The Chicago Bulls’ offseason has consisted of replacing their head coach, adding Bobby Portis through the draft and a whole bunch of nothing. More or less, the exact same team that got ousted by LeBron James for the umpteenth time is staying exactly the same.
So, you may be asking: “Why in the wide, wide world of sports aren’t the Bulls doing anything?” And sadly the answer isn’t nearly as easy to find as you might like. Just because there’s a need to do something doesn’t mean there’s a way to do something.
Then comes the deluge of things that could’ve or should’ve been done.
As an accomplished home-office general manager, I’m well acquainted with the practice. I can make a fake trade quicker than you can tune an air guitar. Note that all redressing of fake GMs in this article have the proverbial “four fingers pointing back at me.”
The problem is that the Bulls’ real front office isn’t doing it for fake, they’re doing it for real. And that means having to deal with real restrictions.
The Problem with Free Agency
The Bulls are limited in what they can do, and no, it’s not because Jerry Reinsdorf is cheap. It’s quite the opposite. Currently, pending the specific contract information for Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks and Bobby Portis, the Bulls are sitting around $88.41 million in salaries.
There’s something in the CBA referred to as the “apron.” That’s the mark $4 million over the tax threshold. Even with the adjusted figures, the tax is expected to start around $88.74 million. That puts the Bulls right around the threshold.
That binds them in what they can do. They can’t use their full mid-level exception because that would put them over the apron, and that’s illegal. If they do a sign-and-trade, they get hard-capped and can’t over the apron. Effectively, being just below the apron is the same as being over it.
So, I hope we can appreciate the irony. The thing limiting the Bulls right now is they’re spending too much money. And there’s no room to “just spend more.” It’s not their decision that’s limiting them; it’s league rules.
But what about the taxpayer mid-level exception? The existence of that exception has some fans wondering why the Bulls are “letting” all these other guards “get away.” But the truth is, the guards who are inking elsewhere are out of the Bulls’ price range.
The taxpayer MLE is just $3.376 million. Rodney Stuckey gave the Pacers a discount when he signed a three-year deal for $21 million. Was he really going to take half as much to play for the Bulls?
You know how sometimes you walk into a clothing store, go, “Yeah, I love that shirt,” and look at the price tag? And then your eyes saucer up, and you tuck the tag back in, nice and neatly because you feel like you might get charged just for checking the price?
That’s sort of how things are going for the Bulls right now. Literally, anyone who could make a lick of difference in free agency isn’t remotely affordable. You could argue that the Bulls could’ve gotten Jeremy Lin, who signed with Charlotte for the biannual exception. But is he really the difference in getting past LeBron James?
There’s Gerald Green, who just in Miami for the minimum, but his defense was so horrid it washed him out of the Phoenix Suns’ rotation. Point being: players that might be gotten for that price aren’t exactly elite. Whatever the Bulls could get for that price is going to make minimal difference.
It also turns out they don’t even have the full taxpayer MLE to offer anymore, because they used part of it to keep Brooks (which probably also explains why they didn’t get Lin):
Aaron Brooks' deal is for portion of MMLE, not vet minimum. It's just over $2M, source said.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) July 9, 2015
They might not be completely done yet though, as there are reports that they’re talking to Donald Sloan:
Free agent Donald Sloan in ongoing discussions with the Spurs, Bulls and Mavs on potential deal as reserve PG, league sources tell RealGM.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 9, 2015
People may not like these moves, but there are arguments to be made for continuity, and the chances of getting a difference maker with the full taxpayer MLE wasn’t all that great.
The Problem with a Trade
In fact, write a list of reasons why it makes sense for the Bulls to trade them. Noah wasn’t the same last year. Gibson’s ankle is always getting injured and so on and so forth.
That list of reasons for trading either of them is also a list of things that lower their trade value. Every reason that you have to trade either of them is simultaneously a reason not to trade for them.
But now the list of reasons that other teams would want them starts to kick in. Maybe Taj will be OK. Maybe with minutes better managed, Noah can return to his All-NBA caliber play. But all those are reasons for the Bulls to not trade them as well.
Can the Bulls trade Noah or Gibson? Without a doubt they could. But just making a trade isn’t the goal. They need to make a trade that improves the team. And that’s not nearly as easy to do.
