CHICAGO -- There's a harsh reality hitting Chicago Bulls fans in the face this week and it's not just the wind ripping off Lake Michigan. It's the fact that their beloved basketball team isn't going to have much money to spend heading into what figures to be one of the most frenetic and compact free agency periods ever next week.
The problem for the Bulls is that most of their salary cap space is tied up in four players: Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Rose is in the final year of his rookie deal and will be getting a max extension as soon as the lockout ends. Boozer still has four years and about $60 million dollars left on the deal he signed last summer. Noah enters into the first year of a five-year contract worth almost $60 million this season. Deng still has three years and almost $40 million left on his deal.
Their bench is fairly intact as well, at least for this season. Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver will be back. As will C.J. Watson, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. That's about as solid of a nine-man rotation as there will be in the league this season. Not to mention the fact that the team still has to make a decision on whether they want to pick up the option to Keith Bogans' contract.
Essentially, the Bulls are almost capped out already.
How did it happen so quickly?
The biggest reason is because Noah went from making a little over $3 million last season to a little over $12 million this season. John Lucas III has a non-guaranteed deal, but that is less than a $1 million, so it won't make much of a difference either way.
So what do the Bulls do to improve?
Fans have focused on the two-guard spot all summer but for all the possibilities that have been bounced around, there's a solid chance Brewer, Bogans and Korver will get the chunk of minutes at that spot again.
Brewer has been open over the summer about his desire to earn a starting spot during training camp, especially given that he was hurt when training camp opened a year ago. Thibodeau may very well decide to give Brewer more minutes, have Korver come off the bench and return Bogans back to the role he was signed for last summer as basically the third two-guard, used sparingly off the bench.
The Bulls are going to look at every possibility as far as two-guards go and have undoubtedly discussed the possible amnesty cuts that could happen throughout the league. But the issue again is whether the Bulls even have enough to sign the players who could truly make a difference.
Jason Richardson, the guy a lot of fans want to come in and fill the hole at the two-guard slot, made close to $15 million last season. Is he really going to come to Chicago for the full mid-level exception which would start at $5 million this season? There will almost certainly be teams lined up to pay him more than that. How much of a pay cut is he willing to take to go after a title?
Jamal Crawford made almost $11 million last season. Would he really come back to Chicago for just $5 million when there will be other teams willing to pay him more. Is he even a good fit?
What about the potential amnesty cuts?
First of all, there are plenty of people around the league who don't think there will be as many amnesty cuts as the average fan thinks. As far as the Bulls go, the one name that has risen to prominence recently is Brandon Roy, whom the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to amnesty whenever the new labor deal becomes official.
Aside from the fact that Roy's knees are a huge question mark at best and may force him to retire early, the Bulls figure to have a hard time in landing his services as well.
Teams with cap room can submit competing offers to acquire an amnestied player at a reduced rate before he hits free agency and can sign with any team, according to ESPN capologist Larry Coon.
How much are the Bulls going to be able to offer if they are already pretty much capped out? Would Roy and his chronically bad knees even be that much of an upgrade? How would he be able to hold up during such a compact schedule?
The Bulls could always go the trade route, but they have been very hesitant in the past to part with Gibson and Asik, the two players almost every team asks about. Plus, even before the lockout, Bulls management wasn't sure if there was a player on the market (at least one they had a legitimate chance at getting) who could put them over the top.
The truth is that there is a very good chance the 2011-2012 Bulls will look much like the 2010-2011 edition. Obviously, the team will continue to look at all its options in the coming weeks, but more than anything, they are banking on the fact that Rose will improve, Noah and Boozer will play better in their second year together, Deng will continue to stay healthy and be productive and Tom Thibodeau will find a way to get his team to take the next step.
Is that formula enough to push the Bulls past the Miami Heat this season? The reality for anyone who thought the Bulls would be able to make a major splash before the season needs to check the numbers one more time. The big money has already been spent. Unless there is a player out there willing to take a huge financial hit, the answer for this squad is going to have to come from within.