Tag Archives: Omer Asik

With Thibodeau Axed, Who Will Be The Second Domino?

After weeks of waiting for the inevitable, the Bulls have parted ways with coach Tom Thibodeau, releasing an official statement like some jackass from high school posting on Facebook about a summer internship.

In Thibodeau’s five years in Chicago, the team made the playoffs each season, often outperforming expectations as the team was constantly plagued with cruel and unusual injury luck. But success in the NBA is not defined by just making the playoffs, a feat more than half the league achieves each season. Rather, the true marker of success is rising to the challenge of the postseason and emerging with a new banner to hang, something that the Bulls under Thibs never came that close to achieving.

Thibodeau, perhaps the greatest defensive mind in the NBA, had a myriad of shortcomings that have been well documented on this fine website and others across the interwebs. I am not going to delve into some of the maddening habits and decisions of Tom Thibodeau because by now I’m sure you’re well aware of them.

What I am curious about is, with Thibs now out the door, what other moves will the Bulls make this summer to improve upon a roster that  will able to compete for the Eastern Conference crown immediately. This is not a situation that calls for complete detonation and a multi-year rebuild. But at the same time, swapping out the coach and bringing the whole gang back together is not the answer either. A second domino is going to fall, and is likely going to fall soon.

Jimmy Butler, the man who wisely scoffed at the extension offer he received last summer, is unlikely to leave town. The Bulls, hopefully, will learn from their mistake during the Omer Asik RFA fiasco and aggressively look to sign Butler before he has a chance to sign an offer sheet that could put the Bulls in an uncomfortable cap situation. Butler, who took massive strides on the offensive end this season after struggling to find any rhythm in 2014, is worth every bit of a maximum contract extension and not even the penny pinching Bulls will be dumb enough to question it.

Mike Dunleavy, the other starter set to hit the market, is an interesting wild card. He reportedly took a smaller contract to come play for a winner in Chicago after spending his entire career on teams that failed to crack .500. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunleavy, a Midwest native, looks to come back to a situation where he clearly feels comfortable.

So what exactly is the next domino to fall in this summer of change? In my opinion, it will be a member of the extremely talented and slightly overcrowded frontcourt who will leave town before the season begins.

That frontcourt, comprised of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic, should have been a matchup nightmare for the other 29 teams in the NBA. The ability to always pair players who can cover each others weaknesses should have been a resource no other NBA team could match. And Mirotic, who I was cautiously optimistic about coming into the 2015 campaign, blew away everyone’s expectations on his way to a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year race.

But Tom Thibodeau was never able to fully harness the power that he had at his fingertips. His determination to make a two center lineup work the entire season was maddening, and relegated Gibson and Mirotic to roles that were both too small and improper.

Gar Forman and John Paxson will now need to decide whether the shortcomings of the Bulls big men was due to poor decision-making from the coach, or if there simply is not enough court time to go around to get the best out of these four players. Like all difficult questions, the answer falls somewhere in the middle, which is why I believe a trade will be made in addition to the release of Thibs.

Lets quickly throw aside the possibility of Mirotic getting traded. Niko signed a three year deal before the start of last season that averages $5 million a year. In the industry, they call this a bargain.

I would also like to place Gasol in the “very unlikely to be moved” category. Pau, who had a renaissance last year that caught the attention of the ghost of Michelangelo, is the post-oriented big man the Bulls have desperately been after since the Jordan years. While it’s unlikely Gasol will repeat the success he had this season going forward, he too is on a very team-friendly contract over the next two seasons and Forman and Paxson are probably still high-fiving each other over the move.

thibs and gar

That leaves Noah and Gibson as second domino candidates heading into NBA hot stove season. Both defense first players, Taj and Jo have enough overlap in skill set that the front office, looking to bring in an offensive minded head coach, will likely feel comfortable making a trade.

Noah, the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year, had a pretty miserable 2014-15. After undergoing a mysterious knee operation last offseason, Noah never seemed to find his form on offense. He posted career lows in field goal percentage and free throw percentage. His scoring dipped to its lowest since the Vinny Del Negro era, and his defense was nowhere near as good as the previous year. Noah has one more year left on his contract and is owed about $13 million.

