So, what did we learn from the Derrick Rose-less 2012-13 season?
First and foremost, we found out the Bulls have a new team leader in All-Star center Joakim Noah. Despite battling plantar fasciitis during the second half of the season, Noah stepped forward with his best all-around year as a pro and also became the driving force for this Bulls team on and off the court. Whenever something needed to be said, it was Noah getting the team together to provide advice and encouragement. Noah’s work ethic and passion are respected by his coaches and teammates, making him the type of leader Rose is unable to be because of his soft-spoken nature.
Noah’s role in the offense grew dramatically, as Tom Thibodeau and his staff took advantage of Noah’s passing skills to make him the focal point of their half-court offense. His defensive skills also grew to the point where the he was voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive First team. In my view, Noah is now one of the top 25 players in the league, and clearly one of the top centers along with Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez. Noah and Rose are probably the only other untouchable players on the team when it comes to offseason trade talks.
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Secondly, Jimmy Butler emerged as an important part of the Bulls’ future plans. His improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was nothing short of remarkable. Thibodeau barely played Butler during his rookie season because of the logjam of perimeter players ahead of him on the roster. But with the break-up of the self-proclaimed "Bench Mob," Butler was able to earn a spot in the rotation at the start of the season, and because of injuries to Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli, he suddenly found himself in the unexpected role of starting shooting guard after the All-Star break.
Not only did Butler step up to the challenge of playing a new position, he established himself as the likely future starter. Butler became surprisingly accurate at one of the most efficient shots in the game: the corner 3-pointer. His combination of quickness and wing span at 6-foot-7 made him an outstanding perimeter defender. Most Bulls observers expected the front office to invest big money at the shooting guard position at some point in the near future, but Butler’s emergence could give the team some cost certainty at the position for the next couple years.
Now the decisions for Gar Forman and John Paxson become a little tricky. Do they count on the return of Rose and the improvement of Noah and Butler to stand pat this offseason, and give this team one more chance to defeat Miami in the playoffs? Or, do they try to package some of their future assets to acquire a second wing scorer who may give the Bulls more firepower for a possible title run?
The decision on which course to pursue is made a lot more complicated by the team’s financial limitations. Unless the Bulls are able to unload a big money contract for a draft pick, they are likely to be in the luxury tax again for the 2013-’14 season. Just adding the combined contracts of Rose, Noah, Hinrich, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson puts the Bulls over the salary cap. Then, adding in Butler, Marquis Teague and several minimum salaried bench players, the Bulls will be over the luxury tax threshold, which was right around $70 million for this past season.
The big debate among fans and media members is what to do about Boozer, who’s due around $30 million over the next two seasons. Should the Bulls take advantage of the one-time only amnesty clause and get him off their cap and tax numbers for next season, or do they bring him back for one more year, and use the amnesty provision on his contract in the summer of 2014? Using the amnesty on Boozer now won’t get the Bulls under the salary cap for this summer, which means the front office still wouldn’t be able to add a meaningful player to the roster. But if they wait until the summer of 2014, when Deng’s contract also expires, the Bulls might have enough cap room to pursue a major free agent.
2014 is the summer when the Miami trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can opt out of their contracts, but at this point it’s impossible to tell if any of them will actually hit the free-agent market. There are also a number of older players who could be available such as Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan, but do you really think any of those guys would be willing to leave the only franchise they ever played for? More important, would they still be major impact players at that point?
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If I were running the Bulls’ front office, I would forget about the pipe dream of LeBron becoming available next summer and scour the trade market right now in search of that second star to team with Rose. After all, who would have guessed an All-Star talent like James Harden would suddenly become available during training camp, or a near All-Star like Rudy Gay would be dealt in midseason, both because of salary reasons? The Bulls’ front office has to be vigilant and proactive, seeking out the disgruntled player or financially hamstrung team that might make a major trade suddenly possible.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Bulls possibly acquiring Minnesota’s Kevin Love, but that seems a lot less likely now that Flip Saunders has taken over control of the Timberwolves’ basketball operations. Still, given the punitive nature of the NBA’s new luxury tax provisions, star players will become available in the coming seasons, and the Bulls should be in position to make a move, given some of the young talent on the roster and valued future assets like the first round Charlotte pick from the Tyrus Thomas deal, and the rights to European star Nikola Mirotic, who was recently named Second Team All-Euroleague and has drawn comparisons to current NBA players Danilo Gallinari, Andrea Bargnani, and yes, even Nowitzki. But because of the buyout required on his contract with Real Madrid, he’s unlikely to come to the NBA before the 2014-15 season.
Could the Bulls package one of their big contracts like Deng or Boozer, along with the rights to Mirotic and the Charlotte pick to get a second big-time scorer in the lineup for next season? Only time will tell.
But after watching this shorthanded team play so valiantly all season long, you can bet Forman and Paxson will be aggressive in searching out trade options to give the Bulls a more realistic chance at competing for championships in the years to come.