Does the Departure of the Bulls' Bench Mob Make Sense for Basketball Reasons?

Gar Forman’s quote that the Bulls’ offseason moves would be guided by basketball reasons rather than financial reasons has been mocked quite a bit in the Bullosphere over the last few days.  The team has let bench stalwarts Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Watson go to replace them with minimum contracts and a $5 million trade exception for Korver.  It also appears likely that the team will not match the “poison pill” contract for backup center Omer Asik, one of the league’s best defenders.  These moves will almost certainly make the Bulls a worse team on the floor next season.

Thus, it is clearly the case that the Bulls made these choices for financial reasons.  Many have presumed that the sole financial reason is to avoid paying the league’s luxury tax.  But is it possible that the Bulls decision to let these players go was in fact motivated by a desire to put the best team possible on the floor when the team is again ready to compete for a title?  In this post I will examine the question of whether letting the Bench Mob go this year was actually the right decision from a purely basketball perspective.

The Keep Everyone Scenario

The most obvious course of action this summer would have been bringing everyone back instead of letting the Bench Mob go. This would have meant keeping Watson at $3.2 million, Brewer at $4.37 million, Korver at $5 million, and matching the Asik offer sheet with a salary of $5 million for 2013.  According to my amateur spreadsheet calculations, this would have given the Bulls a payroll of $83,743,020.  With a dollar for dollar luxury tax hit for every dollar over the tax line of $70,307,000, this would have resulted in total out of pocket costs for the Bulls of $97,179,040 for a team that would at best lose in the 2nd round with Rose at 80%.  

*For a team used to $60 million payrolls, a profit of $40 million less per year is pretty hard to stomach.

What’s worse, the team would have little hope for improving for 2013-14.  Under this scenario, Brewer, Korver, and Watson all come off the books that year.  However, Taj Gibson’s extension would kick in.  I put a conservative number of $9 million a year on that extension since it is the figure that has been bandied about in recent days. Richard Hamilton would still be on the books for $5 million that year should the Bulls elect to keep him, but he could be let go for only the cost of his $1 million guarantee.  I assumed this the likely result as Hamilton seems unlikely to contribute at a level befitting that salary (or the starting shooting guard position) by 2013-14.

Adding in a salary for a 2013 first round pick (which I assumed to be approximately #20) and assuming the rest of the roster were filled out with veteran minimum contracts, and the Bulls would have a 2013-14 salary of $79,310,465.  This would be the first year of the stiffer luxury tax, which would result in a minimum out of pocket of $93,816,529* for that season, assuming the entire roster were filled out with minimum contracts.

*All figures approximate.

In addition to paying the luxury tax, the team would be over the “apron,” which is $4 million above the luxury tax level at $74,307,000.  Teams over the apron are subject to the following transactional restrictions in 2013-14:

  • They can accept only 125% of the outgoing salary in a trade
  • They cannot use the Bi-Annual Exception, which allows a team to add a player to a contract starting at $2.016 million.
  • They have a smaller Mid-Level Exception, allowing the team to offer only a contract starting a $3 million a year rather than $5 million a year.
  • They can only offer 3 years in the Mid-Level Exception rather than 4.
  • They cannot receive a player in a sign and trade.  

Because of these restrictions, the only way for the Bulls to acquire additional players would be through the taxpayer mid-level exception or signing players to the veteran minimum.  Unfortunately, with Hamilton gone the team would have no starting shooting guard and no backup shooting guard.  While the latter role could probably be filled by a minimum veteran, the Bulls would have only the taxpayer’s mid-level exception starting at $3 million a year to attract the second scorer the team has long coveted.  The inability to acquire a player in a sign and trade would particularly hamstring the Bulls, as it is really the only possible way they might acquire a star free agent.  And while the Bulls could potentially acquire a player via trade, it’s hard to see what assets they might have that would entice other teams.  The only real hope would be trading Asik (whose “poison pill” $14.5 million  in 2014-15 would likely scare off most teams) or the expiring $14.275 million contract of Luol Deng.  Trading Deng would leave the team with no starting SF, and would likely require taking back an overpriced veteran with a longer contract from a team looking to start over.  Finally, with the team so far into the tax, adding that new starting SG at the taxpayer mid-level of $3 million a year would actually cost the team about $10 million, for a whopping total out of pocket exceeding $100 million.

Thus, by keeping the Bench Mob together this year, the non-Rose Bulls would likely be worse in the first year Rose would be fully healthy.  For this privilege, the team would be paying 9 figures in salary and luxury tax with limited flexibility going forward.

The team might also consider an amnesty of Carlos Boozer before the 2013-14 season when Gibson’s new contract kicks in.  Were this to occur, the team would have $60,592,909 committed to 8 players including their 2013 first rounder. Gibson would become the starting power forward, but a new backup capable of playing significant minutes would be required since Asik and Noah cannot play together.  Moreover, the team would still need a starting shooting guard.  To fill these positions they could use the non-taxpayer $5 million MLE and the Bi-Annual exception.  Would the team be better off with Boozer gone and Gibson starting and replacing Boozer with a $2 million backup PF?  It seems unlikely to me.

The team would also would be paying Boozer approximately $27 million over the next two seasons not to play for them.*  Plus Asik’s poison pill in 2014-15 would likely hamstring the team as they attempted to provide a competitive offer to entice Nikola Mirotic stateside and re-sign or replace Luol Deng as a starting SF.

*I assumed a team would pick up $2.5 million per year of his approximately $32 million in salary for 2013-14 and 2014-15.  

Thus whether Boozer is amnestied in 2013-14 or not, keeping the Bench Mob together this year would have either severely limited the Bulls’ flexibility next offseason or given them too many holes to fill. To me, that makes retaining the Bench Mob in 2012-13 a highly unpalatable option for basketball reasons, not to mention the extra $27 million or so it would cost the team.  Were Rose healthy, it might have been worth it to keep together the 60-win juggernaut the team has been the last two seasons.  But with Rose’s injury there is no way the team can compete for a title this year.  While this Bulls team has been my favorite team I’ve ever rooted for, Rose’s injury requires that the team let the Bench Mob go and pursue other options.


  • After watching today’s USA/Great Britain friendly, I am starting to drink the Kool-Aid that Luol Deng may not need surgery on his wrist.  It looked much improved from the regular season, as he was able to take multiple dribbles left handed and even drive left.  He attempted only one shot with his left hand, a double pump that caromed wildly off the backboard, but that was probably because it was well-contested.
  • On a non-Bulls note, watching Kobe Bryant play for a team I’m rooting for is far worse than watching him play for the Lakers.  He’s somehow playing more selfishly than he plays for the Lakers.  Against Brazil, Kobe shot 3-11, and 9 of his 11 shots were heavily contested. These shots are bad enough for the Lakers; on Team USA when there are so many other great players they are inexcusable.  Not only is Kobe taking bad shots, but he almost always refuses to make the extra pass even when players are wide open with the simple next pass around the perimeter.  In fact, I think that literally every time he’s touched the ball in the half court he’s either shot it or held it for at least 3 seconds before begrudgingly moving it.
  • Moreover, Kobe’s defense has been pretty bad aside from a few good ball denials of Leandro Barbosa on Monday.  His transition defense has been especially egregious, as I noted at least 6 times in the last two games he completely loafed back.  On a loaded Team USA where he’s only playing 20 minutes a game, this is completely inexcusable.


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