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Chicago Bulls Off-Season Puzzle: Ben Gordon, Post Game, and 2010 Signings

The play-offs are over and now it’s time to look at the off-season puzzle for the Chicago Bulls.  A puzzle with moving parts:

1) Do they sign Ben Gordon/how much?

2) What do they do with the Deng/Salmons situation?

3) What do they do with Tyrus Thomas/ where’s the low-post scoring?

4) Do they keep Hinrich as 6th man?

5) What to do with Aaron Gray?

6) Do they want to be bidding on the A-list in 2010?

The Ben Gordon Dilemma

We all remember how ugly Gordon’s contract negotiations were.  Gordon turned down roughly $11 million/season.  If I recall correctly, he was thinking more like $15 million per season.  The truth of the matter is a player’s only worth what someone will pay for him, and most teams have been gaming their cap space for the LeBron/Wade/Bosh sweepstakes in 2010.  Detroit has space.  Toronto has space.  Memphis has space (but likely won’t use it).  The options are much more limited than they would be after another year, when Gordon could be a consolation prize for someone missing out on Dwayne Wade.  The other problem is that signing Gordon for real money would take the Bulls into the dreaded land of luxury tax if some trading isn’t done.

Gordon is an elite scorer who isn’t afraid to take the final shot and if you watched that Celtics series, you’ve seen him will the ball into the hoop.  This is not the kind of talent you chase out the door.  To exacerbate the situation, if Gordon walks, you’re down to two guards with any experience on the roster (assuming they don’t want to re-sign Lindsey Hunter for a heavier rotation).  Signing Gordon should be a priority, but there are going to have to be some pieces shuffled in doing so.

I fear there will be more drama before this is resolved.

Who’s the Small Forward?

John Salmons has been an absolute revelation.  You’d hear good things out of Sacramento, but Salmons fits Vinny’s offense like a glove.  Deng, whose forte is the mid-range jumper, was asked to do other things this year, including a lot of driving into traffic.  Mostly, that didn’t work out so well.  Yes, Deng was injured, but he may not be a good fit for the current system.  Deng is scheduled to make a little over $10 million next season, escalating to $14 million in 2013-14.  Salmons looks like a keeper and neither Salmons or Deng are really anything other than small forwards.  I like Deng, but he may quickly turn into trade bait.

Whither the Post Game?

The big offensive hole for the Bulls continues to be the post game, or lack thereof.  Tyrus Thomas started coming around at the All-Star break, but does his scoring from a jumper or driving to the rim.  Brad Miller is more of a high post center.  Joakim Noah gets his points more from hustle than post moves.  That’s your current rotation at power forward and center, as Aaron Gray stopped leaving the bench after Miller was acquired.  Ironically, Gray has the most developed low post game of the bunch, but he’s just too slow on defense and a bit slow for the speed of game Vinny’s looking for.  You can get away with a jump shooting power forward if you have a low post banger at center.  Likewise, you can get away with a high post center or garbage man if you have a low post banger at the power forward.  This rotation is broken if you get into a situation where your jump shooters are getting cold and you need to throw the ball into the post.  The Bulls also have enough shooters that a post player commanding a double team would create a lot of open looks.

What to do about this?  Well, you have three options.

  1. Hope that Noah and/or Thomas can develop a post game.  Noah has progressed a little and the presence of Miller seems to be helping him.  A big man guru on the coaching staff would be a boon here.
  2. Draft a _polished_ low post scorer.
  3. Go out and get a veteran.

There’s been a little noise made about Tyrus Thomas playing a bit less as the playoff series ended.  I’m not sure I’d put too much stock in something that could have been situational by a rookie coach.  However, Tyrus is a restricted free agent after next season, so a long term decision on him needs to be made before too long.  Could he or Noah be trade bait?  If they need to plug in a low post scorer, it’s entirely possible.

The Hinrich Dilemma

As with Deng, Kirk Hinrich was getting paid $10 million to come off the bench.  Hinrich was almost traded, if you can believe the rumors, although Sefolosha ended up leaving instead.  That’s a lot of money being tied up in a bench player, but I really like Hinrich coming off the bench.  A combo guard, rather than a pure point or shooting guard, Hinrich makes for a wonderful 3-guard rotation with Rose and Gordon and that affords him a decent number of minutes.  Of course, if Gordon leaves, Hinrich will likely more into the starting shooting guard slot.  Still, $10 million of the bench makes him a trade candidate if the right deal materializes.

The Back-Up Center’s Back-Up

Aaron Gray is a free agent.  There’s no question he can play in the league, but there’s a big question whether he fits in on the Bulls.  He’ll get offers, the question is whether you want to let a 7’1″ inch center with decent post moves walk away.

The Real Free Agency Isn’t This Year.

Right now, the Bulls are in pretty good shape for the free agency period in 2010 when LeBron, Wade, Bosh and a ton of other players hit free agency.  It’s a little early to tell on rookies, so let’s add $2 million in rookie salaries, but if you count a qualifying offer to Tyrus Thomas and team options on Rose and Noah, they should be down to around $43 million.  Closer to $33 million if they renounce rights to Thomas and Noah, but we’re looking at the following core under contract:

PG: Rose/Hinrich

SG: (?)Hinrich(?)

SF: Salmons/Deng

PF: Thomas

C: Noah

With this roster, going after Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh would make a lot of sense (just like every other team).  Still, you’re talking about $20 million of that $41 million coming off the bench.  Which is to say, you’re going into the big free agency period with half of your salaries off the bench.  This is why Hinrich and Deng, especially Deng, could be trade bait.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say Ben Gordon signs for $12 million/year.  That’s bumping the Bulls up to $55 million is salary.  The official salary cap for 2008-9 was $58 million.  Assuming the cap continues to grow roughly $3 million/year (and the economic downturn doesn’t shrink it), that would put the cap at $64 million and the max contract for a 7-year player (30% of cap) at roughly $19.2 million.

Or, in plain English, if you sign Gordon for $12 million and don’t trade either Deng or Hinrich, you won’t even be close to offering a max contract in 2010.

Of course, we all know how well free agency went when Jerry Krause thought he could just buy a few all-stars.  Having money and getting who you covet are not always the same thing.

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