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May 11, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Sixers Finish Off Bulls

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Philadelphia 79, Chicago 78 (Sixers win series 4-2)
Pace: 82.3
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 96.0, Chicago 94.8

All through the Bulls' injury-plagued season, Tom Thibodeau used the same phrase over and over again: "We have more than enough to win with." And win they did, finishing with the league's best record and top overall seed in the playoffs. Alas, after Thursday's crushing 79-78 loss at Philadelphia, the gaudy seed and another Central Division title is all Chicago has to show for its regular-season success.

The Bulls didn't have enough to win with, not Derrick Rose out, not with Joakim Noah out, not with Carlos Boozer on the bench for the last 16:07 on the game. Rose and Noah are going to be back and given better luck with health, their best basketball days still lay ahead. That's not the case for Boozer, who wilted when the Bulls needed him most. Boozer made 1 of 11 shots on Thursday. When the Bulls' third quarter run coincided with Boozer going to the bench in favor of Taj Gibson, that was the last we saw of him for the 2011-12 season.

The Bulls have a bright future, but they also have some hard decisions to make as their deep roster becomes more expensive. Omer Asik will be a restricted free agent, and will draw a lot of interest on the market. Asik was a beast on Thursday, putting up 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, while changing countless shots during his 39 minutes of action. He missed the two biggest free throws of the Bulls' season, but never should have been put in that position -- C.J. Watson should have known better than to feed him the ball when the Sixers had to foul to stop the clock. But without Asik, the Bulls wouldn't have been in position to win Thursday and force a Game Seven.

Asik's production is worth $4-5 million per season on the open market based on his level of production, and given the scarcity of starting-quality centers in the NBA, he'll surely get some lucrative offers this summer. As a former second-round pick, Asik will be subject to the Gilbert Arenas provision of the CBA in which a potential suitor will be limited to offering Asik the full midlevel exception, which next season will again be $5 million for non-luxury tax payers. The Bulls will be able to match that offer using Asik's Early-Bird rights, and they should. Not only is Asik tremendously valuable now, but there is plenty of growth left in his game, in terms of adding bulk and strength, and improving his hands to the point he doesn't make the ball look like it's slathered in grease.

Gibson has emerged as a highly admired player for his tenacious defense and ability to face up on offense, both in terms of knocking down jumpers on the pick-and-pop and rolling to the basket. He also runs the floor well, but his lack of skill as a post player differentiates Gibson from Boozer on the offensive end of the floor. He's never going to be a 20-point scorer as Boozer has been in the past. Still, outside of the core trio of Rose, Noah and Luol Deng, Gibson is the most valuable piece on the roster. We saw that on Thursday, when Gibson helped fuel the comeback from a 12-point deficit.

Gibson will be entering the fourth season of his rookie contract, and the Bulls will try to sign him to an extension sometime this fall. Let's be optimistic and say that a contract similar to the five-year, $40 million deal that former Bull Tyrus Thomas signed with Charlotte will get it done.

The Bulls already have four players slated to earn eight figures apiece in each of the next two seasons, so you can see how the payroll is climbing higher and higher. In addition to Asik and Gibson, you have non-guaranteed contracts for Ronnie Brewer ($4.4 million) and C.J. Watson ($3.2 million) to decide on by July 10. Then there's Kyle Korver, who has just $500,000 of his $5 million deal guaranteed for next year. Jimmy Butler will be entering the second year of his rookie contract. Richard Hamilton is guaranteed $5 million for next season. You'll have to fill out the roster with at least two more players at the veteran's minimum. Finally, the Bulls own the 29th pick in the upcoming draft, which will run another $857,000 or so.

Add up the tab for keeping the same Bulls roster intact for next season, plus a rookie, and you're looking at around $83.4 million in salary. Ouch.

The Bulls really only have one recourse to avoid a massive luxury tax bill for the next two years, and that is to slap the amnesty tag on Boozer.

