There's still more than a month before the NBA's free-agency period begins, but because the Bulls have seven players--Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic, Daequan Cook and Malcolm Thomas--who might not return to Chicago next season, it's not too early to begin perusing the market for potential replacements, something the organization has been doing, by way of scouting during the season, for quite some time.
Next month's draft, when many transactions are typically made and even more are discussed, is usually when league observers have a better idea of what could occur in July, but with the Bulls' expected strategy of searching for minimum-salary veterans to fill out the roster for the second consecutive summer, although most potential additions can't be narrowed down until negotiations officially begin, good mutual fits can be speculated upon before the process starts.
The Bulls have eight players under contract for next season--Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague--and of that group, while a faction of fans still believe amnestying Boozer is a possibility this summer, it's unlikely to happen.
So is trading Deng, who will be headed into the final year of his contract, as teams that could be interested--including Central Division rivals Cleveland and Detroit, according to league sources; both teams are in need of help at small forward and if they fare poorly in Tuesday night's NBA Draft lottery, that could increase their senses of urgency to acquire a proven veteran at the position--could be hesitant to take on a one-year rental, since Deng will be a free agent in 2014. Additionally, the Bulls' front office understands that the return for the two-time All-Star wouldn't come close to matching his value and any package of young players, draft picks and salary-cap space wouldn't behoove the team's contending goals next season, with the return of Rose to the lineup.
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Of course, one can never say never in the NBA. But the remainder of the returning roster consists of players who either wouldn't garner much in a trade, have contracts other teams find prohibitive or are simply assets the Bulls wish to keep. The team also has two draft picks--the 20th and 49th overall selections, which have a slightly better chance of making an impact on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team as 2011 draftee Nikola Mirotic, who will remain in Spain for at least another year, or that now-mythic future pick from Charlotte acquired in the 2010 Tyrus Thomas trade with the Bobcats--but it's now fact that experience in the system, or at least the league, rules the day in Chicago, as evidenced by Butler's nearly nonexistent action as a rookie, Teague's similar lack of playing time and even Omer Asik not getting much of an opportunity before injuries made it necessary. Thus, the organization again must try to mine diamonds in the rough, due to their salary-cap situation and the looming luxury tax, while addressing key personnel needs, such as additional post depth and improved perimeter shooting.
There is certainly a chance that Mohammed, a Chicago native returns to his hometown for another season, as the veteran proved to be a valuable contributor as the season went on, and if the Bulls don't bring him back, another team will, at likely the same veteran's minimum he received for his services in this past campaign. Thomas, who could again play on the Bulls' summer-league team in Las Vegas in July (he led the event in rebounding last summer), also has a chance to return after being acquired late in the season, with the hopes that he can develop into a defensive-minded energy player capable of impacting games in short stints.
But the Bulls are certain to look into veteran centers around the league, with shot-blocking big men like the Clippers duo of Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf, Dallas' Brandan Wright, Denver's Timofey Mozgov and Milwaukee's Samuel Dalembert all fitting the profile, as well as adding some athleticism to the frontcourt, something important if a healthy Rose, paired with Butler in the backcourt, enables the team to push the tempo more than in the past.
Hollins, who has a reputation for being a physical irritant, briefly played for the Celtics, which could help in learning the Bulls' defensive scheme, as Thibodeau was Boston's architect on that end of the floor. Turiaf, Noah's teammate on the French national team, was a player the Bulls flirted with in the middle of last season, but he ended up signing with the rival Heat. Dalembert hasn't enjoyed the most positive reputation in recent years, but as a backup who isn't relied upon to do anything other than block shots, rebound and finish around the rim--all things he's shown he can do proficiently--he has value.
The others could command contracts larger than what the Bulls are prepared to offer--or at least be looking to, meaning their respective situations could drag out, something that could benefit the Bulls in the long run, assuming they're as patient as they were last summer--and in a relatively shallow free-agent pool, it would be unsurprising to see teams with salary-cap space overpay players, especially big men, if they strike out on top targets.
Mozgov, the subject of Bulls' trade rumors involving Hamilton at the February trade deadline, is a restricted free agent, but with Kosta Koufos starting and JaVale McGee, who signed a multi-year deal with the Nuggets last summer, it's hard to see him returning to the Rockies. Wright, a former lottery pick, appeared to be an injury-plagued draft bust in his early years with Golden State, but salvaged his career with a quietly solid season with the Mavericks, utilizing his length and athleticism in the paint on both ends of the floor.
