This summer, the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose are faced with their most pivotal offseason since the Michael Jordan era. Whether they make the right choices or not may be the difference between winning multiple rings and winning none.
The Bulls have certainly had some offseasons of great importance before with Derrick Rose. Obviously, drafting Rose in 2008 was an important step in that direction. As was the summer of 2010, when they signed Tom Thibodeau as the head coach. Even those aren't as critical as this offseason, though.
It is rare for a team that is already competitive to have as much freedom to improve itself as Chicago does this year. It’s pursuing a No. 3 seed in an admittedly weak Eastern Conference, but it’s doing so without its best player, Rose. That’s indicative of how good it could be with him.
The Bulls already have a winning nucleus with Rose and this year's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Joakim Noah, as the foundation. Add in Taj Gibson, a front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year, and Jimmy Butler, one of the elite wing defenders in the league, and the Bulls are close to being a contender already.
What they do this summer will determine how far their core can go and will have ramifications lasting for the next half-decade. Ultimately, whether the Rose-era Bulls are a dynasty or just a good regular-season team is at stake.
The decisions by both Rose and his team fall into three categories:
- How Rose handles his summer.
- How the Bulls handle free agency.
- How the Bulls handle the draft.
How Rose Handles His Summer
Nothing much matters if Rose isn't healthy. And if he isn't able to stay healthy, there certainly won't be a "Derrick Rose era." However, the Bulls seem confident that he will be and are proceeding accordingly.
That's why it is great news for both the Bulls and Rose that he has an opportunity to play for his country this summer, per ESPN Chicago. After being named to the squad, Rose said in a statement provided by Team USA:
I'm looking forward to getting back on the court this summer and having the chance to represent our country. It's an honor to play for Team USA and Coach K.
The three important words there are, “on the court.” Rose has played just 26 times since the 2012 NBA All-Star Game.
In the brief 10-game stint he had this year, he struggled when creating points for himself. He was just 6-of-27 on layups. His effective field-goal percentage was 26.1 percent on pull-up shots. He shot 42.2 percent on drives.
His signature teardrop jumper was often forced and rarely fell. The elements of his game which are normally his strengths weren't there. And in an effort to try and get it going, Rose was pressing, which only served to exacerbate the issue.
Getting on the court for Team USA will be huge this summer for two reasons: It will enable Rose to play on a daily basis with some of the best players in the world; and it will allow him to do so without having the pressure of carrying the team.
Just having the chance to compete will give him confidence in both his game and his knees. It will shake off rust. And the caliber of his teammates will be such that he’ll be able to just be a part of the team without bearing the onus of the offense. That means he won't press so much and his game will return to him more naturally.
Look at this roster, according to Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated. While some of these players have opted out, it gives an idea of the quality of player Rose will be surrounded with.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State Warriors
Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers
New York Knicks
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trail Blazers
That’s a lot of talent to be playing around. It’s not just an issue of what they do together in international competition, either. It’s what can happen in practice on a day-to-day basis. The scrimmages will probably represent the best competition.
Playing for Team USA during the summer is going to be a great stepping stone for Rose to get back into his rhythm, one he didn't have available last year.
How the Bulls Handle Free Agency
The Bulls are potentially in a position they haven’t been in since the summer of 2010. They can land a major piece in free agency, but they have to make some choices to get there. That means they must be willing to pay someone to not do their job, something that probably gives owner Jerry Reinsdorf night terrors.
Carlos Boozer is available for the amnesty clause. He’ll be making $16.8 million next season. This year he’s averaging 13.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He’s rarely playing in the fourth quarter. Since January 1, he’s totaled just 39 minutes and 10 points in the final frame. To put that in perspective, even Jimmer Fredette has 12.
It’s hard to justify shelling out that much of your payroll to a player you don’t want on the court with the game on the line.
There are drawbacks to buying his contract, though.
