Breaking it down: The Bulls' free-agency options

Breaking it down: The Bulls' free-agency options
June 29, 2014, 4:45 pm
Kevin Anderson

Bulls general manager Gar Forman used two words on Thursday night that perfectly sum up exactly what the next two weeks will be like for the team’s front office heading into free agency: fluid and creative. Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson will have to channel their inner Picasso if they are going to create enough cap space to bring in a near-max player. Their plans will absolutely have to be fluid based on what the players (and other teams do) when negotiations can begin with free agents on July 1.

For purposes of this post, we are going to make several assumptions:

  • The salary cap will be set at $63.2 million for the 2014-15 season. [1]
  • The Bulls will use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, essentially wiping his $16.8 million salary off the books for salary cap and tax purposes.
  • The Bulls will waive the non-guaranteed deals of Ronnie Brewer, Mike James and Lou Amundson.
  • The Bulls renounce the rights to their own free agents such as Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin, thereby releasing the cap hold assigned for those players. [2]
  • The Bulls renounce the rights to their exceptions, including the mid-level and bi-annual that teams over the cap use to improve their roster.

The Bulls will enter free agency with zero “actual” cap space; technically they will be way over it with free agent cap holds, exceptions and non-guaranteed deals. In order to talk about practical cap space, all of the above things need to occur.

Now that all of the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s get into “practical” cap space and what the Bulls roster will look like:

PLAYER '14-'15 SALARY
Derrick Rose $18,862,876
Joakim Noah $12,700,000
Taj Gibson $8,000,000
Mike Dunleavy $3,326,235
Jimmy Butler $2,008,748
Tony Snell $1,472,400
Doug McDermott $1,898,300 [4]
Anthony Randolph $1,825,359
Greg Smith $948,163
Richard Hamilton $333,334 [5]
Subtotal $51,375,415
Expected salary cap $63,200,000

That nice $51.4 million dollar figure does not mean the Bulls will have $11.8 million in cap space to give a single free agent. The NBA requires teams to have at least 13 players on their roster and charges a cap hit of $507,000 for each roster spot under 12 (the roster charge goes away after a new player is added). The Bulls have nine players with guaranteed contracts for next season. So, the Bulls will only have exactly $10,303,585 for one single free agent on July 10 if they keep the roster as you see it.

Now, $10.3 million is a nice pay-day for one player and the Bulls could certainly fill a lot of needs with that cap space. But all indications are the front office is going to make a hard push for Carmelo Anthony. The seven-time All-Star can re-sign with the Knicks for a maximum five-year deal of approximately $129 million, or he can sign a maximum four-year deal with another team for approximately $96 million [6]. His first year max salary with the Bulls (or any other team not run by Phil Jackson) is around $23 million and indications are that he wants a near-max deal. Let’s assume that he’s willing to give a contending team a slight discount and will sign for a first year salary of $20 million.

Plan A-1: Sign a marquee free agent (aka “The Melo Plan”)

The “creative” part Gar Forman referred to on Thursday is about this very scenario. If Anthony says he is willing to play for the Bulls for $20 million, the front office will be faced with the challenge of freeing up another $10 million in cap space (after the Boozer amnesty) to make that happen. Again, for every player traded away for a future draft pick, an empty roster spot is created and a $507,000 roster charge is applied to the Bulls' available cap space. If the Bulls trade Dunleavy away for a second round pick in next year’s draft, they are creating just $2.81 million in cap space for Melo, not $3.33 million.

Let’s start with the best-case scenario that Anthony gives the Bulls a huge discount and is willing to sign for a first year salary of $17 million. The first domino to drop will be Dunleavy. Two factors make him the first to go: his relatively affordable expiring contract of $3.3 million and the Bulls drafting Doug McDermott, a player with a similar skill set. Trading Dunleavy for a future pick gives the Bulls approximately $13.1 million in cap space for Melo, still not nearly enough.