As for shooters, while an ideal addition would be Bulls fan favorite Kyle Korver, who finished second in the league in 3-point percentage, while the sharpshooter has stated in multiple interviews that he has a willingness to listen to a pitch regarding a return to Chicago, his elite marksmanship for Atlanta this past season is an indicator that he'll be highly coveted by teams with more money to spend.
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The same goes for Korver's de facto replacement, Belinelli, who was a valuable and consistent contributor to the Bulls, as well as displaying aspects of his game that weren't so evident before this season, which will probably result in a line of teams vying for his services as either a solid starter or dangerous reserves, roles he played in Chicago. There was hope that Cook and Radmanovic would also help the Bulls' perimeter proficiency, but neither player made much of a dent and both are extremely unlikely to be in a Bulls uniform moving forward, as is Hamilton, who has a million-dollar buyout and is in line for a short-term deal for a contending team in need of a veteran who can add offensive firepower, something the former All-Star proved he was capable of at the end of the postseason.
But there are other free agents who could help the Bulls improve their outside shooting next season, depending on which direction they choose.
If were to go the route of a smaller guard or even traditional shooting guards, the likes of the Cleveland tandem of Wayne Ellington and Daniel Gibson, Dallas' Anthony Morrow, Sacramento's Toney Douglas and Lakers guard Jodie Meeks are some names to look into. Gibson, a longtime Cavalier, also has the ability to play some point guard and could be interchangeable with Hinrich off the bench, while Ellington would be restricted if Cleveland extends a qualifying offer. Douglas is in the same boat as Ellington for the guard-heavy Kings, while the Lakers have a team option for Meeks.
However, with the versatility of players like Butler, Deng and Hinrich, the Bulls could also pursue some bigger wings, such as Milwaukee's Mike Dunleavy, Minnesota's Chase Budinger, Cleveland's C.J. Miles, Philadelphia's Dorell Wright and two current Rockets, Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino. Dunleavy's size, experience and skill level could fit well with the team's makeup, as could that of Garcia and Delfino, both of whom could have the final, non-guaranteed years of their contracts (in Garcia's case, it's a team option) declined, as Houston makes a push to sign more high-profile free agents, like Lakers center Dwight Howard.
Meanwhile, Budinger struggled with injuries and if Rick Adelman doesn't return to the Timberwolves--he coached the athletic swingman in both Houston and Minnesota--it wouldn't be shocking to see him also depart the Twin Cities, especially given the fact that his youth and potential are still regarded in relatively high esteem around the league. Neither Miles nor Wright are quite pure shooters and are coming off down seasons, but have athleticism and if properly applied, could also thrive as defenders under a coach like Thibodeau.
There are also other players on the market that, while they don't necessarily address the two specific aforementioned needs, appear to be players that fit the Bulls' culture of defense, effort and professionalism. Plus, beggars can't be choosers, so if players they target end up not being in their price range or simply opt to sign elsewhere, the Bulls will have to scour the market for players who can simply be effective in the team's system, regardless of whether they have all the desired characteristics. Former Bulls like Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas and John Lucas IIII (Toronto has a team option for him next season) could be available, but are remote possibilities.
However, wing players Roger Mason of the Clippers, who has a non-guaranteed contract for next season, New Orleans' Roger Mason, Indiana's Sam Young, Milwaukee's Marquis Daniels, Toronto's Alan Anderson and Utah's Randy Foye all have characteristics that fit the Bulls' philosophy, as well as being affordable options. The same goes for veteran big men Jermaine O'Neal of Phoenix and the Mavericks' Elton Brand, a former Bulls draft pick, though it can be assumed that they would be ruled out if Mohammed returns.
There are also "tweener" types--for instance, the Lakers' Earl Clark, Utah's DeMarre Carroll, Phoenix's P.J. Tucker, Minnesota' Dante Cunningham and Charlotte's Jeff Adrien; the latter two fall under the team option and unguaranteed contract, categories, respectively--that could be preferable options to Thomas, if he doesn't distinguish himself over the summer. And if Teague doesn't show that he can handle additional ball handling responsibilities, Washington's A.J. Price and Orlando's E'Twaun Moore are combo guards who could be brought in to push the youngster.
By no means should the players named be seen as a comprehensive list of all of the players the organization intends to pursue in free agency, but with between five and seven roster spots to fill--minus whoever is added via the draft; Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is among the players who have already visited the Berto Center for pre-draft workouts--similar to last summer, a big-picture approach to the process is probably the best way to look at the situation, especially without the financial flexibility other teams have this offseason. After all, that's how the Bulls' front office will view things and in the end, if things work out the same way they did as the season progressed, it's a strategy worth duplicating.