Gibson dealt with an onslaught of injuries throughout the season that robbed him of his incredible above the rim athleticism. His back to the basket game became a black hole of turnovers and missed passing opportunities. In Zach Lowe’s excellent piece on the state of the post game, he touched on certain guys who defenses attack in the post because they know they won’t make the right pass. Taj Gibson is the poster child of this type of player.  Taj has two more years on his deal, averaging about $8.5 million a season.

taj and jo

Of the two, Taj is certainly more likely to fetch a larger return on the trade market. Coming off the bench his entire career, Gibson has largely been spared the grueling workload of  guys like Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. Teams across the league have for many years wondered what type of impact Gibson could have in a starting lineup where he could see more minutes alongside more talented players. And with the salary cap set to explode and Gibson under contract for an additional season, his current price tag is extremely team friendly, no matter which team you look at.

But if it were up to me, it would be Noah who I send packing this summer. While Noah’s value on the trade market is potentially at an all-time low, there are definitely still teams who will be willing to take a one year flyer on a guy who was forced to play out of position the entire season. Noah’s ability to be the eyes and ears of an entire defense is wasted when he’s being asked to chase stretch forwards along the perimeter, which is exactly what happened this past season with Gasol at center. A smarter team that does not have an entrenched starting center could and should be able to understand that Noah’s ability to change the game on defense did not suddenly disappear over the course of a year.

Another reason to trade Noah is that I find it very unlikely that the Bulls sign him to his next contract. Much like they did with Luol Deng, the Bulls know exactly what the state of Noah’s body is and are probably smart enough to know that he will not hold up well into his mid-thirties. Better to get something for him now, even if it’s not much, than let him walk away for nothing next summer.

Finally, this is a team that is looking to shake up the culture. It doesn’t take a college English professor to read between the lines of Jerry Reinsdorf’s statement on the firing of Tom Thibodeau. Noah has always been a staunch supporter of Thibs, buying in 100% to his message and his philosophy. Forman and Paxson may not want to roll the dice with an unhappy Joakim next season and could look to ditch him before he makes any stink about a new coach.

The Eastern Conference today is in complete disarray. The Cavaliers are going to the Finals despite losing their third best player to injury and having their second best player limping through the playoffs. The Bulls are flush with talent, and with the right tweaks this offseason, this team should be able to compete for a championship in 2016.

The Butler: An Unexpected Journey

Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.

While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.

jimmy butler

Of course, this could be horrific for Bulls fans. After the season, Butler will be a restricted free agent, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet that the Bulls will have the ability to match. While the Bulls have expressed that they’re happy to match a big contract if Jimmy is worth it, one only needs to look at Houston, Dallas and Chandler Parsons to see how dicey things can get when a savvy team gets creative with the offer sheet. In fact, stay in Houston for a moment and you’ll remember that the Bulls lost Omer Asik to a backloaded offer sheet that had more consequences for Chicago than Houston. The Bulls’ front office was confident about retaining Asik as well.

If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):

(stats via Basketball-Reference)
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.

To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):

stats via Basketball-Reference
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).

Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.

Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.

Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.

 

Quick Bulls Thought: Recent Transactions

brewer

If you’ve been paying close attention over the last couple of days you will have noticed that the Bulls have made some late season roster moves. It’s ok if you didn’t realize this, as neither of the two personnel decisions do much to move the needle for the Bulls in 2014.

The first move came three days ago when the team decided to waive their 2013 second round pick, Erik Murphy. Murphy, the rookie out of Florida, barely saw any action during the season, making it onto the floor in just 24 games and averaging 2.6 minutes of absolute garbage time in those brief appearances. The 6’10” power forward demonstrated a sweet stroke throughout his collegiate career but just wasn’t ready to make an impact for this Bulls team. I admittedly was pretty high on Murphy going into the season, as a player with size, shooting ability and an incredibly low price tag seemed like exactly what the Bulls needed for now and the future.

The Bulls did not cut ties with Murphy because of his work ethic, but rather for financial and depth reasons. The depth explanation is a pretty simple one. With Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Nazr Mohammed on the team, the Bulls simply don’t need another backup big man twiddling his thumbs on the bench. By releasing Murphy, the Bulls cleared up a roster spot that could be used to address other team needs. And why keep Murphy around when the stretch-4 of the future is waiting in the wings!

The other motivation for this move had to do with avoiding the luxury tax. After paying the tax for the first time ever last year, the Bulls were certain to duck below the line this season. Trading Luol Deng for the right to tell Andrew Bynum to GTFO made that cost cutting initiative pretty clear back in January. Before the recent flurry of activity, the Bulls sat about a half million dollars below the luxury tax threshold. But with a potential $500 grand bonus for Noah if he makes First Team All-NBA and a $250 grand bonus for Taj Gibson if he makes Second Team All-Defense, the Bulls were a little too close to the line for comfort.

