The NBA can be a world of buy low and sell high. One of the tricky things about running a team is knowing when to cut bait with a player and when to hang on to one. Some guys can be effective into their mid to late 30s while other guys lose value in their late 20s. Some players just have a lucky season while other guys whom look like they're having a lucky season develop into stars. How has Chicago done with asset management?
In the Paxson/Forman era, one complaint I've seen frequently about the front office is that they hang on to their players too long and some players are (wrongly) viewed as untouchable by the organization. Here's a look at the primary pieces the Bulls have gone through over that era and whether or not we could have/should have traded them away at a different time.
Eddy Curry 2001-2005
The Bulls traded Eddy Curry to the Knicks in what is probably the third best trade in Bulls history (behind Pippen for Polynice and Rodman for Perdue). The Bulls got Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and some second rounders for Curry which helped bring in Asik. That's effectively three big men better than Curry for Curry. Nice.
There's no way the Bulls could have done better here, and the only thing that gives you any pause about a round of backslapping is that the Bulls clearly didn't want to trade him except for his heart condition and refusal to do DNA testing.
Tyson Chandler 2001-2006
Chicago hit a home run when they moved Curry, but they struck out moving Chandler. After moving Eddy, the Bulls locked Chandler into a long term deal. He then fell off the map the next season retreating into his shell with more pressure on him under Scott Skiles.
The Bulls moved Chandler for the expiring contract of P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith whom the Bulls immediately flipped. Ironically, had the Bulls kept Smith, this move wouldn't have turned out so bad for them.
That said, Chandler rebuilt his trade value fairly quickly and would have been a quality contributor at center for a long time for the Bulls or could have been moved for more value later. Chicago compounded the mistake by signing Ben Wallace to a long term deal to replace Chandler which ultimately paid him more money for far worse performance.
That said, at the time, swapping out Chandler who completely crapped the bed for Wallace coming off a DMVP season seemed like a good thing to do and the move was lauded by rival GMs and NBA people all over the place. History will show it was a pretty mammoth mistake though.
The Bulls would have gotten a ton more for Tyson had they traded him one year earlier or if they hung on later.
Kirk Hinrich - 2003-2010, 2012-present
Paxson's first real pick in the draft was Kirk Hinrich in 2003, and he was one of the guys who helped shaped the character of the team. The Bulls extended Hinrich's deal after three seasons and eventually traded him away in 2010 (along with a first) in order to free up cap room for a second maximum salaried free agent.
Hinrich's frequently been viewed as a golden boy for the organization by some detractors. The symbol of taking grit and hard work over talent, someone they wrongly have viewed as untouchable.
Looking back on it, the Bulls moved Hinrich at just the right time. They escaped the two highest salaried years on his deal, allowed him to mentor Derrick Rose for a couple of seasons, and missed out on several injuries.
Hinrich was still clearly a good player when he was traded but wasn't worth his salary anymore as evidenced by the Bulls ability to bring him back at two years and a shade under eight million.
Could the Bulls have moved Hinrich earlier for a bigger return than cap room while costing them a mid 1st in a crappy draft? Possibly, but it seems unlikely the Bulls would have ever been able to get much for Hinrich after extending him, especially once his stats took a dive with Rose on board.
Nor can I really complain much about the deal Kirk signed relative to his peers at the time. He probably would have gotten similar or more money had he waited an additional season to be extended as his best season in the NBA was the year after the extension.
Overall, Kirk helped the organization with his play and was traded away when it was prudent financially and roster wise. Hard to make any complaints about the Bulls use of him.
In his present incarnation, Kirk choose to remain with Chicago for less than he was offered elsewhere. His injuries haven't exactly been a boon to the team, but his play has been solid on the court. I might have gone in a different direction with the signing, but I can't really complain about it relative to the other options either.
Ben Gordon - 2004-2009
Ben Gordon's always been a polarizing figure for Bulls fans, especially in relation to Kirk Hinrich. Unlike Hinrich, Gordon could light up the scoreboard, carry a team to victory with his scoring and generate wins. The problem is Gordon could also jack up a ton of shots, turn the ball over repeatedly, and wasn't known for his defense (though I think his defensive liability has been vastly overstated).