Armchair GMing is easy. None of our stupid trade ideas ever gets put to the test. Or you can just emphatically grunt “Do something!” as though that magically makes “something” doable appear.
Nor does that the fact that the Bulls haven’t “done something” mean they haven’t explored things. There are a range of ideas ranging from the realistic (Gibson for Avery Bradley) to the stupid for the Bulls (Gibson for Terrence Ross) to “the other team would never do it” (Gibson and Noah for Aldridge).
But all of these ideas, however good or bad they are, never have to survive anything but the filter of your brain. They don’t have to actually get discussed with another real-life GM, who’s trying to improve their team at the same time.
Furthermore, if your trade idea doesn’t happen — and the more stupid is, the less likely it will — it never gets proven wrong. So then fans can bemoan how if “only they had done what I said” for the next five years. The biggest difference between GarPax and the typical fan is that the typical fan can pretend their Tyrus Thomas-for-LaMarcus Aldridge trade never happened.
I can give you a fake fan trade that looks great, but that doesn’t mean it’s realistic. It’s not realistic until a rival GM is looks at it and thinks, “Yes, I’m willing to consider that.”
Furthermore, if you think that the Bulls’ front office is taking the offseason off and just going to baseball games with Andre Miller, you’re delusional. Don’t confuse “no trades” with “no activity.” The Bulls’ front office is notoriously quiet. Even when they traded Luol Deng, it crept up on the world and shocked everyone.
If they’re that good at keeping a trade that did happen quiet, how likely are they to keep discussions that aren’t happening on the down low? There may or may not be a trade coming. We’ll only know the result. We won’t know the conversations that led up to it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any.
Here’s another thing about GMing from a laptop. You get to hit the reset button every time you want. Prior stupid decisions in no way prevent you from making present stupid decisions. Actual GMs don’t have that luxury.
In the real world, there are consequences for what you do a year later and five years later. ESPN’s Nick Friedell explains:
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.
And maybe it can. Remember that this same group was one blown-timeout call away from going up 3-1 in the series against the Cavaliers this year. Is Cleveland better than Chicago? Are they “Welp, time to give up on the whole thing, trash the entire team and start over” better? No.
And frankly, if they did that, the same people complaining now would be complaining then.
Here’s the thing. The roster was too good to throw away, and it wasn’t good enough to win with the present system. Furthermore, it was too limiting to change much in free agency or trades. So GarPax did the only thing they could: They changed the coaching staff.
So now, they have a one-year window to do something with a 21st-century offense that uses all their players, including the kids like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. Maybe Derrick Rose, in his second year back from injury, is more consistent. He had flashes of his MVP form last year, but it was interrupted by bouts of insufferable shooting.
Maybe Jimmy Butler improves on his Most Improved Player season, but also brings back the kind of spectacular defense we saw in the playoffs but was missing most of last season.
Maybe the offseason and reduced minutes help Gibson and Noah to get some of their spring back, and Tristan Thompson doesn’t completely dominate them on the glass next year.
Just maybe, all the stars align. There’s a scenario where this roster can beat Cleveland. It’s not likely, but it’s better than impossible.
And maybe it doesn’t. And that’s where you have to consider the long-term planning end of things.
Worst-case scenario, the Bulls don’t get past LeBron this year. The next year Noah comes off the contracts, the cap balloons and the Bulls have a roster with Butler, Rose and Mirotic and room for a max contract.
And the year after that, with Rose’s contract coming off, the cap takes another giant leap, and the Bulls can add two more max contracts.
In the worst case, the Bulls have a chance to see what their young fellas like Snell and McDermott can do while featuring youngsters Butler and Mirotic, who have already shown something. Then they can add more stars through free agency. They can rebuild without having to go through the process of getting bad first.
The point is if they can’t really do anything to improve right now, and keeping their youth is the best plan for the future, why not just stay the same? Even if the chances are slim of winning it all, it’s better to have slim chances than none, particularly if that helps the long-term plans even more.
I imagine that some people are going to read this as me being a GarPax apologist. I can’t help that. It doesn’t change that there are real-world issues making it nearly impossible for them to make significant improvements. So, barring that, trying to improve the coaching seems like the best approach.
Doing so in a way that maximizes the potential for the future just makes it smart GMing.