Cyclical in nature and routine as ever, the offseason of 2016 will see the Chicago Bulls opt for the NBA draft and the free agency period as the saving grace to infuse the staling roster with youth, athleticism and more Hoiberg-friendly ball players.
As the main mode of roster improvement employed by the Bulls' front office throughout the tenures of both John Paxson and Gar Forman, the next wave of Chicago Bulls will be added through these various methods, so naturally, we can expect the upcoming offseason to be a fun one as the new names and faces don the iconic jersey for the first time.
Or so we hope.
As exciting as change from the current and expired group of player's may seem, expectations of a quick fix need to be tempered. Though various options will exist for the Bulls, many of the lingering problems the organization faces on the floor will remain well after several adjustments have been made.
We're all aware of the pending explosion that is set to hit the NBA landscape. All team's are set to see their salary cap spike from $70 million to $89 million at that the conclusion of the season, and player's league wide are set to bank unprecedented increases that will line their pockets with an obscene amount of money.
As the salary cap rises, naturally, so too does the amount of the team's with available cap space to splurge on the fortunate free agents of 2016. More money means more competition, and with a limited amount of quality free agents available, simple economics suggests many a player will be gifted crazy and inflated deals.
Like the majority of team's, Chicago will join their counterparts on the hunt for new talent, and if management has been taking the pulse of the growing concerns among their fan base, a small forward capable of two-way production for 30 minutes a night, will be of the highest order.
Chasing The Elusive Wing
As we've seen all season, the wing position has been a huge weakness for the Bulls. The injury to Mike Dunleavy cannot be overlooked, nor can the disappointment of Doug McDermott or Tony Snell be understated. We hope for Chicago to pursue the numerous available wings in free agency, but really, should we actually be expecting to land any of them?
Let's assume a scenario where all pending free agents currently in a Bulls jersey are no longer retained. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol leave for new homes, with Aaron Brooks and E'Twaun Moore following behind them. Kirk Hinrich retires and Cameron Bairstow's time in the NBA comes to a close. Under this assumption - which doesn't include Sacramento's draft picks being conveyed to the Bulls (again) - only 10 roster spots are committed, meaning we also must factor in two mandatory incomplete roster charges to account for a minimum of 12 roster allocations. In this scenario, the Bulls' books would be as follows:
In the example outlined above, assuming the estimated $89 million salary cap comes to fruition, the Bulls find themselves opening up an estimated $21.1 million in available cap room to spend on free agents.
In year's past, this figure may seem like ample room to operate within, but notably, this amount is just enough to sign any player with 0-6 years of experience to a max contract, and is certainly well below the $25.2 million and $29.5 million for player's with 7-9 and 10 or more seasons played, respectively.
Lebron James and Kevin Durant, two player's currently outside the Bulls' price range, headline the meager free agent class of 2016. With both expected to remain put with their current team, it almost seems pointless to note them down as possibilities. After these two marquee names, the prospective list of free agent perimeter player's grows dire.
Striking out on James and Durant before free agency has even begun, the most obvious solution for the Bulls at small forward is Harrison Barnes. Already having existing connections with head coach Fred Hoiberg and Doug McDermott, Barnes fits the age profile of player's the franchise should be targeting to pair with Jimmy Butler for the next 4-5 seasons. More importantly, Barnes' ability to guard both the small forward and power forward position offers Hoiberg the versatility to downsize rotations to play the quick, fast and up tempo basketball he had envisioned when accepting the role as head coach. As a catch-and-shoot three-point shooter who can also slash to the hoop, Barnes can also adequately space the floor for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler whilst remaining a defensive plus, something the Bulls have lacked all season.
Seems like the perfect fit, right?
The physical tools are ever present and the skill-set meets the Bulls' desire, but after declining a four-year, $64 million deal from Golden State earlier in the regular season, Barnes clearly is chasing serious money. And with good reason. Max contracts will be handed out at rates never seen before, so opting for the big dollars is the correct and obvious decision. Though that may be the case for Barnes, should a team like Chicago, who are several player's away from truly becoming an elite team, invest so heavily in the caliber of player Barnes represents?
Desperation will force an instinctive "yes" from many, but if the asking price for Harrison Barnes is a cost which currently accounts for the Bulls' entire available cap, a full max contract offer should be avoided.
The thought of Barnes next to Rose, Butler and Mirotic, is tantalizing. Only 23-years-old with four year's experience, an NBA championship to boot and room for potential improvement in his game, the prospect of Barnes in a Bulls rotation makes sense on so many levels. But even so, a rational question must be asked - has the wing rotation become such an issue that the Bulls should offer Barnes a max contract of $89 million over four years?
For a player who has yet to have a season in his short career which has exceed the league average in PER, that is an enormous salary to hand out, even in an inflated market.
Should the Bulls decide to pour all their available cap space into Barnes (or anyone else of similar scope and statue), significant issues still exist on the roster, with only the Room mid-level exception and veteran's minimum contracts available to solve them all. The elusive small forward position may be corrected, but the repercussions of making Harrison Barnes your highest paid player seriously needs to be considered before committing to such a deal.
