Give credit to the Bulls’ front office for being able to work within the limitations of the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Despite getting ready to head into the luxury tax for the second straight season, Gar Forman and John Paxson have been able to acquire veteran bench players at relatively low prices. Agreements this week with Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and Nazr Mohammed will give the latest version of the “Bench Mob” a distinctly new look, but still offer head coach Tom Thibodeau a number of ways to attack opposing teams.
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Dunleavy figures to reprise the role of Kyle Korver from the Bulls’ teams that led the NBA in regular season wins for two straight years. The 31-year-old Dunleavy is a career 37 percent shooter from 3-point range, but he was even better than that last season in Milwaukee, hitting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s not super-athletic at 6-foot-9, nor is he a great defender, but Dunleavy will give the Bulls an expert marksmen on the corner three that has suddenly become the most popular shot among NBA teams.
Many league observers were surprised the Bulls chose to give Dunleavy a two-year contract, given their tax situation, and the team’s desire to maintain financial flexibility for a loaded 2014 free agent class. But in garnering an agreement with Dunleavy on the first day of free agency, it was obvious the Bulls were excited about what he could bring to the team over more athletic wing free agents like Anthony Morrow, Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Carlos Delfino. Personally, I would have preferred the Bulls exploring a two-year deal with Marco Belinelli, who specialized in hitting game-winning shots last season, and brings a lot more versatility to the table than Dunleavy. But the front office may have already discovered the contract demands of Belinelli and Nate Robinson were outside their price range.
Bringing Mohammed back was expected after the 15-year veteran found his way into Thibodeau’s rotation late in the regular season and playoffs. Mohammed played physically inside and showed a nice shooting touch from close range. Whether he can handle 82 games as Joakim Noah’s primary back-up is another question, which is why I was surprised the Bulls didn’t draft Louisville center Gorgui Dieng last week. Dieng is a proven shot-blocker and rebounder who could have provided some of the defensive intimidation the Bulls lost with Omer Asik’s departure in free agency last summer. A combination of Dieng and Taj Gibson would have made the second unit a defensive force, much like the original Bench Mob.
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The front office is high on top draft pick Tony Snell, who shot 38 percent from the shorter, college 3-point line at New Mexico. But, given Thibodeau’s reluctance to play rookies, it’s unlikely Snell will earn a spot in the rotation for the coming season. He could have a future as a backup to both Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, and his role could become even more important if Deng leaves the team when his contract expires after next season. But in the short term, drafting a center like Dieng would have provided more immediate help for a team that hopes to contend for a title next season.
With the Bulls approaching nearly $80 million in salary commitments for next season, they’ll probably only add one additional player to the roster at the veteran’s minimum. Given Noah’s history of foot problems and Mohammed’s age, it’s likely they’ll be in the market for a third center, possibly someone from a group that includes Samuel Dalembert, Ryan Hollins, Jason Collins and Rony Turiaf. The Bulls have also been linked to veteran point guards Mo Williams and Chicago native Will Bynum, but I can’t see adding another small guard to a roster that already includes Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague.
Factoring in second round draft pick Erik Murphy, a stretch four from the University of Florida, and holdover forward Malcolm Thomas, the Bulls’ roster is basically set. They’ll get a look at some additional free agents during Summer League play in Las Vegas later this month, and then the coaching staff will take some well-deserved vacation time before gearing up for the start of training camp in October.
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With Indiana re-signing David West and expecting the return of former All-Star Danny Granger, and Brooklyn making the bold move to trade for future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Eastern Conference looks to be stronger than ever with the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets and Knicks all having championship aspirations. Now, we’ll just have to wait to see how it all shakes out.