Murphy did not remain unsigned for long as the Utah Jazz claimed the Chicago castoff a day later. This claim was hugely important to the Bulls front office, as his entire salary now comes off of their books and is transferred to Salt Lake City, creating an extra $400K in breathing room for the Bulls. For the Jazz, a team well below the salary cap, this move was a low risk-high reward bet that at worst costs them $400 thousand and at best nets them a rotation peace under team control for the next three years at less than a million per year.

As soon as Murphy was off the roster, rumors began to swirl as to who would fill the the vacant spot in Chicago. Monday it was announced that the team was bringing back shooting guard Ronnie Brewer for the remainder of the season. Brewer, who was last on the Bulls in 2012, has spent parts of the last two seasons on the Knicks, Thunder and Rockets. After averaging 25 minutes a game over the course of 60 games as a member the Bench Mob in 2012, Brewer has only averaged 7 minutes a game in just 23 games played.

Brewer, who was waived from Houston February 21, has seen his shooting percentages steadily decline over the last three years. After sporting a 51.8 true shooting percentage (TS%) in 2011, Brewer was sporting a cover-your-eyes 22% TS% in his brief stint as a Rocket. Brewer, who was never exactly known for his offensive abilities, has also seen some of his defensive statistics slip this season. A career two steal per 36 minute player, Brewer is averaging just over a steal per 36 this year. Brewer has also seen his on court defensive efficiency numbers steeply decline since leaving a lineup that featured Taj Gibson and Omer Asik.

Despite the recent struggles of the 28 year old shooting guard, the Bulls are interested in Brewer’s services for a couple of reasons. Brewer, who’s pro-rated league minimum contract pays him around $60 thousand for the remainder of the year, fits nicely into the Bulls’ plan to stay beneath the cap. But the financial benefits of the deal are not what make Brewer a unique candidate for the Bulls. Brewer has been deemed worthy of the trust of coach Thibs, having spent two productive years learning and mastering the aggressive defensive principles characteristic of all Thibodeau teams.

The Bulls are badly in need of a veteran like Brewer for the playoffs. Having traded away Deng for nothing, the Bulls have left themselves paper thin on the wing. Jimmy Butler hasn’t been averaging 38 minutes a game because he’s been hitting his shots. It’s because there’s pretty much no one else on the Bulls capable of playing the two. The other pick from this past draft, Tony Snell, has seen his playing time dwindle as the season has gone along. Snell’s shooting percentages have been pretty terrible all year, shooting just 37% from the field and 32% from three.

While Brewer doesn’t alleviate any of the Bulls’ offensive woes, there is something to be said about having veteran leadership on a playoff contender, something the Bulls absolutely are in wake of Indiana’s epic collapse. The jury is still out on Snell, but there is little doubt that he is not ready for the bright lights of the playoffs. Brewer, a guy who was a key cog in the rotation when the Bulls made their last Eastern Conference Finals run, has the benefit of having been there before.

So to sum everything up, the Bulls got rid of a guy who wasn’t going to play at all in the playoffs. In doing so, they were able to save money and clear a roster spot for a guy who maybe will play meaningful minutes in the playoffs.

Trade Deadline: The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

trade machine

Mid-February is universally beloved as it houses the holiday of love. Valentine’s Day, a day of flowers, chocolate and smooches is great for those who have someone to celebrate with and a great excuse to hide in your room with the shades drawn shut if you don’t. But whether or not you have a V-Day partner, Valentine’s Day marks the one week deadline of what is thought of by many people in and around basketball to be the most exciting time of the year: the trade deadline.

The beauty of the trade deadline is it forces all 30 NBA teams to take a hard look in the mirror and decide if they are buyers or sellers, if they think they are a move away from a championship push or a playoff birth, or if they should begin to focus on the future.

The tricky part of the deadline is that, as detailed beautifully in Zach Lowe’s column this week, teams are less willing to make huge deals under the current collective bargaining agreement. First round picks, long used as sweeteners to move deals along, are now the most coveted resources teams have. Expiring contracts, long seen as the key piece to moving big money talent around, are no longer the trade chips they once were with contract lengths being cut down to four years maximum (for the most part) in the current CBA.

