Basketball hell is a cruel place.
It's miserable. It's cruel. Most of all, it's frustrating. Executives and players hate it because they know their team is good, but they also realize it’s not good enough to pull off the ultimate goal of winning a title. And fans detest it because they see the same thing.
The Chicago Bulls currently reside in basketball hell.
They have enough to win games throughout the regular season, but they don't have enough to win a title. Derrick Rose will be out for a big chunk of the year as he continues to rehab his injured knee. The Bulls' bench, one of the deepest in the league the last two seasons, likely will be filled with veterans or rookies willing to play at a minimum salary. Given how close the Bulls were to a championship in the last two years, that’s tough to accept. C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver have either been waived or traded for next to nothing while free agents such as O.J. Mayo, Brandon Roy and Ray Allen have signed with other contenders.
While many contenders appear to be improving, the Bulls are stuck in place. Not only are they waiting for Rose, and possibly Luol Deng to get healthy, they don't have enough cap space to add a piece that makes them that much better. Not only do the Bulls not have the cap space to add pieces, they no longer have the cache that they had two years ago. Allen went to Miami for less because that's where he thought he had the best chance to win a ring. The Bulls can't sell players on a championship because of all the uncertainty surrounding their organization and its reluctance to go deep into the luxury tax.
On the surface the Bulls appear to be one of the most profitable franchises in sports. The United Center is always packed, and Bulls' merchandise, led by Rose, is always near the top of the list as far as popularity. So why not just go deep into the tax and add the best available players? It’s just not that easy. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement struck in November, the tax has become more punitive than ever. The longer a team stays over the tax, the steeper the penalties become over time. I encourage you to read my colleague Larry Coon's breakdown of the cap and the tax.
The bigger problem for the Bulls is that there isn't a player on the market right now who could put them over the top. Mayo, Allen and Roy, were not going to give the Bulls enough of a boost to get past Miami, Oklahoma City, or any of the other upper echelon teams in the NBA. Not with Rose's situation and the possibility that Deng still may need surgery.
Here’s what the organization doesn't want to say publicly -- the upcoming season is a wash. While the 2013-2014 season will be better as long as Rose returns to his old form, it's hard to believe the Bulls will be much better given their current cap situation. Unless they can convince Dwight Howard to come to Chicago and sign an extension, there isn't a player who could come in and push the Bulls over the hump.
But that means the Bulls are in the same position they were in two summers ago.
The Bulls’ championship window hasn't closed, but it has definitely shrunk for the next two seasons. Don't fool yourself into thinking that a team made up of Rose, Deng, Boozer, Noah and Hinrich can knock off the NBA's elite a year and a half from now. Sure, it's good -- but it's not good enough. The only way for the Bulls to truly improve to a point where they can contend for a title is to clear out enough cap space to either acquire another superstar to play alongside Rose via free agency or make a major trade. But that means two more seasons of waiting.
The rewards could be plenty, though. In two summers, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitziki, Danny Granger, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut and Deng all become unrestricted free agents. Depending on if they exercise an early termination options or choose not to exercise a player option, the following group could be free agents that summer as well: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, Amar'e Stoudemire, Zach Randolph and Andrea Bargnani. Kevin Love, a friend of Rose's, may end up forcing a trade in the next few years if the Minnesota Timberwolves can't start winning more games. Although he doesn't become a free agent in two years, his name will continue to pop up if Minnesota struggles.
But the Bulls struck out with the “Big Three” last time they did this and ended up with Carlos Boozer. Why should they try it again?
Because it's the only way they are going to get enough pieces to win a title. In two summers, Deng's contract comes off the books. Boozer will almost surely will be amnestied then, if he wasn't already. The Bulls can sell any prospective target on playing with a healthy Rose (if his knee is OK), who will still be just 25 years old. Noah, who will still be just 29, Taj Gibson, assuming he works out an extension in the next year, will still be just 29, Nikola Mirotic, assuming he makes his way over from Europe, and Jimmy Butler and Marquis Teague, both of whom will still be in rookie deals. Like they did in 2010, the Bulls could pitch any player on them being the missing piece to a championship contender with that group. If they needed to clear out even more space, they could likely spin off Noah, Gibson and/or Mirotic given that all three are young and have value.
Notice there is a large name missing from this group -- Omer Asik.
I have already written that I think it would be a mistake for the Bulls to match the offer sheet for Asik because of the huge cap hit worth almost $15 million in the final year of the deal. Given the possibilities that may await the Bulls two years from now, matching the Asik offer seems crazy. The $15 million cap hit in the third year would crunch any dreams the Bulls have of making a major splash in free agency. And they would be paying an average of almost $8.5 million to a player who struggles to catch the ball in the paint.
This plan might not be popular among some fans, who are sick of waiting, and it would only fuel the notion that owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't want to spend to build a winner. Some will point to the fact that Tom Thibodeau is still waiting on a contract extension as he heads into the final year of his deal. Given that Oklahoma City just locked up Scott Brooks to a four-year, $16 million deal, there's no reason Thibodeau shouldn't get a similar pact this summer. If that doesn't happen, it will linger as a major distraction throughout the year and feed the notion regarding Reinsdorf and his spending habits for one of the most profitable franchises in the league.
Bulls GM Gar Forman always talks about having an eye on the future, and that point is just as strong now as it was two summers ago. The Bulls are not good enough to win a title. They came close to winning a title but it didn't happen. In order to give themselves the best possible chance in the future, they need to start looking ahead. The next two years may serve as collateral damage, but if it means having a better chance to win a title down the line, then so be it. Even in a worst-case scenario where the Bulls don't land another star to pair with Rose, at least they would give themselves the financial flexibility to potentially add another piece in the future. At least they gave themselves a chance to compete for a title again.
Sometimes the only way to get out of basketball hell is having the patience to admit you're stuck and holding on to the hope that better days are ahead. Under these circumstances, that's the best move the Bulls can make.