The Chicago Bulls had a successful offseason, not only for next season, but for the next three. In fact, to fairly evaluate the front office’s performance, it’s worth looking at the long-term plan to see how well the salary structure and future additions have been considered.
Part of continued success in the NBA is managing salary cap and accruing assets. Not only are the Bulls remarkable for assembling a roster which is capable of contending for a title this year, but they’ve also planned ahead so they can continue to build upon the existing core over the next few years without losing anyone.
The 2014-15 roster appears to be mostly in place. Reviewing that gives us the basis to project what will happen going forward. First let's analyze the offseason moves the Bulls made.
Exact salary information for the Bulls’ signings isn’t available yet, but they can be estimated using the 4.5 percent maximum increase, the salaries reported and the rookie salary scale as a gauge.
Brian Windhorst tweeted the amount of Nikola Mirotic’s contract yesterday:
David Aldridge announced that Chicago re-signed Kirk Hinrich for two years using their room mid-level exception.
The Bulls also offered second-round pick Cameron Bairstow a three-year contract, per David Pick of Eurobasket.com:
The Bulls have yet to finalize terms with the No. 11 pick, Doug McDermott, whose rights they traded for on draft night. I assumed the unofficial standard of 120 percent of the rookie scale for his contract.
Finally, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls are currently finalizing a deal with Aaron Brooks for the minimum.
Based on all that, and the previous salaries from Sham Sports, this is a rough three-year projection of the Bulls' current pay structure:
|Bulls Roster and Salaries through 2016-17|
|Richard Hamilton *||$333,334||$333,334|
|Sham Sports and cited news sources|
The most immediate concern beyond this year is figuring out what to do with Jimmy Butler. He was named to the All-Defensive second team in 2013-14 and may very well be the best perimeter defender in the NBA.
His 9.9 opponents' player efficiency rating led all players who were on the court at least 40 percent of the time, per 82games.com. The most remarkable thing about that is that Butler routinely guarded the best wing player on the opposing team.
The general consensus is that Stephenson took a bit of a haircut because of the perception of locker room issues. In terms of play, Stephenson is better than Butler, but Butler is more stable. Stephenson’s deal is a good approximation for what Butler will be worth.
A four-year, $38 million deal for Butler would have him starting at $8.9 million and put the Bulls’ salaries at a total of $72.1 million. He would be a bargain at the price, but I’d be surprised to see them sign him for more than $10 million the first year.
This year, the luxury tax is $76.8 million, and it should go up next year. That means that the Bulls could still use their full mid-level exception and biannual exception during the summer of 2015 and remain under the apron—$4 million over the tax threshold—which is the point at which the more punitive effects of the CBA kick in.
Additionally, they might have two selections in the next draft. They have the rights to the Sacramento Kings’ top-10 protected pick, as well as their own. Chicago would have 10 players under contract already, so it’s doubtful that they would use both picks and both exceptions.
That means that Gar Forman and John Paxson’s favorite word, “flexibility,” can be invoked. They could combine the two picks (if they have both) and trade up. They could use one or both of them to draft a player and stash him overseas, as they did with Mirotic. Or, they could combine the picks with Butler in a sign-and-trade to land another star.
If they went the most expensive route and added the No. 11 pick (the highest possible from Sacramento), the biannual exception and the full mid-level exception, they would be sitting right around $82 million in salaries.
That would be just under the tax, if the cap matches the 7 percent bump it experienced this season.
Some of what happens in the summer of 2016 will be dependent on what happens in 2015. But two things won’t change: Joakim Noah will be a free agent, and the Bulls will make keeping him a major priority.
Determining his worth from now to then is a difficult task. Noah’s coming off the best season of his career, and it’s likely the best season he’ll ever have. It’s doubtful he’ll ever be highlighted as much again.
He’ll also be 31, and he’s been logging heavy and hard minutes for the last four years. That said, the additions of Gasol and Mirotic give the Bulls a deep big-man rotation, and that should result in a lower workload for Noah.
The other unknown in this is the TV deal the NBA is negotiating, which could have a massive impact on the cap in 2016-17.
Per Tom Haberstroh of ESPN, via ABC News:
This season's rise of 7.5 percent will seem trivial compared the expected 2016-17 bump. One team's cap expert I spoke with is currently operating under a salary cap projection of $75 million for the 2016-17, which would represent a 13.2 percent bump compared to 2015-16. That's a huge number and it could soar even higher. A jump to $80 million, the number that Windhorst cited, would indicate an enormous 20 percent hike, larger than anything we've seen in the NBA since 1996 when the cap went up 44.7 percent from $15.9 million to $23 million. It's worth pointing out that while the TV deal jumped 20 percent in 2008, the salary cap moved up only 5.5 percent the next season.
That would mean that the Bulls could give a four-year, $68 million deal to Noah; sign another mid-level exception player; and stay below the cap.
Gasol has a player option on the third year of his deal and may choose to exercise that. If he did, and Noah’s cost seemed too high, the Bulls would have enough space (around $20 million) to pursue a max-contract player in lieu of re-signing Noah.
Beyond that? Not a single player on the Bulls roster has a contract for the 2017-18 season, though once McDermott signs, he will be have team option for that year, per standard rookie deals. At that time, if the Bulls wanted, they could maintain the current roster, blow the whole thing up or do something in between.
What is most impressive about the Bulls’ plan is way they’re going to be able to seamlessly roll into the next era of Bulls history while remaining in contention for a title each year.
They have a bevy of young players in McDermott, Mirotic, Snell and Butler who will continue to develop while Rose (if he can stay healthy) hits his prime. They’ll be guided through the process by the veteran leadership of Noah and Gasol. As they age, the youngsters will be hitting their stride.
Essentially rebuilding while contending is something that only the San Antonio Spurs do. That the Bulls have managed their roster, contracts and assets so similarly is a commendable feat.
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