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August 28, 2012
Bull
Really, it's about the money in Chicago

by Bradford Doolittle

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The Chicago Bulls managed to avoid the headlines for most of the summer, falling into a kind of irrelevance while the other top teams in the NBA fattened up. The only news conference the team had all summer came in late July, when a small group of local media showed up at the team's suburban headquarters. The occasion was the official introductions of newly signed guards Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli.

The presser happened to fall on the same day Chicago decided against matching the offer sheet former backup center Omer Asik signed with the Houston Rockets. General manager Gar Forman, on hand for the niceties, wasn't talking about Asik, whose departure constituted the only real news of the day, or anything else, really. It made for an awkward experience.

The decision not to match on Asik was the climax of the Bulls' offseason. Everything that led it up to it was a consequence of Asik's restricted free agency; everything else can be best qualified as fallout. All for a second-round pick who averaged 2.9 points per game in his two seasons with the Bulls, yet was extremely valuable.

"Omer is very, very important to us," Forman told the Bulls' official website in mid-June. "We see him as a key piece of our team moving forward."

That was one of just a couple of statements Forman made this summer that will serve as fodder for anyone who wants to criticize the Bulls' long-term plan. The other potential foot-in-mouth comment was directly related to his praise for Asik:

"Our decisions this summer will be basketball decisions, not financial decisions."

Forman's intentions were noble. He was trying to emphasize that the Bulls' business operations -- which, of course, are headed up by owner Jerry Reinsdorf -- would not be undercutting the basketball side of the operation. In a league governed by a strict collective bargaining agreement, it was an exceedingly silly thing to say. Of course the basketball decisions are also financial ones.

In most respects, Forman, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and the rest of the Bulls' front office were facing a difficult summer regardless of the fate of Asik. You can argue that no team faced a thornier set of decisions.

Everything was thrown into flux by Derrick Rose's crumpled knee. Had the Bulls' window of contention closed? What should be done about the summer's contract decisions pending for several players? When would Rose be back, and how effective would he be? The uncertainty of those questions muddled the possible answers about everything else.

Let's get one thing straight: There was only one thing keeping the Bulls from bringing back the exact same roster plus their first-round pick from this season. That reason, of course, was money. From a salary-cap perspective, there was nothing preventing Chicago from bringing back the likes of C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and even Asik had they planned a little better when they brought him over from Europe. It just would have cost them about $83 million, plus another $13 million or so in luxury tax. Chicago will end up in luxury tax land as it is, but because the franchise has never exceeded the threshold before, there is little danger of the Bulls becoming one of the recidivists who will face the eventual wrath of the new CBA.

The most compelling case for keeping the team together can be traced to the group's success in the past two regular seasons and, in a way, its subsequent misfortune in the playoffs. Two seasons ago, the Bulls rode Rose's MVP season to a league-high 62 wins despite injury problems that limited the starting big-man duo of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer to just 29 appearances together. In the postseason, the Bulls struggled with continuity despite reaching the East finals, where they were dispatched by Miami in five competitive games.

Last season, the Bulls' anticipated starting unit, including new acquisition Richard Hamilton, was together for just 15 games in the regular season, 13 of them Chicago wins. Those starters won another one in the playoffs -- the game in which Rose was injured against Philadelphia.

In both seasons, there were plenty of well-reasoned observers who felt that a healthy Bulls team firing on all cylinders was good enough to get past Miami and win a championship. Now that the rotation has been broken up, you can't help but feel as though Chicago's best roster since the days of Jordan never got a full-fledged shot at the big prize.

Financial decisions

It's not hard to see that decisions made this summer were anticipated two years ago, when the 2010-11 juggernaut was constructed. This was the Plan B team, the squad built on depth after the Bulls' overtures to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went unanswered.

Asik's restricted free agency after two seasons was a given, although he could have been offered a nonguaranteed third year that would have delayed his free agency. Watson and Brewer had clauses in their contracts that required them to be waived by July 10 to keep the third year on their deals from becoming guaranteed. Similarly, Korver had just $500,000 of the third year of his contract guaranteed, and even the obligation for that was relinquished when Korver was traded to Atlanta for nothing -- a trade exception that can't be used because Chicago is hard-capped at a $74.3 million payroll for this season.

The Bulls' brain trust foresaw the roster becoming expensive this summer, with Rose's extension looming, Asik's free agency and the eventual decision to be made on Taj Gibson. The powers that be gave themselves escape hatches on three of their best-value contracts, then leaped through when they had the chance.

In the end, the Bulls will return just seven players from the roster that won more games than any other the past two seasons, and that includes Rose, who might not return until March, if at all. The team built on depth suddenly has none.

Most fans -- and analysts, too, for that matter -- didn't feel as if Asik was worth the $25 million he is getting from the Rockets and especially not worth the $14.9 million he's due to earn for the 2014-15 season. Objectively speaking, there is no question that $14.9 million is an unwieldy amount to pay a player of Asik's type. But there is more to the story than that.

To start, let's consider how much of an impact Asik's defense actually had on the Bulls. Chicago's greatest weapon on that end is probably Thibodeau -- which is the silver lining after this tumultuous offseason. Over the past two years, the Bulls were tied with the Celtics as the league's top defensive team in terms of points allowed per possession. Of course, Thibodeau also was responsible for installing Boston's defensive system.

But you need the right players to make any system work, and Asik thrived under the tutelage of Thibodeau and his assistants. We've written this before, but the best defensive team in basketball over the past two years has been the Bulls' second unit. Among lineups that logged 150 or more combined minutes from the past two seasons, Asik was part of four of the top seven groups in the league, including the top one (with Luol Deng, Gibson, Korver and John Lucas III) which gave up an absurdly low 79.1 points per 100 possessions.

What's left?

Now only Gibson remains from the mix of reserves. He'll be joined by nondefenders Vladimir Radmanovic, Belinelli and Nate Robinson. Hinrich will run with the first unit while Rose is out. Nine years and plenty of injuries into his NBA career, Hinrich's defense is no longer what it once was. Nazr Mohammed, signed to replace Asik as Noah's backup, is a solid defender but hardly at Asik's level. Oklahoma City was 1.3 points per 100 possessions better when Mohammed was on the bench last season.

The Bulls didn't really gain any flexibility by breaking up their bench, either. They've only saved Reinsdorf's money. Asik's salary would have been reasonable for two years, and that third year probably could have been off-loaded, or, if he bombed, he could have been bought out or waived, with his cap number spread out because of the CBA's stretch clause. The contracts of Korver, Brewer and Watson all would have expired, leaving the oft-discussed plan of having flexibility for the summer of 2014 entirely plausible.

Of course, to pull off that plan, Chicago will have to use the amnesty clause on Boozer, and, after this summer, you have to wonder whether the organization will be willing to eat the $16.8 million Boozer will be getting one way or another for the last year of his deal. The Bulls also face Gibson's impending restricted free agency if they don't reach an extension agreement with him by the end of October. If Gibson hits the market, you again have to wonder whether the Bulls will pony up to match the Asik-like offer Gibson is sure to get, at least in total value.

The Bulls do seem to have a long-term plan in place to unearth a star player to team with Rose down the line, presumably to take the place of Deng, who has two more years left on his deal. That's all well and good, but what about the next two years? Chicago will be trying to unseat a Miami team against which its chief edge -- depth -- no longer exists.

It's an unfortunate outcome for a loyal fan base, which has earned the right to expect the team's owner to spend a few tax dollars. Let's not forget that only Atlanta lost more games in the 10-year period after Michael Jordan left the Bulls, yet Chicago led the league in attendance. Those fans deserve better than the limbo that lies ahead.

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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