When Carmelo Anthony decided to stay with the New York Knicks instead of signing with the Chicago Bulls, it was deemed a “failure” on the part of the latter's front office. However, general manager Gar Forman and Vice President of Operations John Paxson aren't primarily concerned with landing a superstar; they’re looking to assemble the best possible team.
Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago wrote:
The best-laid schemes of Bulls and men often go astray, especially when it comes to the Kobes, LeBrons and Carmelos of the world. ...
If I had a dollar for every time the Bulls came up second in a chance to land a great NBA player, I’d have enough to self-publish my book, 'The 50 Greatest Deals the Bulls Almost Made.'
Your friendly BullsBlogger at Blogabull, voiced the concerns of many, declaring that the fault lies in the Bulls’ refusal to consider dealing Taj Gibson:
The sticking point there is Taj Gibson. The Bulls wanted Carmelo Anthony, but they apparently only wanted him with Taj on the team. It looks like the Bulls wanted Anthony only on their terms, like they didn't even want to make it seem like they'd trade Taj to create room for him because they didn't want to trade Taj under any circumstance.
The problem is that the Knicks were able to offer Anthony about $45 to $50 million more than the Bulls could, and that’s quite a fistful of cash. The Bulls could have cut that difference in half by trading Taj Gibson. The critics point to the Bulls’ steadfast refusal to do that as part of the reason (if not the whole reason) they missed out on Anthony.
Part of the problem here is that Anthony didn’t want Gibson traded, per Marc Berman of the New York Post:
For the Bulls to get near the $22.5 million figure — and only for four years — they’d have to trade power forward Taj Gibson, among making other moves.
'The head coach doesn’t want to trade Taj,' one source familiar with the Bulls’ thinking told The Post.
The Chicago Tribune reported Anthony doesn’t want Chicago to trade Gibson either. That’s a roadblock.
Recruiting Anthony by trading away a player he reportedly wants to play with doesn't seem to be a great strategy. But let’s say they rolled the dice anyway and gave away Gibson, hoping the extra money would be enough to seal the deal, even if it was at the cost of a deeper team and a greater chance of winning, which was the supposed appeal to Anthony.
Compare this with what the Houston Rockets did, who hollowed out their team with no assurances. They let restricted free agent Chandler Parsons walk. They traded Omer Asik first, and then Jeremy Lin. They did all of this to create cap space for Anthony or Chris Bosh. Neither ended up signing.
Houston’s big offseason acquisition was Trevor Ariza. He is a nice piece, and his defense will be a valuable asset for the Rockets, who are challenged on that end of the court. But, if you’d talked about trading Asik, Lin and Parsons for Ariza last February, you’d have been mocked.
This underscores the dangers of going “all in” without hedging your bets. Could Gibson have been dealt? Easily. There were teams that would have been happy to take his contract. But would trading Gibson have assured the Bulls of signing Anthony, especially if there are reports that part of the appeal to Anthony was playing with Gibson? Not at all.
There’s also a fallacy involved in the logic of reducing the cost of Anthony to just Gibson.
It’s as though I had three $10 bills and you had a $20, and you insist that your one bill is worth my three because the value of your one bill is greater than each of my three. My three, as package, are greater than your one. I have no problem giving you two of the 10s for your 20. But I’m not giving you the third.
Simply making it about Gibson vs. Anthony is wrong-minded in the sense that it’s not just Gibson vs. Anthony. Gibson is part of a package, the sum of which is greater than Anthony.
The Bulls signed Pau Gasol for $7.128 million in the first year and Nikola Mirotic starting at $5.305 million. That total of $12.433 million consumed all Chicago’s available cap space created by the Carlos Boozer amnesty and letting go of their non-guaranteed contracts.
Dumping Gibson would have generated about another $7.5 million (Gibson’s salary minus the incomplete roster charge the Bulls would have incurred). That would give $19.9 million in space, still a couple million short of offering Anthony a max deal. Dumping Mike Dunleavy Jr. would add another $2.8 million to the offer, enough to make up the difference.
That means the whole “package” includes Gasol, and Mirotic (whom they wouldn’t have been able to sign) and Gibson and Dunleavy (whom they would have had to deal).
We can complain all day about how the Bulls should have gone “all in,” but if you put things in their proper perspective and view the entire cost, you see the wisdom of what the Bulls did.
Imagine the rules allowed for it (which they don’t). If the Bulls traded Gasol, Mirotic, Gibson and Dunleavy for Anthony, would they be a better team? Effectively, that’s what the whole package includes.
If your answer is no, then you acknowledge the “fallout” of the Bulls not getting Anthony is that they might actually be a better team than they would have been with him.
Are the Bulls a better team than they would have been if they'd given Carmelo Anthony a max contract?
Furthermore, imagine if they gutted the team to generate cap room and pulled a “Rockets,” where Anthony didn’t sign and they had a relative shell of a roster. Would the critics be saying, “Well, at least they tried”? Would Gasol still take a pay cut to come to the Bulls?
I have my doubts.
If the Bulls had dumped all their assets to land Anthony and failed in doing so, they wouldn't be able to create an appealing offer. The backup plan left them in position to land another superstar. Again, though, it will come down to whether the player is worth the package.
Some, such as Bleacher Report's Brian Mazique, even argue that the Bulls are better off with their newly acquired depth than dealing for Love:
It's clear the strength of the squad is depth.
The added depth came without sacrificing the team's defensive identity. Chicago got the shooting it needed and now boasts unprecedented versatility at four positions. If the team sends Mirotic, McDermott and Taj Gibson to Minnesota for Love, it will sacrifice that identity and its depth.
At the very least, the Bulls drive the price up for Cleveland. Again, that's not something they could do without assets.
Hedging your bets isn't cowardly. It’s wise. They might have lost the Carmelo Anthony hand, but they held some chips back. They turned those chips into a bigger bank and are now better positioned to win the “pot” of the NBA championship. It’s hard by any definition to call that offseason a “failure.”