Get The Wing, Create Other Holes
If you think acquiring Harrison Barnes - and seeing less of Tony Snell - will reduce your frustration, headaches and mood swings when watching this team, think again. Those ailments would no longer be caused by the agony of watching inept player's on the wing, but they'd still exist. Instead of watching Doug McDermott getting killed in defensive rotations or Tony Snell dribbling the ball out of bounds off his own foot, you'll likely be pulling out the remaining strands of hair you have left from the continued problems at point guard and the newly created depth issues in the frontcourt.
Depth issues in frontcourt? We've got a logjam up front!
Yes, that may be true in the current state of affairs, but without Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol - both of whom would need to go in order to create the most cap space possible - the remaining frontcourt player's would lack the height, rebounding ability and rim protection to offer a defensive backbone. Unless you're confident Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio can make Jimmy Butler-level improvements, the Bulls will be beat up down low and mauled against bigger and more experienced big man pairings.
The issue of the backup point guard would still remain, too. So long as Derrick Rose continues to miss games with injuries to virtually every part of his lower body, this problem is not going away. As we saw in the 2015 offseason, the Tax Payer's mid-level exception wasn't enough to upgrade the point guard position, so can we really budget for the Room mid-level exception to improve the reserve role in an increasing cap structure?
The answer is a clear "no".
The starting salary of the Room mid-level exception is $2.898 million. That's just not enough to attract a quality backup point guard, so unless Gar Forman plans to continue down the line of finding washed up point guard's who fail to exceed 6-feet, one will need to be drafted. As we've seen in recent times, relying on rookies to help you win ball games early in their careers is futile unless you're fortunate enough to land on a transcendent talent.
Should the Bulls' front office attempt to plug the holes at backup point guard and center with inexperienced rookies or veteran's minimum contracts, clear flaws in the skill-set of these cost effective options will exist, therefore expectations of challenging Cleveland with a new core next season, should be lowered.
It's OK, You Don't Have To Bid For High-End Free Agents
The 2016 free agency class is weak. Every team's eagerness to gain cap space is only outweighed by their willingness to consume it. Committing and paying huge dollars to player's who aren't worth it would be a mistake, and it's a problem many team's will face in several season's time.
Derrick Rose's contract will continue to limit the Bulls' ability to lure in talent with dollars, but in an ironic twist of fate, should his deal prove to be the driving force that weakens the front office's thirst for overpaying mediocre talent, it could be a blessing in disguise.
The burden of Rose and his deal will finally be lifted in 2017. This happens to perfectly coincide with the expected increase of the salary cap to $108 million, in a free agency class which is far stronger than the field of 2016.
Waiting on Rose to expire and waiving goodbye to the injury plagued guard when his contract ends will require the 2016-17 season to be a necessary transition period, but sacrificing a season in favor of developing the youth - as well as controlling costs - is a better outcome than diving heavily into player's who aren't worth their pending deals just for the sake of landing the first available name that is prepared to be overpaid.
We've seen this movie before. The Ben Wallace experiment failed. Carlos Boozer, who was signed for a below-market deal, couldn't sustain a level of play that deemed worthy of his deal post year-two of his contract. Signing another below-All-Star level player to a max contract would continue the trend of falsehoods and fortunes placed upon the shoulders of an incoming free agent who simply isn't equipped to handle such responsibilities or expectations.
Should Harrison Barnes - or any other similarly decent free agent - be prepared to sign for a reasonable price, then go for it. Bringing in free agents on quality deals shouldn't be avoided if an opportunity presents itself, but in the current climate, this seems like an unreasonable position to plan for, so the Bulls shouldn't feel obliged to throw money at whoever will take it.
As an alternative, just like the Portland Trailblazers did in the wake of losing LaMarcus Aldridge, go and find some low value gems that are wallowing away on other teams' rosters and lock them into contract that work both in the interim and future. Buy on cheap and out of favor talent that hasn't been showcased that fits the age profile of the lone star on the roster, and plan for a transition period that invests in younger player's on good contracts that will fit with Fred Hoiberg.
If that's not a desired option, sign several reclamation projects to a one-year, placeholder deal, similar to the contracted executed by the Sacramento Kings and Rajon Rondo. Joakim Noah, the Bulls' own center, who's value has diminished since his recent shoulder surgery all but cost him the remainder of the 2015-16 season, would benefit greatly from a year of auditioning for one last contract in order to restore any lost value.
Feeling forced to gut the roster in order to go after a prized free agent is nothing more than inferred pressure created by the frenzied spending of rivals. A creative front office doesn't have to fall for the prototypical plan of blowing every last cent available to them and committing to long term deals that provide little functional sense in the pursuit of the ultimate goal.
The Bulls standing firm with a goal of moving towards a roster that coincides with the vision of Fred Hoiberg - and maintaining an eye on the free agency of 2017 - should be the plan, whilst doing so without handicapping future moves. Deviating from this in order to pay a free agent a four-year, $89 million deal in 2016, would be a mistake that could setback the franchise even further.
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