[RELATED: Forman, Bulls confident in free-agency selling points]

To keep Gibson (and that’s something the Bulls would very much like to do) the Bulls would need to unload Butler, Snell, and the very hard to move Randolph. Trading Butler and Snell for second round picks should be relatively easy. Both players are still under rookie contracts and Butler could become an immediate rotation player on any team in the league. Randolph is the issue - he struggled to find playing time in Denver last season and it's difficult to see a team giving up a second round pick for him. The Bulls would be forced to add in another incentive to trade him, and it’s very hard to trade him as part of a multi-player deal [7]. Making all of these moves gets them $16.9 million for Anthony. The Bulls will try hard to convince him to take that amount, and while it’s possible it's not likely.

Now for the more realistic scenario: Anthony demands at least $20 million. The only way to get that much cap space is by giving away Dunleavy and Gibson. Trading both will give the Bulls $20.6 million to give Anthony in his first year. This is a very fair and near-max deal that doesn’t gut the team completely, though it does leave a huge hole in the Bulls' frontcourt. Barring a veteran signing for the minimum, the Bulls would be looking at starting Anthony, Greg Smith or Anthony Randolph at the power forward spot. Starting Smith or Randolph is something they undoubtedly want to avoid. Elton Brand, you have Gar Forman holding on line one.

Plan A-2: Orchestrate a sign-and-trade to land a marquee free agent

The Bulls' dream scenario would be to pull off some kind of sign-and-trade to get Anthony that involves sending Boozer and other assets to New York. In this deal, you’d see the previously mentioned non-guaranteed deals of Brewer, James and Amundson involved, plus future first round picks and likely the rights to Mirotic. The money would match up because of Boozer’s massive $16.8 million salary, and the Bulls keep the core intact and get Anthony. There is absolutely no reason for the Knicks to help the Bulls by taking on Boozer’s contract. To borrow from George Carlin, it’s the dream scenario because you have to be asleep to believe it.

[MORE: Bulls get their guy, trade up for McDermott]

If Phil Jackson agrees to a sign-and-trade with Anthony, he is going to want as little guaranteed salary added as possible while getting the most attractive long-term assets possible. The problem for the Bulls is they either need to a) be under the cap after the trade or b) send out $15 million in salary to take back Anthony's $20 million salary. For either one to happen, Gibson absolutely has to be included because of his $8 million salary. In addition to Gibson in a sign-and-trade, the Bulls would need to send out Dunleavy, the 3 non-guaranteed deals at least one first round pick and likely Mirotic.

In the "staying under the cap option", the Bulls would have to renounce all exceptions, including the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. Again, there would only be cap room to sign veteran minimum deals. The "$15 million for $20 million" option would keep the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions intact, but involves sending out more contracts.

Plan B: Clear cap space for one or two mid-tier free agents

One could argue this may be the smarter move for the Bulls. They still have to amnesty Boozer and renounce all their exceptions, but once they trade Dunleavy (sorry Mike, you’re still the first domino) they'll have $13.1 million to offer a single free agent. They also could split the money, sign two players in the $6-$7 million range and bolster both their starting five and bench.

[MORE: Add Chandler Parsons to the Bulls' free agency wish list]

The Bulls could make a run at Lance Stephenson if they believe he is the answer, or go after players such Patty Mills, Ray Allen, Trevor Ariza or even Pau Gasol. Or they could sign one player at $7 million and with the rest...

Plan C: Bring over Nikola Mirotic

The much hyped Mirotic is in the last year of a deal with Real Madrid in Spain, but indications are that he wants to play for the Bulls next season. Unfortunately, his deal has to be bought out because he is still under contract. The Bulls are only allowed to pay $600,000 of his $3.4 million buyout [8], while the rest has to come from Mirotic himself. The buyout payment is reportedly able to be spread out over several years so that a contract in the $5-$7 million range should be able to convince the best player in Europe to play in the NBA next season.

In “Plan C” the Bulls could keep Dunleavy and still have some cap room left over for some decent, but lower-tiered free agents.

