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The Chicago Bulls Can’t Afford to Feel Complacent

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Bulls made two significant, yet highly expected moves to kick off their free agency, re-upping Jimmy Butler for five-years, $90 million and Mike Dunleavy for three-years, $14.4 million.

Just over a month and a half after being unceremoniously ousted by a depleted Cavaliers team, the two moves were a source of much-needed celebration among Bulls fans—I guess I’m not in the partying mood.

For Butler, there was almost no conceivable way he wasn’t going to end up in a Bulls uniform next season with Chicago having the ability to match any offer he signed with another team (even though it never got that far). It’s nice to have him locked up long term at what will look like a reasonable price once the new TV deal inflates salaries across the league. Still, it locks up the Bulls’ flexibility and he cost over double what he would have last summer. Finally the Bulls aren’t stingy, they’re just a year too late.

As for Dunleavy, the Bulls made the right choice to re-sign him, and it wasn’t a tough one. They couldn’t have signed anyone else using that money since they used Early Bird rights to sign him, but the price was still too high.

You pay guys on what they’re going to do, not what they’ve done. In that sense, Chicago got no hometown discount.

It’s not every day an injury-prone 35-year-old coming off a season where he missed 19 games and finished with an 11.64 PER—the worst of his 14-year career—gets a three-year extension. The third season isn’t guaranteed, but this feels like a deal that has the potential to blow up in their face.

There was a time when re-signing Kirk Hinrich to a two-year deal, which the Bulls did last summer, felt like a no-brainer too. Instead, he had a 6.82 PER last season and essentially brought nothing to the table, yet he’s locked up at $2.85 million for this season.

Dunleavy is no Hinrich by any means, but it’s not uncommon for an aging player to fall off reasonably quickly, let alone one with an injury history.

Re-signing Dunleavy also reasserts the fact that first-round draft picks Tony Snell and Doug McDermott haven’t panned out the way Chicago had hoped for, and it’s not a strong showing of faith in either of them.

The purpose of drafting both players was to have flexibility, especially at times like now when Dunleavy’s contract was running out and the team destined to pay the luxury tax.

The Bulls have invested more than just money in McDermott (whose struggles I’ve already covered in depth), spending five draft picks just to move up to draft him last summer.

Neither McDermott nor Snell have earned the starting job based on their play, but by signing Dunleavy, their window for opportunity will continue to shrink and further stunt their growth. Neither player is exactly young either, with both turning 24 early next season.

The Bulls are strapped for cash, so there aren’t many alternatives to Dunleavy out there through free agency, but they need to get creative, like 29 other teams in the league are trying do at this time of the year. I haven’t felt that sense of urgency from their management whatsoever.

Dunleavy isn’t a starter on a contending team, plain and simple. And it’s not like the Bulls don’t have the trade assets to make the upgrade at the small-forward position.

Even though Taj Gibson is expected to be out four months after having ankle surgery this offseason, he still has two-years, $17.45 million left on a reasonable contract, and he’s a tough-as-nails player with a great reputation. After drafting Bobby Portis, the Bulls have plenty of depth at power forward and shouldn’t have an issue finding a suitor for Gibson.

The Bulls’ best bet is finding a team that can essentially absorb his contract, while they collect future draft picks, possibly a trade exception and cap relief for the summer. Alternatively, the Bulls can try to dangle Gibson for the likes of Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Martin, Avery Bradley, Terrence Ross or even Luol Deng, all far better fits on the roster.

Joakim Noah and his $13.9 million expiring contract is also expendable after a disappointing season, but it’d be a shame to sell him low or lose the heart and soul of the team. Still, if the right offer’s there, he might be worth letting go.

If the Bulls continue to free up their roster, even if they get nothing back in return, they can make a run at a player like Al Horford next summer. It will hurt their chances of contending this season, but as the roster is currently constructed, they won’t make it past Cleveland anyways.

The options are out there, but it seems like every season, despite seasons ending from Derrick Rose injuries or LeBron James hitting buzzer-beaters, the Bulls’ biggest enemy is themselves.

It’s early, and Chicago still has $3.4 million to spend on a point guard, but this is looking like the typical, predictable offseason where the Bulls think they’re better than they really are.

This excerpt from Bulls beat writer Nick Friedell illustrates the illusions Bulls management has entering next season:

“Re-signing Butler and Dunleavy were no-brainers for a team that still holds out hope that the championship window they have been holding open for several years hasn’t closed completely…the Bulls front office still wants to give this core one more chance to push for a title under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. The belief is that Hoiberg’s offensive system can help push the Bulls over the hump in the Eastern Conference.”

The problem, and almost ineptness with this belief is that it puts all the blame and failures of the Bulls on one person’s shoulders, Tom Thibodeau, and invests all their hopes in another, Fred Hoiberg. The Bulls are going to learn the hard way just how wrong that frame of mind is.

As talented and innovative as Hoiberg is and has the potential to be, and as much as Thibs’s time was running out, it’s more than just one person’s fault that the Bulls mailed it in at the end of the season, and it’ll take more than a new coach to change that.

In this offseason frenzy, with superteams getting stronger, new forces aligning and powers continuing to shift, the Bulls are stuck in neutral. And that’s nothing to celebrate.

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