Even though the NBA Finals have just concluded, for most teams the offseason is well underway. The draft is less than a week away and free agency officially begins five days later. The season really never ends. So with that, I’d like to present the first in a series of offseason analyses for teams around the league. We start with my hometown team,
The CHICAGO BULLS
4 Offseason Goals
- Re-sign Jimmy Butler. If the Bulls do nothing this offseason except make sure that Butler stays in Chicago, it would be a success. In his first three years in the league he has proved to be an elite defender on the wing, demonstrating the motor, strength and quickness to stick with the league’s best. But he had, until this season, struggled to put it all together on the offensive side of the floor.
In 2012-13, his second year in the league, Butler played all 82 games, showed promise on the defensive end and shot over 38% from behind the arc in a limited number of attempts. This performance instilled the hope that he would become a 3-and-D type wing player, defending the other team’s best player and mostly spotting up on the offensive end. However, the following year, the Bulls once again lost Derrick Rose for the season and Butler embraced a greater offensive role. He took four more field goal attempts per game and two more 3-point shots. His efficiency lagged in the face of this uptick in usage, normal for complementary players taking too much of a role offensively. He also struggled with injuries, namely a nagging turf toe injury that caused him to miss 15 games.
As a result, coming into last summer and the negotiations on his rookie extension, there was mixed data. He had proven his worth as a great defender but hadn’t been able to score efficiently in more than a complementary role. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bulls offered Butler a 4-year $44 million contract. Butler felt that the offer wasn’t sufficient1 and the negotiating window passed without an agreement on an extension.2
After making a big bet on himself, the man known as Jimmy Buckets exploded on the scene as one of the best 2-way players in the league last year. He proved himself as worthy of the maximum possible contract for a player with four years of experience, much more than the $48 million he would have signed for last offseason. It seemed the Bulls would briefly lament their mistake but then happily pay their best player the raise he had earned. Ideally, this would mean a 5-year maximum contract at around $92 million (based on my rudimentary calculations).
However, Butler now isn’t so sure he wants to be locked into a contract of that length. The reason for the deviation in the usual calculus for a player in this situation is the projected steep increase in the salary cap coming in 2016-17 and 2017-18. A short term deal would most likely be a shrewd financial move. By agreeing to a two or three year contract instead of a five year deal, Butler would hold out for his big pay-day until 2017 or 2018 when he would be eligible for a much larger maximum salary than he is this offseason and would increase his career earning power. The deal Butler reportedly is interested in is a 2-year contract with a player option for a third year (again via Wojnarowski). This type of contract structure would guarantee Butler a big payout now, around $50 million, while also allowing him the option to opt-out if facing greener pastures in free agency in 2017. If he were able to cash in on the option, he would end up making much more than the $92 million the Bulls can offer him this offseason.
The Bulls of course have matching rights on any contract Butler signs. But if he signs a contract of this format, they could lose their most important player to unrestricted free agency in just two years. Luckily, collective bargaining agreement expert Mark Deeks has shed light on a “little-known” (his words) CBA clause that could assure Chicago keeps Butler around until at least 2018. If Chicago offers him what’s called a Maximum Qualifying Offer (a contract offer of the maximum possible money fully guaranteed over five years), then the clause states that Butler would not be allowed to sign a contract with any opt-out clauses before the third year.
So, in a roundabout way, this is meant to say that Butler is indispensable to this Bulls team, and for this reason the team must offer him the Maximum Qualifying Offer to ensure, even if he doesn’t agree to it, that he will stay in town for at least three more seasons. From there, one would hope that Butler and the Bulls can come to some middle ground in which he is happy to stay in Chicago for years to come. The worst possible outcome would be for Butler to return to Chicago reluctantly, or even worse, for him to sign the Qualifying offer, leading him to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason.3 Ideally, there won’t be a falling out between Butler and the Bulls, and the two parties can continue to work together building a championship caliber squad.
- Establish a Culture and a strategy to maximize the talent on the court. Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had a public and ugly falling out with the previous front office. Now, in comes former Bull Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State to rally the troops. He has the unique situation of having to take over a veteran playoff team as a rookie head coach (sound familiar *cough* Steve Kerr).
What Kerr did that helped make him so successful in his inaugural season as an NBA coach was surround himself with a group of smart, well-respected assistants. Alvin Gentry had been a head coach at multiple stops and spearheaded one of the league’s best offenses nearly everywhere he went. Ron Adams helped construct Tom Thibodeau’s famous overloading defensive scheme and is one of the most respected defensive (and just basketball for that matter) minds in the game.
Thus far, Hoiberg has added former Spurs defensive guru Jim Boylen to be his top assistant. While Boylen has experience as one of the lead assistants under the great Gregg Popovich and as the head coach of the Utah Utes basketball program, the signing is a bit underwhelming. The hope was that the Bulls would be able to hire a former NBA head coach to mentor Hoiberg in the nuances of coaching professionals at the highest level. Nevertheless, Boylen’s understanding of an NBA locker room and the operations of coaching a team will be invaluable to the new Chicago coaching staff. It will interesting who Hoiberg and the Bulls hire to fill out the remaining coaching positions. The end goal of course, no matter who they bring on, will be to establish the trust and respect that the coaches in Golden State were able to do in a similar situation.
