Free agency has begun, but thus far, the only activity involving the Chicago Bulls are reports of current players being courted by opposition teams.
This was to be expected. As reported by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls planned to play it coy in the upcoming free agency period, with eyes firmly set on pursuing big name free agents in 2017.
Even with the salary cap jumping an $24 million and, coincidentally, the Bulls owning roughly the same amount of cap space, they appear poised to be bottom feeders. Beyond the fact their cap space ranks in the lower-third of the league, general manager Gar Forman has made clear the team is eyeing more significant cap space in 2017.
Hoarding cap space for use every several years later has been Forman's approach since he became General Manager of the Bulls in 2009. But given the state of the franchise and its current roster, I remain unconvinced that any superstar will be walking through the doors of the United Center in one years time.
It's easy to be seduced by 2017 free agent headliners Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Blake Griffin, and to fantasize about the possibility of another top-20 player joining Jimmy Butler. But what are the actual chances any of these players up and leave when their incumbents?
Day 1 of free agency is in the books and we've already seen two of the better perimeter-based free agents remain with their current team. Nicolas Batum will return to the Charlotte Hornets, agreeing to terms on a 5-year, $120 million deal. Similarly, DeMar DeRozen will remain a Toronto Raptor, agreeing to re-sign on 5-year, $139 million deal. Both players have been handsomely rewarded for career years, and notably, both we're swayed by the additional year on offer by their current team.
Currently, teams have the ability to re-sign their own free agents to five year contracts, whereas outside clubs can only offer a maximum of four. Now more than ever, additional years and higher annual raises will prove to be critical in contract negotiations with the league's biggest stars. This is why it's difficult to imagine any noted star leaving their current team as the cap expands. There no financial incentive to leave if a fifth year is on offer during the cap spike.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder were to offer Russell Westbrook a 5-year maximum contract, is he really moving away from Kevin Durant and Steven Adams to pair with Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and a cast of one-way players on rookie contracts, all for lesser contract terms?
Adding complexity to the matter is that current state of the Bulls and their relevance within the upper echelon of championship contending teams. At what point does the franchise evaluate its own standing within the league and recognize they've lost ground with stars from other teams?
Kevin Durant's hasn't shortlisted the Bulls in 2016. Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford and Mike Conley have not been linked to the Bulls. If the stars of the 2016 offseason have no interest in Chicago, why would other noted All-NBA talents have a significant change of heart in one years time, particularly as there will be little financial incentive to do so?
We've seen this movie before. The Bulls missed out on Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, settling for Carlos Boozer and a quality cast of role players. Similarly in 2014, the chase for Carmelo Anthony failed, and instead, Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic were the runners-up trophy.
If history repeats itself, the Bulls will open up a sizeable amount of cap space, only to be left to spend it on Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Danilo Gallinari, Jeff Teague and Tyreke Evans. Overpaying for second and third tier talent is certainly possible. This level of player will benefit the most from the cap increases, as we've seen thus far. Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks are finalizing a 4-year, $72 million deal. Timofey Mozgov will be joining the Los Angeles Lakers for 4-years, $64 million. Chandler Parsons will likely be on the move, too, with a max offer from the Portland Trailblazers already on table.
Prying away this caliber of player will be possible for the Bulls, but if this what the 2017 plan was built to achieve, its hardly the visionary required to evade years of mediocrity. That's not to suggest adding one or more of these players wouldn't impact the roster favorably, but if you're effectively writing off one Jimmy Butler's prime years, is that justification enough to not be heavily involved with the free agents of 2016?
Should the Bulls add one or more very-good-but-not-great free agents that likely will be available, Jimmy Butler will be entering the 2017-18 season as a 28-year-old. Butler will hardly be done, but transitioning the team during your best players prime without any guarantees is an overly risky tactic for a naturally conservative organization.
As is, the Bulls need work. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Derrick Rose has been traded and Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah will be joining rival teams in the coming days. Though all three are flawed, their names still carry value while their likely replacements are untested, have their own shortcomings, or both. Without significant internal improvement from Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis, it's difficult to see how Chicago will be able to sell free agents on a winning culture if it were to miss a second straight postseason, despite Forman's persistence to mention the Bulls' winning record over a 10 year period.
Furthermore, the salary cap will continue to climb. Set at $94 million for 2016, Forman has indicated that the uncertainty of the evolving cap climate would be a primary reason for the Bulls' bashful approach.
"With the uncertainty, the spike in the cap it's going to be a fluid period," Forman said. "We like the group we've put together and think we are headed in the right direction, getting younger, more athletic and retooling the roster to a certain extent and then see what opportunities arise July 1."
Be that as it may, the cap will continue to increase in 2017, reaching $108 million. Why would any anxiety associated with exorbitant contracts and an evolving salary cap suddenly fade? There could also be a greater risk associated with signing players to maximum contracts as the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement will be due for renegotiation, with no assurances currently in place on the terms and rules that will govern the league moving forward.
There are valid reasons for Gar Forman to divert his attention entirely to the free agents of 2017. The top-line stars are significantly better and would greatly impact the winning dynamics of the team. But mortgaging a year of your best player's prime in hope of landing a big fish is a dangerous game to play.
The Bulls should be conservative during free agency. There is no need to replicate the Lakers' actions by handing out enormous deals to below average players. However, the Bulls are a team that requires a significant talent upgrade. Conserving cap space for next season for a superstar is noble, but this shouldn't preclude signing multiple good and young prospects to reasonable contracts.
Now or later, strike when you can. Bring in as much talent as possible to assist Jimmy Butler's ascendancy, and more importantly, empower your head coach by providing a roster that he can capably rely on.