While I was certainly a fan of Gordon's while he was here, management was really set against extending him. I talked to multiple people within the organization while Gordon was an RFA, and they were all queasy about giving him an extension and felt he'd end up overpaid. There was a definite fear of losing him, but an even greater fear of paying him.
History will show, the Bulls made the right decision by rescinding their offer to Gordon of nine million per year for five years on an extension. It will also show they made the right call by not attempting to bid on him in free agency when his pricetag was set by the Pistons.
However, given the Bulls were clearly nervous about keeping Gordon, the question is whether or not they could have gotten more for him earlier. After a couple seasons in the league, the Bulls could have jumped on a deal with Memphis to trade Ben Gordon + Luol Deng for Pau Gasol. Granted, at the time Gasol was dealing with plantar fasciitis, and Gordon/Deng looked like two incredible young prospects.
Deng's gone on to make a couple of all-star teams while Gordon was a very good player for a couple more years. Still that trade, which felt ridiculous at the time, would have probably looked okay historically if the Bulls made it. That said, the Bulls as a team would have been left with Hinrich, Sefolosha, Nocioni, and Gasol which would have kind of sucked badly, so overall, I'm not sure the team would have benefited from the move without serious fitting afterwards.
As it stands, the Bulls seemed to know Gordon wasn't in their long term plans after four seasons for sure (pulled a not that generous extension offer), and maybe should have known after three. The problem was in that third season the Bulls were thinking they were a move away from a finals appearance when in the fourth they ended up in the lottery. The value of everyone on the roster plummeted during that time period.
It would have been tough go move Gordon in 06/07 when the Bulls finally put it together and looked like they could make a run in the east, and my sources indicated the Bulls attempted to move him 07/08 but couldn't find a taker since he was viewed only as a rental.
Luol Deng 2004-present
Deng is perhaps the most interesting case on the Bulls. Much like Hinrich, he's viewed as a player who's beloved and overvalued by management. Unlike Gordon, he didn't have contract offer lowered after a poor 07/08 campaign, and the Bulls resigned him to a six year deal. At times during the contract he was viewed as an untradeable albatross while other times a key asset.
The one period of time the Bulls could have considered moving him was with Gordon for Gasol back when the team was quite good, but that deal didn't make worlds of sense and the basis of it working was that other players who ended up sucking would have stepped up. There's still a case to be made for moving him there for sure though as Gordon didn't end up fetching you anything and while Deng's been solid, Gasol was absolutely better.
Still, I'll never fault management for not trading two guys playing at a near all-star level for an older player playing at a low all-star level. That trade has far more ways to go horrifically bad than good for you. In retrospect, you could certainly view it as a mistake, but the mistake was likely thinking Gordon would continue to improve rather than Deng.
After this opportunity to trade him in his third season, the Bulls likely never had a chance again. He struggled with injuries and was on a huge long term deal. Bulls fans themselves largely gave up on Deng and were trying to dump him while sending away assets with him to encourage teams to take him. Fast forward a few years, and Bulls fans are desperate to trade Deng to get a star player back.
It clearly was the right move to hold on to Deng who rebuilt his trade value under Thibodeau as well as being a key contributor to three very good seasons over the past three years. Deng's now an expiring deal and the question of trading him or potentially losing him for nothing comes up again. The Bulls appeared to shop him pretty hard for good value, but were unable to get anything good and so hung on to him to improve their odds this season.
Andres Nocinoi 2004-2009
Andres Nocioni became one of my favorite players quickly for the Bulls. I think many Bulls fans loved him for his toughness, hustle, and occasionally great offensive/defensive play. However, once a guy goes from making three million to 7-8 million, salary cap aware fans often start to notice faults more than strengths.
Nocioni was undisciplined on both sides of the ball, complaining about no one moving the ball while having the lowest assist rate on the team and overhelping on defense constantly. A year into his deal with the Bulls, they shipped him off to Sacramento with Drew Gooden for Brad Miller and John Salmons.
It's fortunate that the Bulls unloaded Noc when they did because he went on to become an albatross the rest of his career while the Bulls got an excellent return. This couldn't have gone any better for Chicago.
