Taj Gibson is a few months away from making a boat-load of money. And I hope he does. If anyone deserves a one last pay day, it’s Gibson, who has done and said everything that has been asked of him throughout his eight seasons with the Bulls.
Gibson, who will become a free agent for the first time in his career as the salary cap climbs once more — latest projections suggest a $103 million cap will be set in place — will be targeted by a range of teams. For these reasons, his market value may exceed his fair value.
Due to the evolving market dynamics and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), it’s not outrageous to think Gibson could come close to doubling his expiring $8.9 million deal once free agency officially opens in July. As egregious as that may seem, we’re fresh off former Bulls Luol Deng and Joakim Noah both scoring four-year deals paying over $70 million. Gibson may not carry the same level of prestige as his former teammates, but that won’t stop him from receiving a deal in the vicinity of four-years, $60 million.
At the crossroads and the trade deadline approaching, the Bulls must decide if Gibson is part of their future plans. If they have no interest in paying Gibson, moving their starting four at the deadline rather than losing him for nothing is the sensible solution.
Ideally, trading Gibson at the deadline would return a future asset and a player from a contending team looking for one final piece before a postseason run. As simplistic as that seems, is it realistic, and have all the potential ramifications been considered?
Does the ideal trade exist for Gibson?
The Bulls have positioned themselves for a run at the free agents of 2017. If the team has no intention of keeping Gibson at the likely amount it will take to retain him, they should be exploring trades. But what would the Bulls be looking for in any Gibson deal?
Unless they’re receiving a young prospect with upside, Chicago will not burden themselves with guaranteed contracts that reduce their potential cap space. In order to facilitate a deal, the Bulls will want expiring deals in return, in addition to a future pick, preferably a late first-rounder.
If these are the demands the Bulls place in the market for Gibson (which is reasonable), how many teams would be willing to part ways with their own assets for a potential 30-game rental? This is the biggest hurdle the Bulls face in finding a suitable trade partner.
The Toronto Raptors are in need of power forward depth, and have been an obvious match for Gibson for some time. Importantly, the Raptors have several picks in 2017 they can offer the Bulls, be it their own first-rounder or one acquired from the L.A. Clippers. Any potential deal will center around one of these picks — which ever is more likely to be worse come draft time — and an expiring contract, such as Jared Sullinger and his $6 million deal.
The Bulls won’t be receiving a more productive player in the deal. And even if they could, taking on someone like Terrence Ross and his $10.5 million cap hit next season would reduce the available cap space the Bulls could potentially have in free agency.
While that deal may make sense for the Bulls, would the Raptors be willing to part ways with a future pick for a role player who could walk in free agency? Perhaps. Embellishing the roster during Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s career year’s is sound. But for Toronto to benefit long-term from this deal, they would need to re-sign Gibson. With a heavy priority on retaining their up coming free agents, which includes Lowry and Patrick Patterson, there is significant risk in losing Gibson during free agency, which may halt the possibility of a deal being struck.
If the Raptors have no interest in Gibson, it’s likely other team’s in search of another depth piece will, most notably the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, who sit second and third in the Eastern Conference, respectively. Adding Gibson to their core could push either team past all other would be contenders out East, solidifying a deep postseason meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Without Gibson, neither team has a real shot at taking down LeBron James & Co. But with a veteran presence who can switch on defense, board strongly on offense, and is capable of playing both power forward and center, Gibson would be a welcome addition that could shift the balance of a seven game series, even if only slightly.
Adding Gibson to a fringe contender may be rational for all parties involved, but those team’s that have interest in Gibson won’t be dealing significant pieces for him. The longer the Bulls wait to deal, the more likely it becomes they aren’t able to find a trade package that meets their demands.
What does the Bulls frontcourt look like without Gibson?
Moving on from Gibson and replacing his role internally has been in the works for some time. Recent roster additions have signaled as much. Nikola Mirotic was supposed to be the future. He hasn’t developed as planned, and now may be on the outer. Bobby Portis was considered a steal when drafted with №22 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but hasn’t shown he’s capable of being a reserve big man, let alone one who could mimic Gibson’s role.
Like Gibson, Mirotic will be a free agent, as will Cristiano Felicio. Should the Bulls choose not to re-sign either of their international free agents to contracts in excess of eight figures annually (which is what it will likely cost to retain both), without Gibson, only Robin Lopez and Portis remain contracted for next season.
That’s not enough depth, so one of Mirotic or Felicio will need to remain a Bull post free agency. With Felicio’s cap hold being much smaller than Mirotic’s, it’s more likely the Brazilian backup center re-signs with the Bulls, particularly as Mirotic continues to regress as a player.
Assuming the Bulls do reinvest in Felicio but choose to let Gibson and Mirotic walk, who is the Bulls’ starting power forward for next season?
