Derrick Rose’s knee injury has really put the Chicago Bulls in an interesting position. At the beginning of the season many thought that the Bulls were a championship contender. Derrick Rose was returning from an ACL injury, and the rest of the team was healthy and hungry. The Heat had won the NBA championship two years in a row, and Chicago was out for revenge.
The Bulls opened the season in Miami facing the defending champions and got blown out. Although the loss hurt and Derrick Rose looked rusty, he still showed some flashes of the player he used to be. About a month passed in the season and Rose’s play was improving. Then on a Friday night in Portland, the Bulls season and their future took a turn for the worse. Rose tore his right meniscus on what seemed like a routine play. A few days later an announcement came from the team stating that Rose would be out for the season. After waiting a full year for Rose to return, this was obviously a huge blow for the team. The second Rose got injured, it was time for the organization to focus on the future.
With that in mind, in early Janaury, the Bulls traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Deng is a two-time All-Star, and a gritty two way player. Deng and the Bulls had been negotiating a contract extension throughout this season and it appeared that the gap between what Deng wanted and what the Bulls were willing to pay was just too much to overcome. Instead of potentially losing Deng in the summer for nothing, they chose to trade him for assets. What they got back was Andrew Bynum (a player they would cut soon after), the right to swap first round picks with the Cavs in 2015 (lottery protected), Sacramento’s 2014 first round pick (top-12 protected this year), and two second round picks from the Cavs. Although the picks look enticing on paper, the Bulls may end up not being able to fully capitalize on them due to the fact that they’re heavily protected. The real point of the trade was to save cap room for future flexibility (the trade saved the Bulls 20.6 million dollars).
Last year was the Bulls’ first time ever paying the luxury tax. In order to avoid paying repeater tax (for being above the salary cap two years in a row) it was important that they get under the salary cap before next summer. The Bulls are notoriously tight with their spending, so the Deng trade didn’t come as a surprise. Essentially it gives the organization flexibility to make moves in the future. There has been speculation that the Bulls will take advantage of the amnesty clause to get rid of Carlos Boozer this summer. This allows the bulls to pay off the rest of Boozer’s contract without adding to their cap figure which is very important. Even though many fans in Chicago would love to see him gone, I have a hard time believing that he Bulls would amnesty Boozer and let him walk for nothing. If they amnestied him and he signed somewhere else, they would essentially be paying him to play for another team.
This is why you’d have to assume that Boozer is on the trading block. I think it’s also safe to assume that almost everyone is on the trading block. Next year is the last year of Boozer’s deal and expiring contracts are always attractive to GM’s in NBA trades. The organization also has a bundle of assets including the picks they got back in the Deng trade, a Bobcats first rounder (top-10 protected in 2014, top-eight protected in 2015, and unprotected in 2016), their own 2014 first round pick, and Nikola Mirotic. The Spanish forward was drafted in 2011 and by all accounts has the potential to be an NBA star. He has been tearing up Euro leagues and won the FIBA Europe under 20 MVP award in 2011 and the ACB MVP award in 2013. It has been speculated that part of the Bulls’ plan is to trade Deng and buy Mirotic’s contract out this summer from his Spanish League team. This would allow them to fill Deng’s roll at the forward spot and bring Mirotic over on a cost effective rookie salary.
Almost every decision the Bulls execute moving forward is effected by Derrick Rose’s health. If he can get back to playing at an MVP level; the Bulls have done a great job giving themselves flexibility to build around him. They could use the assets they’ve collected over the years in a trade, or keep them and try to build the team through the draft and free agency. The Bulls have a strong track record in the draft. If you look at their team, almost all of the players are draft picks (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and even Luol Deng). The problem is that the draft picks that they’ve acquired are heavily protected, and the team has refused to quit this year making their own 2014 first rounder less valuable.
After a slow start, the Bulls have been playing good basketball in January winning nine out of their last 12 games and are currently in the 6th playoff spot with a record of 21-21. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau expects 100 percent out of his players at all times and I think anyone expecting the Bulls to tank the season for a better draft pick needs to understand this – Tom Thibodeau simply isn’t going to allow it and neither are hardworking players like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. Besides, the Eastern Conference isn’t very strong and barring injury, I don’t see the Bulls falling out of the playoff race anytime soon. The front office has tough decisions to make with the trade deadline coming up, and what happens in the next six months will shape the future of the team. They’ve given themselves flexibility, now it’s time to capitalize and hopefully return to their championship contender status.