Let’s start with the known: Nate Robinson probably won’t be back in Chicago next season, except for his trips to the United Center wearing the road team’s uniform.
As well as the diminutive point guard played for the Bulls, particularly in the postseason, the fan favorite is likely to command more money on the open market than the veteran’s minimum the organization would presumably be able to offer him.
Additionally, with the return of a healthy Derrick Rose, a similar-styled and frankly better player whose future the franchise is heavily invested in, as well as veteran Kirk Hinrich, who will be in a planned backup role, there’s simply no room for Robinson to get the minutes he deserves.
That’s on top of 20-year-old Marquis Teague, last year’s first-round pick, being given even a slight opportunity to earn playing time in his second NBA campaign, though there’s already been speculation that another smallish scoring point guard and fan favorite John Lucas III, could return after the Toronto Raptors declined to pick up his option for next season.
Robinson could secure a multi-year deal elsewhere, providing the journeyman with some stability following arguably his best, if not most meaningful professional season, or at least a situation where he’s earmarked for a significant role on a one-year deal.
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Then, there’s the unknown: Marco Belinelli is a free agent the Bulls would like to bring back, but after the Italian shooting guard displayed elements of his game previously unseen on a consistent basis in the NBA—his ability to create shots for himself and others, operate a primary ball handler in pick-and-roll scenarios and not be a liability on the defensive end, as well as play with toughness—he’ll be a coveted option around the league, with teams like the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves reportedly interested.
If the Bulls are willing to use their taxpayer mid-level exception, at a starting salary of nearly $3.2 million, on Belinelli, its possible that he could return to Chicago, as he clearly enjoys the city, gets along well with his teammates, is grateful to be on a winning team and would love to get the opportunity to play with Rose. However, with Jimmy Butler penciled into the starting lineup at shooting guard and other teams in the league in the market for shooters, it would likely take either lukewarm offers or Belinelli sacrificing some income in exchange for familiarity to have him come back.
“Obviously we have some guys that are free agents that did a nice job for us and contributed, and that’s something that we’ve talked about a lot internally, and we’ll be talking to them and their agents come July 1,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said, typically keeping the organization’s plans close to the vest. “Some of that will depend on what the market is and they’ve got to get a feel for that, we’ve got to get a feel for that, but we certainly want to bring some of the guys back that we had last year, if it’s the right fit, as far as both sides are concerned.”
One likely occurrence is veteran center Nazr Mohammed staying with his hometown team for the veteran’s minimum.
The Chicago native experienced both highs and lows in his homecoming, as he was in Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse for much of the first half of the season, then emerged to play a vital role for the team in the second half and the playoffs. The Bulls are high on his character, locker-room leadership and physical nature on the floor, but after addressing shooting in the draft (second-round pick Erik Murphy has a power forward’s size, but does most of his damage from outside), expect them to also sign another free-agent big man, with Mohammed in more of a utility role moving forward.
As for the team’s other free agents, power forward Malcolm Thomas will audition for another season in Chicago over the offseason, with his ongoing workouts at the Berto Center and July’s NBA summer league in Las Vegas. Reserve Vladimir Radmanovic certainly won’t be back and the front office will undoubtedly buy out the final season of veteran shooting guard Rip Hamilton’s contract for $1 million in the very near future.
With starters Rose, Butler, Carlos Boozer and All-Stars Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and reserve holdovers Hinrich, Teague and Taj Gibson returning, after first-round pick Tony Snell signs his rookie-scale deal, the Bulls will have nine players under contract. Throw in Mohammed and Murphy—assuming he makes the team, something he has a good chance of doing because of both his long-range shooting and the implications of his second-round status on the Bulls’ salary cap—and that brings the roster up to 11 players, with two obvious holes to fill entering free agency: a shooting guard and backup big man.
“Really, everything’s been positive,” Forman said of the Bulls’ personnel, following an injury-plagued season. “I think Joakim’s feeling a lot better. Derrick, he’s in here, he’s working every day, continues to feel good and to make progress. Luol, I think, is feeling better and Kirk’s been in here, pretty much every day, working out.
“We’ve still got some spots to fill and we’ll have some spots on the frontline and some spots on the perimeter,” continued the general manager. “Obviously we’ve already started our planning for free agency and had a lot of meetings with our pro personnel scouts and with our entire staff, and that will kick off Monday, and we’ll start to go to work on that.”
While Belinelli is a priority, the possibilities are nearly endless, as previously reported. While the Bulls could zero in on a handful of players and strike as soon as the wee hours of Monday morning, it’s more probable that they wait out some of the early signings and probe which preferred shooters are willing to sign for the minimum to play for a contender, and ditto for a reserve post player.
Now that the draft has passed, one player fans should expect to see back in a Bulls uniform, at least next season, is Deng, the subjected of several rumors leading up to the draft. Although reports of extension talks between the All-Star small forward and the team are inaccurate, with Rose’s return, next season is viewed as a real opportunity at title contention for the Bulls, and Deng would have to be a part of the roster for that to happen.
“We value Luol, as you all know and you’ve heard Tom talk about it during the season, and you’ve heard us talk about it for years. Luol’s a big piece of what we’re doing, he’s been a big piece of the success we’ve had the last couple years and he’ll continue to be a big piece moving forward,” Forman said. “We don’t talk about contract negotiations publicly, but obviously we’re very high on Luol and look forward to him coming back healthy and having a great year next season.”
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Furthermore, with his heavy workload and only a year left on his deal, opponents are wary of acquiring him as a rental without knowing if he’ll commit to a long-term contract in a new city, according to league sources, so the most likely outcome for all parties is the current longest-tenured Bull playing out his 10th season in Chicago, then either returning in 2014 at a lower salary or simply departing in free agency, the expected route, at least at this juncture in the saga.
Next summer is presumed to be a busy one for the Bulls, with big decisions to make and the opportunity to be heavily involved in the chase for major free agents.
A season with high expectations is ahead, so look at this offseason as the calm before the storm and although the roster tweaks the front office makes will be important, for another July, the Bulls aren’t a team that will be prominently involved in the upcoming free-agent frenzy.
And with Rose and Noah combining rehabilitation and workouts with international promotional visits, Gibson preparing for another round of USA Basketball (with Thibodeau, recently named to the staff, overseeing his progress), Deng getting some much-deserved rest while doing his annual overseas summer travel, Teague and Thomas preparing for summer league with the draft picks, the likes of Butler, Hinrich and Mohammed all periodically in the Berto Center and Boozer working out in his offseason base of Miami, that’s perfectly fine.
The old adage might be “change is good,” but that doesn’t mean drastic change is needed for the Bulls.