Eventually, this is going to happen. Replacing Boozer's salary with a veteran's minimum deal or a second-round rookie would probably drop the Bulls close enough to the tax line that they could avoid both the extra payroll cost and the penalties the new CBA employs that make it harder for high-payroll teams to add talent. Boozer has three years and $47.1 million left on his contract. He'll get that money one way or another, but there is no way the Bulls will let all of that cash eat up their future cap space. Jerry Reinsdorf isn't going to like it, but Boozer is going to have to be looked at as a sunk cost. Eventually.

Boozer is not a bad player. He's a pretty good one, in fact. But he turns 31 this fall and his effectiveness has dwindled since his heyday in Utah. That's mostly reflected in a true shooting percentage that for the last two seasons has been well below his career standard of .570. This year, his usage rate fell as well, so even though he doesn't carry as heavy an offensive load and plays fewer minutes, his efficiency has decreased. He's still a willing enough passer, but commits too many turnovers and his defense is a weak spot in the Bulls' starting five. At the right salary, Boozer would remain a valuable member of the Bulls. But an average $15.7 million for the next three years is not the right salary, not for a team scraping for any flexibility it can muster.

The question is whether the timing is right to amnesty Boozer this summer. Even if you do, there is no way the Bulls can free up enough flexibility to go after an impact free agent. As mentioned, even their midlevel exception is probably going to be used to retain Asik. All you gain from amnestying Boozer is a few more dollars in Reinsdorf's bank account.

Meanwhile, the Bulls are facing the likelihood that Rose will miss at least half, if not more, of the 2012-13 season. We've seen this year that the current Bulls roster can win big without Rose, at least in the regular season. However, Boozer is a big part of that as his low-block and pick-and-pop abilities take on added importance in a Rose-less environment. It's just a matter of Reinsdorf taking the financial hit. There is a possibility, one would suppose, that Boozer could be traded for a player at a similar salary level, but good luck finding that fit on another roster.

Chances are, the Bulls will retain Watson to run the team in Rose's stead. It's not an ideal choice, but the kind of players who would be willing to take a minimum deal from Chicago are invariably going to be inferior to Watson. Brewer is in a similar boat. The Bulls would probably like to land another scorer, but in order to do that, you'd basically have to amnesty Boozer, let Asik walk and forgo your options on Watson, Brewer and Korver. That's a lot of rearranging for a team that's going to be missing its best player for most of next season.

The most likely scenario is that the Bulls will swallow the salary pill to bring back the same roster. They might deal their first round pick to save a few dollars, but that's about it. We never really got to see this year's team at full strength for any real length of time. So we don't know how good it might have been with everyone healthy and Hamilton fully integrated into the system. The Bulls will likely gamble on that health next season and hope that Rose can return to All-Star form before next year's playoffs. Then maybe we'll get that Miami-Chicago showdown we thought was inevitable this year.

Bulls fans may clamor for a roster shake-up, but the timing just isn't right for it. There were plenty of experts who thought a full-strength Chicago team could win the title this season. Given the lack of options available, it makes sense for the Bulls to stand pat for one more year.

After that, the Bulls will have some better options. Boozer can be amnestied at that point. Hamilton only has a $1 million guaranteed for 2013-14, so you can let him go and use the savings to keep Korver, Watson or Brewer, or maybe two of them. Then comes the exciting part: After next season, it may well become feasible for European prospect Nikola Mirotic to bring his talents to the shores of Lake Michigan. With another year of development in Europe and a buyout figure that should become palatable, the Bulls can bid Boozer adieu and bring in an exciting replacement on a rookie salary. By filling out the roster with more minimum salary guys than they currently have, they can also avoid repeating as a luxury tax payer.

Chicago was going to face a difficult decision regarding Boozer even if Rose was healthy. If they weren't able to get by Miami again--and we'll never know now if they could--then the clamor would be to upgrade the roster, not maintain it. In a way, Rose's injury buys them time to wait on Mirotic. Now they can keep Boozer, tread water until Rose gets healthy, and make the run at Miami that they didn't get to make this time around. And all that it'll cost them is money.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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