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Chicago Bulls Are Quietly Winning 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Chicago Bulls Are Quietly Winning 2014 NBA Free Agency
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The Chicago Bulls' chance to scratch their biggest itch came and went when scoring machine Carmelo Anthony agreed to return to the New York Knicks.

Yet, the Bulls' Plan B approach might position them better than Plan A ever could. Quietly, they have strengthened their core—without sacrificing any assets to do so—and, in turn, emerged as one of the biggest winners of the 2014 NBA free-agent period.

Rather than roll up the red carpet that failed to net Anthony, Chicago kept its line extended and snagged a big fish without paying a big-fish rate. The Bulls managed to lure in four-time All-Star Pau Gasol with a three-year, $22 million-plus deal, as reported by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

If that sounds the slightest bit steep for a 34-year-old, it shouldn't. Not for a couple different reasons, in fact.

For one, Gasol has yet to start acting his age.

Last season—his 13th in the league—the versatile big man put up 17.4 points on 48 percent shooting and 9.7 rebounds per game.

Only six other players matched those numbers, three of whom (Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard) are working on max contracts. Another (Anthony Davis) will hit that price range as soon as he's eligible. The other two (David Lee and Al Jefferson) are collecting eight-figure salaries ($15 million and $13.5 million, respectively).

Gasol made $19.2 million last season. While he's no longer worth that number, he's an absolute steal at his new price.

Especially in this market, when teams are paying a premium for everything.

The Boston Celtics have committed $32 million over the next four seasons to defensive specialist Avery Bradley and his career 10.8 player efficiency rating, via Basketball-Reference.com. The Detroit Pistons gave shooter Jodie Meeks a three-year, $19.5 million deal, despite the fact he entered last season with a career 40.4 field-goal percentage.

Value has been incredibly difficult—if not impossible—to find in this class, but the Bulls discovered it in Gasol.

He's a tremendous passer regardless of size, but a particularly gifted creator given his 7'0" frame. His 3.4 assists average trailed only two other forward-centers, one of them being new frontcourt mate Joakim Noah (5.4).

"Gasol is an incredible facilitator, and rarely garners credit for being so," noted Josh Planos of The Washington Post. "Pairing Gasol with all-star center Joakim Noah couples the No. 1 and No. 3 power forward/center [passers] in the league last season in the same front court. It’ll be the best passing tandem in recent memory."

How's that for a shot in the arm of one of the NBA's most offensively challenged teams?

Yet, Gasol isn't the reason for the optimism breezing through the Windy City. Or rather, he isn't the only reason for Bulls fans to get excited.

You see, the Spaniard is only a piece of Chicago's offseason puzzle. Unlike Anthony, Gasol's arrival didn't restrict the Bulls from making other moves—or create the need for additional ones like the franchise's salary-shredding maneuvers to get into Anthony's price range would have.

The Bulls are now finally set to reap the rewards of draft-and-stash prospect Nikola Mirotic. Since being selected 23rd in the 2011 draft, the 6'10" shooter "has established himself as arguably the best and most NBA-ready player in Europe," as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan observed.

The Spanish League MVP in 2013, Mirotic is headed stateside on a three-year, $17 million contract, per Wojnarowski.

In last month's draft, Chicago also traded for Doug McDermott, who left Creighton with an absurd 21.7 points-per-game career scoring average. As Las Vegas Summer League defenders have quickly learned, they call the 22-year-old "McBuckets" for a reason.

With Gasol in on the cheap and guys like Mirotic and McDermott not the breaking the bank, the Bulls didn't have to break up their core that rattled off 48 wins last season despite former MVP Derrick Rose missing all but 10 contests.

This addition-by-non-subtraction allowed the Bulls to hang onto Taj Gibson, who averaged a career-best 13 points a night last season. Put all the new and old pieces together, and you're left with a versatile frontcourt that holds significant two-way potential.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau will have to figure out how all the pieces fit, but that's a luxury he hasn't had in seasons past. After years of hoping that less might somehow be more—"We have enough" has become a Thibs' favorite to rally his undermanned team—the Bulls are now primed to discover that more is in fact more, as Bulls.com's Sam Smith wrote:

Thibodeau, meanwhile, should be able to better rest inside players now with four players competing for perhaps 96 minutes. It’s possible three could play together at times with Mirotic an outside shooter and Gibson able to defend on the perimeter depending on matchups. But the benefit should be to have a more rested Noah and Gasol come playoff time.

Securing a postseason spot feels inevitable. The Bulls have learned how to survive without offense, but that's no longer a necessity.

"You can argue that now their four best scorers are (or will be) Rose, Gasol, McDermott and Mirotic, and none of those were on last year’s roster except for Rose for 10 games," Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta wrote.

Now, all of this is contingent upon having a healthy Rose in the mix. The dynamic floor general has made 10 regular-season appearances since April 2012, sidelined first by a torn ACL and later a torn meniscus.

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The Bulls won't be championship threats if medical red flags are still flying around the 25-year-old, but that would've been the case even if Anthony's recruiting trip ended in Chicago.

If Rose is right, the sky is truly the limit for this team. With him around for 39 games in 2011-12, the Bulls had the NBA's fifth-most efficient offense, per NBA.com.

And, remember, that team didn't have the All-Star version of Noah, Gasol's well-rounded game, a polished Gibson, a sharpshooting Mike Dunleavy or this young core of McDermott, Mirotic, Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler.

A best-case scenario for Chicago might be the reason sports fans entertain visions of such things. As Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer explained, the potential for this group is limitless:

Snell and McDermott could build off of their stellar Summer League showings to become fantastic wing or even stretch four options off the bench. Gibson is the perfect big man to come off the pine to spell Noah or Gasol at either position. Gasol is the perfect tutor for Mirotic. Butler, with [Kirk] Hinrich now acting as a reserve and with Snell developing, won’t have to play 48 minutes a night anymore. D.J. Augustin won’t have to lead the team in scoring.

Time will tell how this all plays out, but Chicago has positioned itself to reclaim its spot among the NBA elites. And it did so by reacting to a free-agent market that tantalized with bells and whistles but ultimately yielded a less heralded but promising package of players.

Swinging for the fences isn't a bad path to pursue, but sometimes hitters need to recognize the count and adjust accordingly.

Look at the MLB All-Star rosters. Sure, there are some boppers in there, but the ranks are also filled with speedsters, guys who hit for good average and jack-of-all-trade types that bring a number of different talents to the table.

In the NBA, too often the quantity-versus-quality analysis focuses on the individual. Step back, though, and often times you'll find that teams have added tremendous quality through quantity additions.

No, the Bulls did not add a secondary scorer for Rose. However, the road they traveled should lead to superior third, fourth and fifth scoring options.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With so many recognizable faces returning, there's no reason to suspect any defensive regression. Players like Butler, Gibson and Noah are still aboard to accept the toughest assignments, which may not have been the case had Anthony taken Chicago's bait.

A two-man attack of Melo and Rose would have been potent, but a five-man onslaught may prove to be an even tougher cover. The San Antonio Spurs showed there's still power in numbers, and the Bulls may have created a similar blend of top-shelf talent and depth.

Anthony's arrival may have sparked a parade through the Windy City streets, but the Bulls are about to realize the benefits of keeping quiet.

Front-page acquisitions might drive headlines, but under-the-radar moves always have a say in which team hoists the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy at season's end.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via ShamSports.com.

 

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