The Bulls have agreed to terms with guards Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli, and in the process surrendered center Omer Asik to the Rockets via a backloaded offer sheet, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. Thus ends a puzzling offseason for Chicago, back-to-back regular-season champions of the Eastern Conference who now appear a bit further behind Miami — the measuring stick now for any would-be title contender — than they were before Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the April playoff opener.
This is clearly a financial choice for the Bulls, who will nonetheless pay the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history. Chicago’s new players — Hinrich, Belinelli, forward Vladimir Radmanovic, center Nazr Mohammed and point guard Marquis Teague, a first-round pick — will combine to be paid an estimated $7.5 million less than the departed Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Asik would have made under their various options and offer sheets. Chicago, in theory, could have kept Asik and Watson and either Korver or Brewer and been in the same financial ballpark. However, the 2012-13 tax hit would have been worse, and Asik’s deal would have been a tax killer in 2014-15; the Turkish big man would have counted for about $15 million on Chicago’s cap for that season, leaving the Bulls with about $62 million committed to just four players — Asik, Rose, center Joakim Noah and power forward Carlos Boozer.
You’ll notice that the last two of those are Chicago’s starting big men. That gets at the heart of the real issue here: When you’re paying two big men in their respective primes the kind of money Chicago is paying Noah and Boozer, you really shouldn’t be fretting about the fourth big man on your roster (Taj Gibson, of course, is No. 3). Just for kicks, I looked back at the postseason rotations of every conference finalist from 2003-04 through last season and found that just a hair more than half of those teams didn’t even feature a fourth traditional big man. Digging deeper, the lack of need for a fourth big stemmed from a few key factors beyond the basic need for good health among the core bigs:
• Having at least one big man capable of playing 40 minutes per game. If a team had one of these guys — a prime Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Amar’e Stoudemire or Shaquille O’Neal — it had little need to go beyond the third big on the depth chart. This rule also generally applied if teams had two quality big man capable of logging at least 35 minutes per night, though a couple of such teams — the 2003-04 Pistons and the 2010-11 Bulls — represent small exceptions, with fourth bigs (Mehmet Okur and Asik) who managed to (barely) get double-digit minutes despite quality at the top of the roster.
In general terms, teams that required some heavy lifting from a fourth big man lacked a power forward or center capable of going for something like 38 minutes per game — or two such players who could credibly play 32-35 minutes. The LeBron-era Cavaliers, 2006-07 Spurs and 2007-08/2009-10 Celtics stand as good examples of teams that needed regular minutes from a fourth big man to compensate for the limitations of one or more starters.
• The roster versatility to “go small,” with a traditional small forward shifting to power forward. We saw this most dramatically with the Heat and Thunder last season, but a bunch of teams over the last decade have cobbled together a “fourth” big man by combining short stretches of small-ball and a tiny patchwork of minutes from a fourth and fifth “traditional” big man. And just to be clear, several teams didn’t even need to go small to keep the fourth big man glued to the bench; the Pistons of 2005-06 and 2007-08 and the Lakers of 2009-10 represent a few examples of teams that played “big” virtually all of the time and nonetheless relied on only three traditional big men for just about all meaningful power forward/center minutes.
The real issue with the Bulls is that they haven’t been talented or creative enough to go either of these routes consistently, which is why Asik’s loss will sting. Boozer, notwithstanding one insane All-Defensive team vote, is a minus defender with lead feet that make him prone to hopeless reaching on the pick-and-roll, and he has failed to earn coach Tom Thibodeau’s trust as a consistent crunch-time option. Noah has (mostly) earned that trust. But because Noah hasn’t emerged as a consistent enough offensive player on a team with occasionally serious spacing issues, Thibodeau doesn’t absolutely have to have him out there at money time. As a result, the coach often used the two-man defensive hellfire and rebounding machine of Asik/Gibson for extended fourth-quarter minutes.