Strategically speaking, Hoiberg ought to bring out the best of this Bulls team on the offensive side of the ball. After all, his offensive acumen is what first put him on NBA radar as a prospective head coach. The hope is that he introduces some tempo and creativity for Chicago on the offensive end. The Bulls have the personnel to run more than they did under Thibodeau. Derrick Rose of course thrives in the open court and a healthy Joakim Noah is one of the faster centers in the league. Further, guys like Nikola Mirotic, Butler, and even Tony Snell should be able to take advantage of more opportunities in transition. On the defensive side, the team should be able to build on the foundation that Thibodeau instilled and rely on Jim Boylen’s expertise to recover the dominant defense that was sorely lacking last season.
There are big expectations for the new coaching staff. It would go a long way if they could implement proficient schemes on both sides of the ball, but the most important thing for Hoiberg and his staff will be to establish a winning culture and earn the respect of the players.
- Alleviate the Logjam of Bigs, which could point to trading Noah, Pau Gasol or Taj Gibson. Chicago was blessed to have four productive bigs last year, which also meant there weren’t enough minutes to go around. For example, by RPM (ESPN’s real plus minus) Mirotic was the most valuable per minute of the quartet of Bulls big men. Yet Thibs played him the least. Thibodeau also started one of the worst possible pairings of the four, Noah and Gasol (2 centers). As is evident, one of the reasons Thibs was let go was his stubbornness and aversion to adapting when presented with new or unexpected situations. For example, he was unwilling to play Mirotic, a rookie, in the place of veterans, even though Mirotic demonstrated he was worthy of much more than the minutes he was receiving.4 Another reason to trade one of the bigs is that it would be interesting to see Doug McDermott get some minutes at the backup four spot. In the modern NBA, he could play the role of stretch power forward perfectly and ought to be able to provide adequate defense against other backup four men.
So, it seems that in order to reduce friction and provide each with an adequate amount of playing time, it might be best for one of the bigs to be moved. Being the best, the youngest (he recently turned 24), and on the cheapest contract, Mirotic is out of the question. But none of the other three are perfect trade candidates either. Moving Gasol could be unwise given that as a free agent just last offseason, he chose the Bulls among many other suitors. If the Bulls were to trade him it could deter future veterans in Gasol’s situation a year ago from signing with the team because of precedent set demonstrating that they could be traded away the next offseason. Noah had a really down season in 2014-15 after finishing fourth (FOURTH!) in the MVP voting in 2013-14. Trading low on him wouldn’t put Chicago in a position to maximize value unless someone is willing to pay for a version of Noah in between 13-14 and 14-15 iterations. Finally, even though Gibson isn’t coming off the strongest of seasons, he is on a reasonable contract with about 2 years and $17 million left. However, according to news reports, he recently had surgery to repair the left ankle that gave him trouble during much of last season and will be out for four months. His injured status certainly puts a damper on his trade value.
The return the team could get in exchange for one of these guys is something that only John Paxson, Gar Forman, and the rest of the Bulls decision makers know. Something also to consider is the impact of moving someone like Noah, who is considered a team leader. However, dangling one of these players in the hopes of upgrading at the wing or guard positions would be a prudent allocation of resources given the Bulls surplus of bigs, which ties into our final goal.
- Find a Difference-Maker at the 1, 2 or 3 position. The Bulls have Rose under contract for next year and the necessity to resign Butler has already been discussed at length. But the team should also heavily pursue re-signing free agent Mike Dunleavy, the team’s incumbent starting small-forward. The reason being that after the Bulls (hopefully) re-sign Butler to the max, they will be over the salary cap and have limited options in terms of talent acquisition. As a result, bringing Dunleavy back, especially after a season in which he shot over 40% from the three point arc, is almost a must. Rationally, he deserves a bit of a raise from his $3 million salary a year ago, but at age 35 he won’t command a long term commitment.
Even with those three in the fold plus Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, Chicago still has a need for a difference maker to fill out the rotation of non-bigs. They should look to use one of the movable big men, their first round pick (number 22) and/or the taxpayer midlevel exception5 to fulfill this need. An efficient use of a combination of these assets would set up the Bulls with the best roster to make a run at the championship. If Chicago is able to fulfill these goals, they will put themselves on track to compete with the Cavaliers and the rest of the Eastern Conference for a trip to finals and a chance at a title.
Below is a screenshot of my cap calculations for the Bulls in a reasonable offseason scenario. The red numbers reveal the possible tax bill the team could be facing after an offseason where the team re-signs Butler to the max, brings back Dunleavy for a slight raise, uses their first round pick, and signs a player using the taxpayer midlevel exception. The tax bill could be alleviated by moving one of the bigs in exchange for lesser salary, not using the full taxpayer midlevel exception, or not bringing back E’Twaun Moore and/or Cameron Bairstow who’s contracts are not guaranteed. However, if the Bulls want to contend this year, paying a $5-10 million tax bill may be the price owner Jerry Reinsdorf has to pay; something he has been reluctant to do in the past.
1. A feeling shared by many others.↩
2. Wojnarowski also says that $48 million would have gotten the deal done, just one more million per year. A sad fact to look back on, really.↩
3. The Qualifying Offer is the one-year tender that teams can extend to a player when his rookie contract expires. It is this offer that makes the player a restricted free agent and gives the incumbent team matching rights on any contract that the restricted free agent signs.↩
4. It was finally time to move on from a very successful coach, but one that was set in his ways. He was also fiercely competitive to a fault as shown by him playing Butler and former Bull Luol Deng an excessive number of minutes. In the end, for all of his strengths, his deficiencies were a detriment to the Bulls taking the next step in the development to becoming a championship team.↩
5. The taxpayer mid-level exception allows a team to sign a player for a starting salary of $3.376 million even if the team is above the luxury tax threshold.↩