As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2016-17 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Chicago Bulls, who were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
2017 draft picks
First round: Their own (No. 16).
Second round: Sacramento’s (No. 38).
2017-18 salary cap space (with projected $102 million cap)
$50.8 million. (Seven players with $41.4 million in guaranteed contracts, two draft picks worth $3.1 million; three roster charges worth $2.5 million; $3 million partial guarantee for Rajon Rondo’s contract, $200,000 partial guarantee for Isaiah Canaan’s contract). Doesn’t include the rest of Rondo and Canaan’s partially guaranteed deals or a player option for Dwyane Wade.
2017 free agents
SG Anthony Morrow, PG Michael Carter-Williams (restricted), PF/C Joffrey Lauvergne (restricted), PF Nikola Mirotic (restricted), C Cristiano Felicio (restricted)
Five questions to answer
1. What does the future hold for Jimmy Butler?
The Bulls find themselves at a crossroads with Butler, who is undeniably one of the 15-20 best players in the NBA, and perhaps even higher depending on whom you talk to. He also has two years remaining on his contract before he can be a free agent but, given the Bulls’ current situation, it’s hard to see them as a legitimate title contender by then.
With that in mind, the Bulls have two options: keep Butler, continue to build around him and try to ensure their development lines up with the ability to offer him the much higher paying Designated Player Exception in 2019, or pursue the trade market when his value will be at its highest, which likely is this summer.
The thinking here is that if Chicago gets a great offer for Butler — likely at or around the draft — that gives it the ability to truly engineer a rebuild, he’ll be moved. But it’s hard to see him going for less than something big.
2. What will happen with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade?
That $50 million cap figure listed above is somewhat misleading. Why? Well first, the Bulls have already said they are likely to pick up Rondo’s partially guaranteed deal for next season, chopping $10 million off that number immediately.
But the bigger reason is that Wade is owed $23.8 million for next season on a player option, and it is extremely difficult to see him passing on that kind of money at 35 years old. So, with those two on the books, Chicago would be down to around $16 million in cap space with multiple restricted free agents (namely Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio) that it would like to retain.
So if Butler isn’t traded and Rondo and Wade return, the Bulls will simply find themselves back where they were at the start of this season: with three ball-dominant veterans on the perimeter, all a year older, with a lack of shooting all over the place. Not exactly ideal.
3. What is Fred Hoiberg’s future in Chicago?
If the return of Rondo, Wade and Butler leaves the Bulls in the same position they were in at the start of this season, so does the return of Hoiberg. In his two seasons since becoming management’s hand-picked successor to Tom Thibodeau, Hoiberg has done absolutely nothing to prove he is a long-term option to run the team.
No, he hasn’t had a roster capable of playing his preferred style. But part of coaching is being able to adapt to the talent available, and Hoiberg has proven largely incapable of doing so. His performance over the final few games of the Bulls-Celtics series when he and his team looked completely lost in trying to make up for Rondo’s absence.
Team President John Paxson gave Hoiberg a very tepid vote of confidence at his end-of-season news conference, but the truth is that Hoiberg still has his job only because of the three years and $15 million remaining on his contract — and Bulls ownership is famously opposed to paying people to not work. Now, assuming the Bulls come back with the roster mostly intact, it will be up to Hoiberg to prove he can grow as a coach and that the general opinion of him (that he only has a job because of the money he’s still owed) is the wrong one. The guess is that his leash will be short, and if things don’t improve early next season, he could be in serious trouble.
4. What will Nikola Mirotic get in restricted free agency?
Mirotic is going to be one of the more intriguing free agents to hit the market this summer. Every team is looking for power forwards with the ability to stretch the floor beyond the three-point arc, and Mirotic perfectly fits the mold. At 6-foot-10 and a career 35 percent three-point shooter, the 26-year-old is the model stretch four in today’s NBA.
At the same time, Mirotic has never quite lived up to the hype that came with his arrival from Europe in 2014. After spending several years impressing with Real Madrid — arguably the best team in the world outside of the NBA — Mirotic has developed into a solid role player, but nothing more. His market this summer will present a clear picture of how he’s perceived.
Given the demand at his position, it’s likely Mirotic will get offered north of $15 million in restricted free agency this summer. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him approach the four years and $80 million Ryan Anderson got last summer from the Houston Rockets. If the price gets that high, it will be interesting to see if the Bulls are willing to match it or let Mirotic ply his trade elsewhere.
5. Can Denzel Valentine become a productive piece next season?
For all the confusing things about Hoiberg’s coaching this season, the lack of playing time for Valentine was perhaps the most confusing of all. Expected to step in and play after a productive four-year college career at Michigan State, Valentine instead spent virtually the entire season nailed to Chicago’s bench, and as Hoiberg was churning through possible options during the Boston series Valentine never got a chance — even while Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams repeatedly struggled.
Now Valentine will head into the summer — presumably participating with the Bulls’ summer league entry in Las Vegas — with an uncertain future under Hoiberg. After not playing this season, what will it take for Valentine to prove himself to his coach?
Again, assuming Wade and Butler come back as starters, the expectation would be that Paul Zipser — the second round pick who surprised as a rookie and earned Hoiberg’s trust — will be one of the backup wings, leaving a clear rotation spot open for Valentine next to him. If so, how much he earns Hoiberg’s trust will be a closely monitored topic in Chicago.