For nearly five months, I woke up with the gut-wrenching feeling that an NBA season was as likely to happen as Kim Kardashian engaging in a meaningful relationship with another New Jersey Nets player. Sifting through the throng of sports chatter, it seemed like owners were hell-bent on protecting themselves for giving out horrendous contracts to marginal players while the players still planned on cashing their gluttonous checks.
Then boom, everything changed. We woke up on November 26th to the news that the owners and players decided to kiss and make up. Revenue was to be split close to 50/50 and teams had more leverage to keep their homegrown superstars. On top of that, young guns will be rewarded for outplaying their rookie deals (giving us the aptly named Derrick Rose Rule), and owners were given an amnesty clause as a way to, uh… shall we say forget about some of their unsavory contracts in the past.
Still… did anyone read a single word about some kind of protection the owners have from agents and players bullying them into stupefying deals that would make even Travis Outlaw salivate? Didn’t think so. If the last 10 years in the NBA has taught us anything about free agency, it’s that one horribly overpaid, undeserving player can hamstring a team for years (I think a few Mavs fans just tore their Raef LaFrentz posters off the wall). The fan in me is petrified — I just don’t want this to be a vicious cycle of players and owners constantly needing a slap on the hand.
The conventional wisdom is that teams with tons of cap space going into free agency are the ones prone to making the disastrous mistakes. Teams spend years conserving money only to throw it away on an undeserving player. But doesn’t it make more sense that teams who’re dangerously close to the cap or even over the cap are more likely to make a damaging move because of how limited they are in personnel decisions.
Our Bulls are unfortunately in the later position. With over $40 million wrapped up in their four best players, and $61 million on 11 players, Chicago is limited to trades to match or relieve salaries and using the mid-level exception in order to add the missing pieces to their title search. The assumption is the Bulls only priority is to add a shooting guard that can act as another secondary scoring option to Derrick Rose.
As my compadre Chris Snow mentioned, the lack of conventional impact shooting guards runs rampant in the current NBA landscape. This should be a huge message to the Bulls front office: affording, let alone finding, a true shooting guard that is going to be able to fit in their tight salary window will be difficult. This is precisely why the focus needs to be shifted. The bottom line is this — the Bulls absolutely need a consistent second scoring option. With Boozer’s injury woes and Deng’s uncanny ability to go flat for stretches offensively, the lapse of offense around Rose is what truly hurts this team.
Which is why their focus needs to be clear. They need to lock up that secondary scorer. Do they have that answer on their roster right now? Can Deng become more creative and consistent on offense? Can we get a full season out of Boozer? There’s certainly not a shortage of options in free agency. From Nick Young, to Aaron Afflalo, Marcus Thornton, and potential amnesty clause casualties, the possibilities are there. The problem lies with a large majority of these players are looking to lock up their second contracts, so does it make sense that they take the full mid-level exception when they would almost certainly be more money out there?
The Bulls need to be careful, which is precisely why I think trying to add a young player could be detrimental. This team has fantastic chemistry and adding a young guy who may disrupt the chain of command and cause this team to take a step backwards. To me, it makes sense to try and add a veteran who would be content with playing a secondary role. A player who’s hungry for a title, a player who has a solid mix of defensive ability (sorry Nick Young and Marcus Thornton), offensive creativity, consistency and range, a history of health (nope, not you, Caron Butler), the desire to help the offense work without necessarily needing the ball (see ya’, Jamal Crawford).
Which is why the logical choice is Jason Richardson. To me, he’s the most complete player available, and with his age (31), he seems to be the most likely to take a pay cut in order to play for a contending franchise. It was evident last year his quickness started to suffer, but he’s still a supremely effective inside/outside player, shooting 67 percent at the rim and nearly 40 percent from three-point range. His time in Golden State showed that he has no problem shouldering the scoring load for an extended period of time, and his size also gives him the ability to play both the two and three. This flexibility could prove indispensable if Luol Deng were to get into foul trouble or, God forbid, injured for an extended period.
Many will point out that Richardson’s defense is suspect, at best. I get that. His lateral quickness is below average at his position and his reactions and rotations mirror those of most small forwards, which further points to him splitting time at that position. You’d have to believe that Coach Thibodeau and his assistants could create schemes that mask Richardson’s shortcomings.
If the Bulls are able to solidify their shooting guard position, they could be the most complete team in the NBA. As we all know, that doesn’t instantly push them past Miami. For that, we’ll need healthy seasons from Boozer and Noah. We need Rose to take another step forward, Deng to continue improving on defense and creating his own shot, and our bench to continue providing quality minutes down the stretch.
Oh yeah and a little luck. But if last season is any indication, I think they’ll be just fine. Especially if J-Rich lands next to D-Rose.