He isn't worth the money he is making, and no one argues that he is, but he’s a long way from being worthless too. Amnestying him, theoretically, could have him going to a rival team like the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers, with the bulk of his check being paid by the Bulls.
That concern should be mitigated mostly by the amnesty waivers process, though. Teams under the cap will have first crack, and he’s a decent enough player that someone is going to bid something on him.
If they make the move, it will allow the Bulls to open up $12 million in cap space after holds, depending on a few other variables, such as exact draft position for both the Bulls and the Charlotte Bobcats (more on that later).
That’s going to necessitate another decision. What do they do with the spending money?
Their top priority will be bringing 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic over from Real Madrid. The problem is getting a gauge on what that would cost. According to Ken Berger of CBS Sports, “League sources say Mirotic would be looking for a deal in the $3 million-$4 million range." If Berger's right, that would be relatively cheap.
Rigas Dardalis of Eurohoops has him going for about $5 million a year:
According to most US based sources, it’s a given that Nikola Mirotic will leave Real Madrid, something we also consider a done deal if the Spaniards win the Euroleague, and the Bulls are ready to spend for the talented forward their mid-level exception in a four years deal, which translates to a more than $20 million contract for him.
I’ve read blogs which speculate a much higher cost—as high as $10 million a year—but I haven’t seen anything sourced to the team or Mirotic. That speculation seems exclusively tied to what the Bulls “could” pay if they had to. However, with the Bulls being the only NBA team who can sign Mirotic, there’s not much bargaining he can do, so the high-end speculation seems suspect.
Let’s say Mirotic comes over for a four-year deal starting at $5 million. He would be able to take a max pay raise of 7.5 percent, or $375,000 per year. That would make the contract a four-year deal worth $22.25 million. It would leave the Bulls with around $7 million to spend.
Amin Elhassan of ESPN Insider (subscription required) projected the salaries of the top 30 potential free agents. Using that as a guide, here are some players the Bulls could look at.
They could try to land Trevor Ariza, (projected for $5.5 million) or Evan Turner ($5.5 million). Ariza is a tremendously underrated three-and-D small forward who would fit in well with the Bulls' mentality while stretching the court.
Turner is an athletic wing who can score, but he hasn't developed as well as hoped and has a negative history with Rose. Still, one would think that grown men could put aside childhood rivalries, and Thibs has developed a reputation for salvaging careers.
Or if they preferred, they could trade Mike Dunleavy Jr. to free up another $3.3 million and chase someone like Gordon Hayward ($9 million) or Lance Stephenson ($9.5 million). Both are players who have not yet reached their full potential and are already borderline All Stars.
Whether they keep or trade Dunleavy, there's a good chance they could also use the room exception of about $2.6 million to keep D.J. Augustin and bring back Kirk Hinrich for the minimum.
Those are the safer options.
Or they could try and overhaul the team and chase after Carmelo Anthony, but that wouldn't be so easy.
The argument for Anthony is pretty obvious: The Bulls are an awful offensive team and he's a great scorer. He's the defending scoring champion. He can create his own shot and hit the open jumper. The idea of he and Rose playing together is just plain fun. Who are you going to double-team?
Factor in Noah’s ability to facilitate with both of them and it’s easy to see why the dream is there for some. The problem is it might be a pipe dream.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required) puts things in perspective:
Ah, the Carmelo Anthony question. Here’s what it would take to land Anthony: Use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer. Trade -- at least --Taj Gibson to a team with salary-cap space, taking nothing in return. Do not sign Nikola Mirotic. And then start next season with Joakim Noah, Anthony, Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler (unless he had to be traded as well to clear cap space), Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and a bunch of minimum-salaried players and whatever rookies are added.
Anthony is a great player, but he’s going to be 30. He hasn't built a reputation for team play or defense, things the Bulls value (though you could argue his limitations on both those fronts are exaggerated).