Plan D: Boozer stays, Mirotic comes over for mid-level

This is not going to go over well with most people, but it makes some sense from a financial and roster perspective. I’ll explain why. All I ask is that you finish all of this before you send me a “Your a moron” tweet. Also, please know, I am not advocating this from a chemistry point of view, just that it may make sense from a basketball stand point IF Mirotic is willing to come over for the mid-level exception.

Using the amnesty on Boozer would leave the Bulls with $11.8 million in cap room to fill three roster spots. But to get to that $11.8 million figure, they have to renounce the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions that teams over the cap use to add players to their roster (hence the word "exception"). The non-taxpayer mid-level for next season is slotted at $5.305 million and the bi-annual exception is slotted at $2.077 million.

[WATCH: Does Bulls' draft affect Melo plans?]

These two exceptions combine for $7.382 million and can be used by teams over the cap but not within $4 million of the tax apron (it’s complicated, but the Bulls aren’t close to that level). What this means is that using the amnesty on Boozer only gives them $3,428,585 in “practical” cap space. This scenario only works if Mirotic is willing to sign for the mid-level; if he wants even $6 million, you have to amnesty Boozer, whose expiring contract could also be attractive to some teams at the trade deadline.

So the question stands: Is it worth paying Boozer $16.8 million to go away, just to give the Bulls $3.4 million in practical cap space? One can make the argument that a roster with Gibson and Mirotic leaves no minutes for Boozer, and that’s an accurate statement. You can also argue that an unhappy Boozer getting only 15 minutes per game is bad for locker room chemistry. Certainly $3.4 million could get the Bulls a good backup center so Noah isn’t playing 38 minutes a night. That’s going to be a very heated discussion among Bulls brass if plans A through C fall through. The Bulls have to make a decision on using the amnesty on Boozer by July 16.

Plan E: Trade for Kevin Love

While not exactly a "free agent plan," this scenario is still available until the Warriors pull the trigger on including Klay Thompson in a deal for the Wolves All-Star. It makes sense that teams that miss out on Anthony and LeBron James will shift their focus to Minnesota the second week in July. The Bulls are still rumored to be a preferred destination for Love, and it really comes down to which team among the Warriors, Nuggets or Bulls puts together the best trade package.

[MORE: The Bulls' reported offer to Minnesota for Kevin Love]

Flip Saunders is going to want Noah, but that's not an option. The next best realistic trade offer will likely include Gibson, Butler, Mirotic, the three previously mentioned non-guaranteed contracts and a future first round pick or two.

The huge challenge for the Bulls' front office is going to be how to decide when to follow through with any of their plans. Wait too long and they might watch the Warriors trade for Love and the Knicks re-sign Anthony to a maximum deal. Act too quickly and they may overpay in a trade offer or gut the roster to bring in a star.

Fluid indeed.

Footnotes

[1] The NBA won’t announce the exact cap figure until just before players can officially sign on July 10th, but most experts believe the $63.2m figure is accurate.

[2] They can still re-sign any free agent they renounce, they just can’t go over the cap to do so (the Bulls didn’t have “Bird rights” to Augustin anyway).

[3] Noah originally was slotted to make $12.2 million next season but he has a $500k bonus for making 1st team All-NBA and because he achieved that goal last season, that bonus is now deemed “likely” for cap purposes.

[4] McDermott’s actual salary won’t be determined until he signs, but the 11th pick in the 1st round is assigned a cap hold of this amount

[5] Yes, Rip was waived in 2013 but the Bulls chose to stretch his $1 million buyout over 3 seasons. Hence the $333k cap hit this year (and next year too).

[6] Anthony’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap is officially set

[7] NBA cap guru Mark Deeks has a brilliant post about Randolph’s contract and how it affects the Bulls in free agency here.

[8] Mirotic’s buyout is actually 2.5 million Euros, it roughly translates to $3.4 million U.S.