Seems like most NBA scouts and general managers aren't all that high on the talent available at the top of this year's draft, yet we still are seeing multiple rumors about teams trying to trade their way into the lottery. The Bulls have already been involved in one of the bigger draft week rumors, with ESPN's Marc Stein reporting they've had exploratory discussions with the Wizards about a Luol Deng for Emeka Okafor and the 3rd overall pick deal. That report was quickly shot down by Wizards' beat writer Michael Lee, but it shows you how active teams are in the days leading up to the draft, making all kinds of proposals to try to improve their rosters or salary cap situations.
Now, trading Deng is not out of the question for the Bulls' front office. Remember, Deng is owed just over $14 million on the final year of his contract, and the Bulls aren't likely to re-sign him after next season unless he's willing to take a pay cut. So, the debate at the Berto Center involves the merits of keeping Deng on for a potential championship run next season with the risk he'll leave as a free agent next summer, or try to deal him now to get under the luxury tax and maybe pick up another young player in the process.
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There are also some long term factors to take into consideration as well. If the Bulls don't re-sign Deng next summer, they can use the amnesty provision on the final year of Carlos Boozer's contract, and potentially have enough cap room available to offer a max deal to a member of the 2014 free agent class that could include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh and Danny Granger. If the decision was mine to make, I would bring back Deng for next season, hoping the core group can stay healthy and make a legitimate run at dethroning Miami. If the Bulls win a title or make it to the Finals, then you could consider bringing back Boozer and re-signing Deng. If the Bulls lose in the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs, then you make your moves to shake up the roster, and bring in a legitimate 2nd star to pair with Derrick Rose going forward.
So, what does all the long term planning mean for draft night on Thursday?
The Bulls will probably decide they can get a three-point shooting perimeter player in free agency, going after someone who might accept a one-year, vets minimum deal like Anthony Morrow, Jodie Meeks, Randy Foye or Dorell Wright. Marco Belinelli will also be given consideration if he's willing to sign for one year, but Nate Robinson is probably out of the question, given his success in the playoffs will likely earn him a multi-year contract with another team.
That means with the 20th pick in round one of the draft, Gar Forman is likely to focus on the deep group of big men available. Players who could be on the board when the Bulls are on the clock include Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, Kansas' Jeff Withey, Duke's Mason Plumlee, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, France's Rudy Gobert and Brazilian Lucas Nogueira.
We've seen over the last two seasons Tom Thibodeau isn't fond of giving rookies a lot of playing time. Jimmy Butler barely played in his first season before emerging as a key contributor on last year's playoff team. Marquis Teague was only 19 during most of his first NBA season, so he's probably in for another year of limited playing time behind Rose and Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls will probably bring veteran Nazr Mohammed back next season as Joakim Noah's backup, so if they draft a big man this week, that player can expect to get a "red-shirt" season like Butler and Teague. But going forward, the Bulls will need to start developing their frontcourt depth, hopefully adding young European star Nikola Mirotic before the 2014-15 season to share the power forward spot with Taj Gibson.
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Bottom line, the Bulls' future looks extremely bright with Rose returning at full strength next season. NBA talent evaluators are pretty consistent in ranking Mirotic among the best players in Europe. He'd probably be a Top 5 pick if he was available in this year's draft. So, that's another potential foundation piece going forward with Rose, Noah, Gibson, Butler, Teague and this year's 1st round pick.
And, who knows what might happen a year from now if the Bulls become a player in potentially the best free agent class ever. Forman and John Paxson have done a terrific job in finding talent late in the first round to add to their core group, and they've maintained financial flexibility for next summer. Now, we just have to wait to see how it all plays out.