The Bulls allowed about 95 points per 100 possessions last season and rebounded about 32 percent their own misses, both top-three marks. They have been neck-and-neck with Boston over the last two seasons as the league’s stingiest defense. That defense and their offensive rebounding have reached historically nutty levels with Asik and Gibson together. With those two on the floor last season, the Bulls rebounded 35 percent of their misses and yielded an astounding 86 points per 100 possessions. That defensive mark would be the best in league history by a long shot — so good that no team could possibly sustain it over a full season.
They have needed Asik more than they should have, and they will miss him. Mohammed, presumably the fourth big, is a sieve on defense, and Radmanovic is a useful small-ballish power forward who will struggle for time against an ultra-quick and deeper Miami team.
The Bulls will also miss Asik in part because Thibodeau has ditched small-ball aside from a very effective stretch early in the 2010-11 season, when small forward Luol Deng played significant minutes at power forward as both Noah and then Boozer dealt with major injuries. Chicago’s guard and wing rotation just hasn’t been reliable enough, in Thibodeau’s eyes, to justify that play — not even against the relatively small Heat in the 2011 conference finals. The Watson/Rose combination brought some size issues. Korver supplied precious spacing but needed to be hidden on defense. Brewer was an ace on defense, fully capable of guarding small forwards, but his lack of shooting crunched Chicago’s spacing, and he represented Deng’s only reliable backup. Deng is an iron man, but he has to rest sometime, and that limited Thibodeau’s ability to play Deng and Brewer together. The signing of Richard Hamilton last season was supposed to provide even more wing depth, but he was never healthy enough for Chicago to really test all of the possibilities.
The Bulls, in theory, should be able to survive the loss of Asik by leaning more on their top three big men and engineering more roster versatility. But “in theory” may not apply to reality. The additions of Belinelli and Hinrich, the latter a combo guard much more than a point guard, and the continued development of Jimmy Butler might help in this regard. Hinrich brings more size to the Watson role, and Belinelli is a good three-point shooter with just enough ball-handling and passing skills to keep defenses honest (and to convince Belinelli that it’s OK for him to launch off-the-dribble 20-footers on the pick-and-roll). But Hinrich is a shaky shooter who doesn’t attack the rim much anymore; Belinelli is probably a slight minus overall on defense; Hamilton is only getting older and more fragile; and Butler is unproven on the NBA level despite a strong showing at the Las Vegas summer league. Butler also remains the only viable backup for Deng.
Overall, this feels like a backward step for the Bulls before even considering how much time Rose and Deng might miss next season due to injuries. They won’t have cap space to correct it next summer, either, though they could carve out some by using the amnesty clause on Boozer and further thinning out the frontcourt. Chicago has about $63 million committed for 2013-14, not including the full amount of Hamilton’s deal or a cap hold for Gibson, who will be a free agent after this season. That puts Chicago over the cap and likely close enough to the tax line to take the full mid-level exception out of play.
As for the Rockets, they are probably overpaying here, but it’s not as bad an overpay as those unfamiliar with Asik might think. Big men get paid — the Sixers will pay Spencer Hawes and Kwame Brown $9.5 million combined next season — and unlike some of those big men who are cashing in, Asik has two proven elite skills: defense and rebounding. He won’t able to do either at quite the same level in extended minutes, but big men who can defend at a high level beyond just taking up space are enormously valuable.
Houston’s cap situation is so clean that the team can withstand an overpay here. The Rockets will have only about $24 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2013-14, putting them in comfortable position to offer a max contract and much more next summer. (That doesn’t include cheap options on Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris or Chandler Parsons). Even now, with Asik and Jeremy Lin on board, their 2012-13 cap figure is only around $49 million, leaving them about $9 million of space. Combine that with Kevin Martin’s expiring deal and some outgoing salaries tied to first- and second-year players, and they could still take back Jason Richardson or Glen Davis from Orlando in a Dwight Howard deal. And it wouldn’t take much work to carve out enough space to add Chris Duhon or Quentin Richardson. The Howard story, as always, drones on.