What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where I normally look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship, but I’ve already talked about all of the bad and middling teams, so now I’m looking at the contenders. This week, I’m covering the Chicago Bulls, a team that has a lot of players set to hit free agency over the next two years. How they handle those decisions will impact the team for years to come.
In the next two years, the Bulls have a large number of players hitting free agency. Joakim Noah will be an unrestricted free agent next season, and Pau Gasol can opt out of his current deal next summer. Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2017 season. Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, and Cameron Bairstow will all be hitting restricted free agency in 2017 as well.
Aside from Bairstow, all of those players have played a significant role for the Bulls, and the team will have to assess who they want to keep, and who they’ll have to move on from going forward.
The free agencies of Noah and Gasol will provide the most immediate decisions for the Bulls, as I expect Pau Gasol to exercise his option since so many teams are going to have a hefty influx of cap space. What the Bulls decide to do there will impact the rest of their frontcourt accordingly.
Noah didn’t look great last year, and his deficiencies seriously hindered the Bulls in the playoffs. If Chicago signs Noah to a big, long-term deal, it will signify that they’re banking on him bouncing back to his old self and not looking for his replacement right now. As for Gasol, the power forward spot is already crowded, and while I’m sure Gasol wouldn’t want more than a two-year deal, two years is one year too long for the Bulls.
The summer of 2017 is when the Bulls have to determine what course they’re taking. They can spend over the cap to keep their own players, but 2017 is when they’ll have to decide how that cap space is divvied up among their players. Before the cap holds are applied, the Bulls are currently on the hook for $23.8 million in the 2017 offseason. If the cap is somewhere just above $100 million, they’ll have about $76-$80 million in cap space, though, that number doesn’t include potential deals to Noah and/or Gasol.
With that space, they’ll need to decide on Rose, Mirotic, Gibson, and Snell. If the Bulls sign all six of those players to their market value over the next two years, Chicago will be significantly over the cap, especially if Rose returns to form and requires a max deal to re-sign.
This would leave the Bulls with little to no flexibility to add to their roster, and they’d still be crowded at the power forward spot. One option for them is to trade a member of their frontcourt, possibly for perimeter depth or another area of need.
A likely candidate could be Taj Gibson, who would provide value to another contender (preferably in the West) even with only one year left on his contract. This would free up minutes for Mirotic and rookie Bobbie Portis, as well as lessen the impact of a big two-year contract for Gasol.
The team will likely have to pay out the nose anyway to keep their team together, but if they trade Gibson or forego signing whichever big man they feel they can most afford to miss, they should have the flexibility to do so and add a few rotation pieces here and there.
The goal for the Bulls is to balance their short-term goals with their long-term future. They need to think about which players help them win tomorrow just as much as who will help them win today.