Are the Bulls contenders this season? This is not just navel-gazing fodder for a piece of basketball analysis -- though it serves nicely for that purpose as well. This question is what drove an offseason of key decisions as Chicago's management attempted to position itself for long-term success. Unfortunately, they answered the question in a skinflint fashion, something that may not have any significant short-term consequences, but does throw into question of just how far the organization is willing to go to win.
We won't rehash old analysis, but suffice to say there aren't many reasons to be happy about an offseason in which the Bulls lost bench stalwarts C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik and John Lucas III. In their place are veterans Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson.
Newcomers Team Ortg Drtg WARP 12-13$ Tot$
Nate Robinson chi 111.6 110.3 2.8 $0.9 $0.4
Vladimir Radmanovic chi 108.7 108.7 1.0 $0.9 $0.9
Marco Belinelli chi 109.2 110.4 1.5 $2.0 $2.0
Nazr Mohammed chi 105.9 108.3 0.1 $0.9 $0.9
Kirk Hinrich chi 106.9 109.9 -0.6 $3.9 $8.0
TOTALS chi 108.5 109.5 4.8 $8.5 $12.1
Departees Team Ortg Drtg WARP 12-13$ Tot$
John Lucas III tor 111.9 110.7 1.0 $1.5 $1.5
C.J. Watson bkn 109.6 109.7 2.5 $1.0 $1.0
Kyle Korver atl 109.9 110.5 2.3 $5.0 $5.0
Omer Asik hou 105.2 107.6 0.3 $8.4 $25.1
Ronnie Brewer nyk 105.9 108.3 0.2 $0.9 $0.9
TOTALS oth 108.5 109.4 6.3 $16.7 $33.5
When you look at the two groups, you don't see a huge difference in terms of on-court value, not that 1.5 WARP is anything to sneeze at. The WARP projections are based on the new rosters on which the players will play. That hurts Asik and Brewer, who would both forecast better if they were still key cogs in Tom Thibodeau's defensive juggernaut. Likewise, the new guys are helped by being introduced into Thibodeau's system.
Still, the starkest difference is financial. The Bulls will pay out about half in salary for its newcomers as other teams will pay its departees. Over the courses of their collective contracts, the difference balloons to more than $21 million. The bottom line is that the Bulls are losing on-court value and saving money with its new bench.
As it stands, Chicago will go over the luxury tax for the first time ever this season. To avoid that, the Bulls need to shed another contract, such as the $5 million expiring deal of Richard Hamilton. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see them do so because, simply put, the short-term direction of the team is not about mounting a serious challenge to Miami this season. Or, if it is, it sure doesn't seem that way.
The changeover is worrisome for reasons other than the aggregate value of WARP. It's a question of certainty. We saw the Bulls compile the best overall record in the last two regular seasons on the strength of a solid starting five, Derrick Rose's brilliance and a second unit that was probably the best defensive configuration in the NBA. Thibodeau will continue to put players on floor who play hard on the defensive end, but his toolkit will be more limited.
The upshot to all of this is that the Bulls have maintained flexibility for next summer, when it will have a full array of exceptions to expend on available talent. So perhaps Chicago's contender's profile will be more optimistic a year from now.
The downside to the summer is that a team that at full strength was the primary challenger to the Heat in the East no longer exists.
The newcomers have a tough act to follow. When Rose was out last year -- don't forget that he missed 27 games even before his knee crumbled in Chicago's first playoff game -- the Bulls still managed to go 19-8. That winning percentage would have landed Chicago in a first-place tie with the Heat in the conference standings. Of course, the same Roseless group lost four of five to Philadelphia after he was injured in the playoffs, ushering in an abrupt end to the club's title hopes.
This year, Hinrich and Robinson will replace Rose for an indeterminate length of time. Rose will be rehabbing his knee until January at the least, probably longer, though nobody knows for sure. Either way, Thibodeau will once again lean on the depth of his roster to get him through the season, diminished talent or not.
Belinelli is not quite the 3-point shooter that Korver is, but he's pretty good. He has a little bit more ability to get a shot off the dribble, a trait that gives him a higher projected usage rate. That will help with Rose out. When Rose returns, it'll be more about Belinelli's catch-and-shoot ability. It's at that point that Korver will be missed though, to be fair, Belinelli is no slouch in that regard either.
When Rose returns, Robinson will shift into the role that Lucas filled off the bench last year as an instant-offense point guard. That is a good role for him. However, his minimum contract is reportedly only guaranteed for $400K if he is waived by the end of the year. If so, and Rose's return becomes imminent, so to may be Robinson's departure.
If the Bulls are going to become any more than a feel-good, gritty bunch of overachievers, Rose will have to return before the playoffs. And by return, we mean as the real Derrick Rose, or else there is little reason to bring him back at all this season. This is the carrot that Thidodeau will dangle before his team all winter in hopes that it will fight its way to a solid seed. If that happens, Thibodeau may well win his second Coach of the Year award.
Despite Thibodeau's ability from the bench, the only way for Chicago to contend with Miami is for Rose to come back. Otherwise, the team's management will be proven right for choosing not to spend big on this year's roster.
Last season, Miami scored 82.3 points per 100 possessions against the Bulls with Asik on the court, and 102.8 without him. The season before, those numbers were 78.7 and 109.4 in the regular season. This is what Nazr Mohammed has to live up to.
What needs to go right?
We know that Thibodeau can coach through injuries with his consistent message of defensive effort, ball sharing and his refusal to make excuses. If that mantra helps his core of solid veterans overachieve its way to a homecourt seed, and Rose gets back in time to work off the cobwebs and integrate with his new teammates, then Chicago can put the fear of god into the Heat come playoff time.
Behind Miami, it's pretty wide open in the East. A lot would have to go right for Chicago to become a factor, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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