And that’s a lot to pay upfront, both in terms of players and money. But the cost could get even heavier looking forward, as Johnson explains:
Clearing enough cap space to sign Anthony to a max or near-max salary also would place two $20 million players on the Bulls at a time when they hope to sign Mirotic in the future, extend Butler past his rookie scale contract and possibly talk extension with Noah, whose deal expires in 2016.
Is Anthony potentially worth Boozer, Gibson, Mirotic and Noah or Butler?
The other problem is that in the immediate future, there is no real power forward on the team. They would have to remedy that with Erik Murphy, a rookie or a minimum-level player. It's feasible the Bulls play Anthony at power forward, but then the same problem is at small forward or shooting guard, depending on where you play Tony Snell.
Either way, you're left with a tremendously shallow bench.
It’s also true they’re missing a critical cog in their clutch defense without Gibson. There would be more holes dug to fill the one that's there.
There’s an argument to be made for signing Anthony, but the cost has to be counted, and it's quite heavy. What the Bulls do will have enormous impact over the next four years. A 34-year-old Anthony with a hobbled Rose and spare parts to flesh out the team might not be what we want a few years down the line.
Who They Draft
The Bulls will have two draft picks this summer. While it’s not locked in yet, it’s close to being so. The Bobcats are close to clinching a playoff spot, and when they do their pick will go to Chicago.
This goes back to the Tyrus Thomas trade in the 2009-10 season and the protected first-round pick the Bulls got back.
Charlotte is more or less settled into the 15th spot. The Bulls’ pick should be the 19th. How they use those picks will be huge. The Bulls have been either very good (Butler, Gibson) or very bad (James Johnson, Marquis Teague) in the draft recently. There is no in-between.
Quality draft picks are huge in building a long-term team. If you pick well, they give you solid production at a discount price. For example, consider that Butler is making less money than Nazr Mohammed this year.
It’s important that the Bulls draft well since they may not get another top-20 pick for quite some time. This is a great draft to have two mid-round selections in.
While there’s some debate as to how many, if any, true franchise players there are in this draft, there’s no question that it’s deep. Quality players who would typically be lottery picks will fall well into the Bulls' range.
While there are many mock drafts (and pretty much none of them ever end up being right), it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is going to go where. Ideally, the Bulls would target a scoring guard and a center in the draft. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, they get Willie Cauley-Stein and Zach LaVine.
Cauley-Stein is a solid defensive center with athleticism who could develop well under Noah. LaVine is an incredibly athletic guard who can get to the rim and hit the three (.384). He would pair with Rose like Brie and chardonnay.
The important thing with both players is not so much about what they can contribute immediately but what they can do as they develop. Where the team is at in three years is just as important as where they're at next year.
Between their two first-round picks and Mirotic, the Bulls should have three rookies on the roster next season as well as second-year player Tony Snell. That’s a lot of talent to develop over time which allows for a cohesiveness to be established with the bench.
The sum game of the Bulls' decisions is what needs to be considered. The goal is not to add a second scorer or a superstar. It’s not even to “get Derrick Rose some help.” Those things may be a means to an end, but they are not the goal itself.
The objective of the offseason is to build a team which will have best chance to win over the next four or five years. There won’t be any going back on those decisions.
Here are three different rosters I can conceive based on three different approaches. Substitute your own draft picks/free agents according to your personal preferences. The names listed are to show strategies, not iron-clad specifics.
Also note, the availability of Mirotic in "The Medium Approach" is tenuous, depending on what you believe about his contract demands.
The Minimalist Approach
M. Dunleavy Jr.
The Medium Approach
The Overhaul Approach
I prefer either of the first two options. There’s no sexy signing, but there’s a cohesive team and enough offense gets added, along with the return of Rose, to solve the offensive woes of the Bulls. I have a hunch not everyone will agree with me, though.
There’s little doubt that this is going to be a hotly debated issue among Bulls fans, at least through this summer. And if the decisions don’t pan out, there will be many “I told you so’s” muttered.
Whatever happens, it will determine the team’s immediate future and Rose’s legacy, for better or worse. That may be the only thing that’s not up for debate.
Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.