The Bulls ended the deconstruction of their reserve guards and wings on Monday by officially trading Kyle Korver to Atlanta for cash and a $5 million trade exception.
Korver’s exit — which brought back nothing in terms of on-court talent that could provide immediate help for a potential title contender — followed the release of guards Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. The Bulls, who owe small forward Luol Deng $27.6 million over the next two seasons and have even longer and more expensive commitments to power forward Carlos Boozer, center Joakim Noah and point guard Derrick Rose, are obviously concerned about the luxury tax. In balancing financial and roster concerns, they appear to have decided that the combination of center Omer Asik and one new backup guard (mostly likely Kirk Hinrich, on a contract to be finalized shortly) is more valuable than letting Asik walk and keeping two of their backup guards.
All of those scenarios would bring similar 2012-13 cap and tax implications, though Asik’s backloaded three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet from the Rockets will carry a massive $15 million hit in 2014-15 — a poison pill that could force the Bulls to cut a high-priced salary before that season’s tax bill comes due. If the Bulls re-sign Asik and complete the deal for Hinrich, they would have about $75 million in payroll for now. That means they would pay an additional $5 million in tax penalties, the first time they would be taxpayers.
If that happens, the Bulls would have clearly sacrificed their backcourt and wing rotation in order to maintain the four-player big-man rotation — which is composed of power forwards Boozer and Taj Gibson and centers Noah and Asik — that has been at the core of their success on defense and on the boards during their surprisingly fast rise to the league’s top level.
That decision would make some sense. Teams that don’t have a versatile wing star who can swing to power forward like LeBron James and Kevin Durant generally need four competent big men, and that has been especially true with Chicago the last two seasons. Coach Tom Thibodeau can’t bring himself to completely trust Boozer’s flat-footed defense in crunch time, and he has often finished games with the Asik/Gibson combination protecting leads as Rose squeezes out just enough offense to win. Gibson might be an even better defender than Noah; he can switch onto smaller players and contain them off the dribble, and he and Asik have anchored some of the best defensive lineups in recent NBA history.
With ownership wanting to minimize the tax bill, retaining Asik’s size and defense means trimming elsewhere. During the last two years, the Bulls have tried to build a reliable two-way shooting guard out of borderline one-dimensional players. Korver’s shooting and Ray Allen-style running around screens sparked the offense, but the Bulls would struggle to hide him on defense. Brewer thrives defensively and as a cutter on offense, but his shaky shooting and ball-handling created spacing issues that would strangle Rose’s pick-and-roll game. Richard Hamilton was supposed to be the answer, but he couldn’t stay healthy last season and isn’t exactly a difference-maker on defense at this point in his career.
Hamilton will have to be a difference-maker next season because the Bulls have left him to carry the load at shooting guard — a burden that the 34-year-old really shouldn’t face now. He’ll get help from Hinrich once Rose returns from knee surgery, allowing Hinrich to play less point guard and slide back into a combo-guard role. Chicago also surely hopes that Jimmy Butler, the 30th pick in the 2011 draft, can soak up some minutes at shooting guard next season. Butler played just 359 minutes last year, most of them at small forward.
The Bulls are also overloading the 31-year-old Hinrich, who has aged into the dreaded kind of combo guard who plays both backcourt positions at a below-average level. He’s a lock at this point to barely shoot 40 percent from the floor, and though he’s a competent ball-handler who makes generally appropriate passes, he’s not dynamic enough athletically to get to the rim or dash into the lane to create better passing opportunities. Chicago also has rookie Marquis Teague, the 29th pick in the draft, as an option at the point.
A lack of wing depth will also make it harder for the Bulls to downsize and play Deng at power forward. That was an effective type of lineup for Chicago when Noah and Boozer missed time in the 2010-11 season and could become a necessity against a Heat team using James more at power forward.
The Bulls are still going to be a defensive juggernaut as long as the key cogs are healthy and Thibodeau is coaching them. The question has always been whether they can score enough to beat the elite teams. They advanced in that regard last season, jumping from 11th to fifth in points per possession before Rose’s crushing injury in the postseason opener led to a first-round loss to Philadelphia.
But they have taken a clear step back after beginning last season as part of the league’s holy trinity, along with the Thunder and Heat. Those two teams have added talent and discovered new things about themselves. The Bulls have lost talent because of both injuries (to Rose and potentially Deng, depending on how his wrist injury affects his availability for the start of next season) and the luxury tax — something owner Jerry Reinsdorf has long feared. Even if we assume pristine post-recovery health for Rose, Chicago enters 2012-13 behind last season’s finalists, along with the Spurs and perhaps even the Lakers.