Tyrus Thomas 2006-2010
The only question about this trade is whether or not the Bulls could have gotten more earlier. They worked with Tyrus for several years, and he showed all the potential in the world. However, those working with him knew he was a class A knucklehead. The guy with the physical body, but not the right work ethic or attitude to get where he needed to go.
He showed tremendous potential and could definitely put up numbers to back a good salary, but he was a locker room cancer and didn't help his team win. The Bulls shuffled him off for a massively protected draft pick from the Bobcats. It still remains to be seen what that draft pick yields, but whatever it yields is better than having Tyrus Thomas on an albatross contract like the Bobcats.
He was sent home and asked to stay away from the team. Could the Bulls have fetched more if they gave up on Tyrus earlier? Perhaps they could have, but they were certainly fortunate to cut bait with him when they did. Overall, I have no complaints with how the Bulls managed Tyrus as an asset.
Thabo Sefolosha 2006-2009
The Bulls traded Sefolosha after two and years when it became clear he wasn't finding the right role in the organization, and the Bulls didn't want to extend him. They got a first round draft choice for him which was used on Taj Gibson. Sefolosha has gone on to improve his value some in the NBA, and it could be argued the Bulls gave up on him too fast because of that.
That said, Sefolosha probably couldn't be moved today for more than the first round pick the Bulls got, and Chicago hit a home run with the pick, so the move worked out really well for them. Overall, they moved a player who wasn't finding a role and got a quality asset. I'd say they managed the situation pretty well.
James Johnson 2009-2011
The Bulls actually got a first round pick back for this guy. It was a terrible draft move in retrospect (though one I was totally in favor of at the time), but the Bulls quickly realized it was time to cut bait and did so and got a very good return before he became completely worthless.
Omer Asik 2010-2012
The Bulls lost Omer Asik in free agency in the summer of 2012 while getting nothing in return when they were unwilling to match Houston's offer for the center. Houston offered the max they could for three years and due to an odd limitation in the Gilbert Arenas provision, the salary structure became painful for Chicago to match but easy on the Rockets cap.
I don't necessarily blame Chicago for not matching, they're deep in the tax now and would have lost their cap room in 2014 if they had matched Asik which is a lot of flexibility for a backup center. That said, the question becomes should they have traded him earlier to get something of value back?
The answer to that is probably not. AT the time, the Bulls were hoping to win the NBA title and trading Asik would have considerably dented that blow. Derrick Rose tears his ACL later and the Bulls title hopes end and keeping Asik doesn't seem to mean much anymore.
That said, when the decision was made, I don't think you could have moved him. In terms of a S&T this was not actually possible because due to the Arenas provision, the Rockets could offer him considerably more than the Bulls while the Bulls could only match.
So in looking back on the moves, I'd say this. The Bulls don't seem attached to their players like many fans have theorized. They didn't, IMO, hang on to Kirk Hinrich or Andres Nocioni too long who were oft considered "organization" guys.
Chandler was much more of an org guy than Curry yet they dumped Curry at the perfect time while not hanging on to Chandler long enough.
Luol Deng has been viewed as an organizational guy, but their refusal to dump him has paid off with much better returns and improved value.
They moved Tyrus, Thabo, and James Johnson for appropriate assets at the appropriate times. Maybe they could have given up on Tyrus earlier to fetch a larger return, but then again Tyrus was the anti-org guy, and we're arguing that maybe they gave him too much of a chance.
Beyond the attachment issues, I think the Bulls have generally done a pretty good job of knowing when it's time to move on and when it isn't. They really had one good opportunity to consolidate talent with Deng/Gordon for Gasol, but I think at the time it would have hurt the team considerably and not necessarily made a better future.
Other than that, the only other time I'm aware of Chicago having a reported somewhat legitimate opportunity to consolidate talent was the thought they might have been able to trade Deng + Noah + multiple 1sts for Carmelo. A deal which strikes me as fairly awful today still, and even that deal is up in the air as Melo ultimately demanded NY and ruled Chicago out.
All in all, besides the draft, asset management overall been a strength in my opinion. There's only been one critical failing (Tyson Chandler) and several brilliantly timed moves (Curry, Nocioni, Johnson) with the other moves generally being solid overall.