the Bulls also want the money to go in a different direction, whether Carmelo Anthony is in the mix or not.

So were the amnesty to happen, it would free up about $12 million in cap space.

While Mirotic would eat a portion of that, it might not be nearly as much as some are speculating. Jason Hall of Bullszone.com (which was a week ahead of the national media on the Mirotic story) reports that the buyout is not very much.

That means that after the Bulls' $600,000 contribution, the remainder would be just $1.9 million, split over two payments of $950,000.

Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders reveals, "I have had multiple sources tell me that there is no way Mirotic makes anywhere near $3.5 million Euros, and in fact that they would be shocked if it is over 1 million Euros per year. That changes the calculus for him significantly."

That converts to $1.36 million, which means the total annual cost to Mirotic is about $2.35 million. A three-year deal starting around $3 million would be a significant pay raise.

All this might be why Shams Charania of RealGM tweeted that the negotiations aren't expected to be problematic:

So if Mirotic's first year is $3 million, that leaves $9 million to fritter away elsewhere. Gasol is one option, though if they're keeping Mirotic, Gasol would be superfluous since the Bulls would already have three power forwards (Mirotic, Gibson and Randolph) and three centers (Noah, Smith and Bairstow).

Per the previously linked Cowley piece, the Bulls have shown interest in Lance Stephenson and Trevor Ariza as well. Stephenson has more upside. Ariza has less downside and would seem to be the preferable option, both because he is more likely to fit in better with the Bulls and because he would probably cost less money.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Of course, the solution to Stephenson could be a night clubbing with Noah. And that's actually not a joke. Noah had similar issues when he was young and might be just the sort of mentor the young, talented, intense and slightly-deranged budding star needs.

On July 1, Stein reported that the Bulls were showing interest in Chandler Parsons as well.

My concern there is that they could have J.J. Redick redux circa 2010 when the Bulls sat waiting for the Orlando Magic to match their offer on Redick and watched all their backup plans get inked one at a time.

Since I believe the Rockets will match any offer on Parsons if they don't feel they're going to get Anthony or Boshand they won't get Anthony or Boshall pursuing Parsons does for the Bulls is waste opportunities. I wouldn't mind seeing him in Chicago; I just don’t see it happening.

However the Bulls split it, they use that $12 million on Mirotic and another valuable addition. They're still not done. Things are starting to look pretty good. But they're still not done.

They could then use the room mid-level exception ($2.7 million) on someone who might be willing to sign at a discount for a chance at a title—say Paul Pierce or Vince Carter. Or they use it to retain Augustin.

Much like the summer of 2010, the Bulls could be left in the lurch with the superstars and have to go with the "Plan Depth."

Unlike 2010, the possibilities seems much better. A roster with Rose, Butler, Ariza, Gibson, Noah, Hinrich, Carter, Snell, Dunleavy, McDermott, Mirotic, Randolph, Smith and Bairstow would be deep, balanced and versatile.

And they'd still have two first-round picks coming next summer.

***

As they say, the fist is mightier than the finger. Five beats one, and when your roster runs 12 deep, you can win a lot of games. Minutes can be more sanely distributed.

You can even win championships. The San Antonio Spurs proved that this year.

Do you feel confident the Bulls can still be a contender if Carmelo Anthony doesn't come to Chicago?

Submit Vote vote to see results

In fact, the Heat are 2-2 in the Finals. Both of their losses to came teams who had depth: the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the Spurs in 2014. One of their wins was over a deeper team, but it was: A) when the Heat were at their deepest and B) literally a fraction of a second away from not happening.  

The one decisive win they had in the Finals was against a team which went the superstar route, the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.  

Point being, depth might be the best way to go anyway. 

The best part of the Bulls having so many trade chips to acquire stars is that they are really worth something. So in a worst-case scenario, the Bulls can just use them. And that's not looking so bad.

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