Have the Bulls adequately planned for a scenario where they must be buyers for a power forward (or two) in free agency, and do viable options exist?
The power forward market is really bad
The theory supporting trading Gibson is rooted in the premise that the Bulls shouldn’t pay a soon to be declining player an inflated deal for his current level of production. As logical as that is, if the Bulls lose out on their own free agent big men, they will need to spend significant dollars in free agency to find a quality, starting caliber power forward. Only problem is, the depth in power forward market is shallow.
Should they opt out of the final year of their deals, Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap will highlight the list of available power forwards. Serge Ibaka and Zach Randolph form the next tier of free agent big men. After that, a quick glance at the potential free agent power forwards with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) greater than 10 shows an unimpressive field of options to choose from.
Not many credible options exist for the Bulls in free agency unless they’re willing to pay a significant amount. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee the signature of one of the games’ better bigs.
Griffin would be a huge acquisition, arguably the biggest in team history, but he’s unlikely to leave L.A., who can offer a larger max deal an additional year. Millsap would perfectly compliment Butler and Wade, but paying a max deal to a 32-year-old undersized forward wouldn’t be wise. Zach Randolph won’t be leaving Memphis and will be 36 in July. Is Serge Ibaka’s 15 points and 7 rebounds worth a deal north of $20 million?
If no suitable, traditional power forward can be signed, the Bulls could look at adding a small forward who can shift up to the four spot — think Danilo Gallinari, who has a player option for next season. Though a makeshift solution, the upside is it could be a great opportunity to spread the floor around Butler by finding real shooters that advance the Bulls’ offense into the modern age.
Can the Bulls afford Gibson’s replacement?
Paying Gibson his next deal may be a bad decision. But can the Bulls afford to do anything else?
As of next season, Butler, Wade and Lopez are set to earn $56.3 million. Unless moved for an expiring deal, at a minimum, the Bulls will owe Rajon Rondo $3 million in guaranteed money next season. Portis, Doug McDermott, Denzel Valetine, Jerian Grant and Paul Zipser will combine for $10 million.
A quick, back of the envelope calculation shows $69.3 million in guaranteed deals, or $33.7 million in available cap room. Only that’s not true. Empty roster charges must be accounted for. Rookie-scale contracts have gone up under the new CBA, in which team’s will have 120 percent of their 2017 first-round picks salary already on the books. Any other existing cap holds also need to be applied. All this, along with any other acquired guaranteed money at the deadline, will reduce the Bulls’ cap space number even further.
As it’s unclear what position the Bulls will take with team going forward, an as is cost model suggest the team will most likely have anywhere between $25-$30 million to spend on free agents in 2017 — it’s possible this number grows if several deals are made which dump the salaries of underwhelming prospects, as well as Wade opting out and settling for a lesser contract. Until those moves occur, though, they shouldn’t be assumed.
Should the Bulls find themselves with $30 million to spend, is this amount enough to find Gibson’s replacement? Yes, it is. Is it also enough to secure a legitimate starting point guard option? Not even close.
By removing Gibson from the equation and choosing to let go of Mirotic, the Bulls will weaken their power forward rotation. This will force the Bulls into thinly spreading cap space over more positions, which isn’t ideal given the state of the roster.
In all likelihood, if the Bulls move on from their current crop of power forwards to create as much cap space as possible, they will need to prioritize chasing a high-level point guard or power forward. They can’t have both.
Perhaps the safest and best option is keeping Gibson’s cap hold on the books and using the remaining available cap space to chase Spurs guard Patrick Mills — or any equivalent off-ball guard who fits next to Butler and Wade — to fill out the point guard position, then re-signing Gibson afterwards to a team-friendly, three-year, $45 million contract. That may be optimistic, and if Gibson is deemed too old or expensive, a similar logic can be applied with Mirotic.
It’s hardly a plan filled with grandeur, but unless other drastic moves occur or internal improvement comes from those on rookie-scaled deals, the Bulls would be better served building a solid, honest squad with more depth than one that pours the majority of its cap into several positions while continuing to hemorrhage minutes at point guard and the bench.
As difficult as it would be to see Taj Gibson in a different uniform, the right decision is to explore trading him. Though it makes sense, we shouldn’t confuse the idea of moving Gibson at the deadline as straightforward and obvious.
Due to younger players failing to develop and not enough cap space to lure a better prospect, trading Gibson presents potential problems for the Bulls that must be seriously considered before committing to a final deal.
If the Bulls do not re-sign Gibson, or trade him without a suitable replacement in mind, they will weaken an already embattled roster. As one of the few two-way player’s currently on the roster, dealing Gibson could be a disastrous move if Bulls management fail to replace their longest tenured player with adequate stand in.
Make the right deal if it presents itself, but do so knowing full well what the next several moves look like that improve the Bulls going forward.