That being said, there are certainly going to be moves made in the next couple of days. Here, I will attempt to guess at what those moves may be.

deng cavs

Luol Deng to the Houston Rockets, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer to the Cleveland Cavaliers

If at first glance you are scratching your head wondering why the Cavs would ship out a player they just acquired via trade from Chicago, I’ve got some things to tell you. Since being shipped out to Cleveland, Deng’s numbers are down across the board. Most notably, Lu’s shooting percentage is at a cover-your-eyes 41% from the field. With Deng on the court, the Cavaliers are -7 points per possession, a startling number considering he was +2.3 with the struggling Bulls. Deng’s issues in Cleveland have a lot to do with Mike Brown’s “coaching” and not with some sudden skill depletion from the Sudanese veteran.

The trade to acquire Deng was supposed to propel Cleveland into the playoffs (where they would have been slaughtered in the first round anyway). The Cavs, riding a four game win streak, are still sitting at 11th place in the decrepit Eastern Conference. There is no chance that Deng, who will be a free agent this summer, is trying to stick around this disastrous Cavs squad, which is exactly why Cleveland should be looking to move the two time All-Star.

The Rockets are one of those teams that are without a doubt buyers this February. Currently sitting with the third best record in the West heading into the break. the Rockets know that this is a team capable of making a deep run in the postseason. Houston, who has been one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, has been so-so on the defensive end, despite having former DPOY Dwight Howard patrolling the paint. Houston’s defensive rating of 102 points/100 possessions is just not going to cut it against the top competition in the league.

With a proven rim protector in Howard, the Rockets are badly missing a player who can match up with the other teams’ top wing attacker. The Heat have Lebron, the Pacers have Paul George, the Warriors have Iggy, the Spurs have Kawhi, and the Thunder have Thabo. Throwing Deng on the Rockets gives Houston the type of wing defender they are badly in need of.

evan turner

Evan Turner to the Charlotte Bobcats, Ben Gordon to the 76ers

This isn’t exactly the sexy deal that gets casual fans excited, but it’s one that many plugged in NBA guys believe will happen. The Bobcats, playing spectacular defense under first year coach Steve Clifford, are trying to hang on to a playoff spot in the East. While squeaking into the 8th seed for the right to be destroyed by the Pacers or Heat doesn’t seem like a great achievement, to the pathetic Bobcats a playoff birth would mark the start of something.

While Turner’s 17.5 points a game may seem appealing on the surface, it’s important to take his stats with a grain of salt. The Sixers are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA and Turner is being encouraged to shoot whenever he pleases. His inflated scoring numbers don’t reflect an improvement in his game (although he has been a bit more reliable in shooting from the corners this season), but rather just how awful and goofy this Philly team is.

But the Bobcats will take anything to improve their roster. Charlotte has almost nothing on the team in terms of outside shooting (sorry McBob but you don’t count) and would gladly take a flier on the former number two pick in the draft.

Meanwhile, Philly would LOVE to snag Ben Gordon’s expiring contract. This deal would move the 76ers closer to the salary floor (which they are currently below) AND would let them become even WORSE which, uh, is better (man I hope the wheel is a real thing).

dunleavy1_131107

Mike Dunleavy to the Thunder, Hasheem Thabeet and Derick Fisher and Dallas Mavericks future first round pick

The Thunder, according to Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, are looking around for some extra shooting to bolster their squad. Enter Mike Dunleavy, who is pretty good at shooting basketballs.

I love this trade on so many different levels, first and foremost being that the trade rewards Dunleavy for trying to win. When Mike Dunleavy joined the Bulls this summer as a free agent, he signed a 2 year/$6 million dollar deal that, according to some reports, was less than what other teams were offering the veteran shooter. Dunleavy has been around the NBA for over a decade and came to Chicago with the dream of playing for a championship contender. When Rose went down for the season, so did the Bulls’ title hopes. Dunleavy, who did what many guys in the league would never consider doing, seemingly was being punished for his good will.

The Thunder can afford to part with the ancient Derek Fisher and the rarely used Hasheem Thabeet. While Fisher has seen some extended run in Russell Westbrook’s absence this season, the hope in OKC is that health will be restored to the dynamic point guard and Fishers minutes will become Reggie Jackson’s minutes. Picking up Dunleavy gives the Thunder a much needed outside threat that can play in the OKC second unit.

The big prize for the Bulls is the future first round pick. While the pick is top twenty protected for the next couple of seasons, it becomes unprotected in 2018. And who knows what the Mavs, likely entering the post-Dirk era will look like. That pick could potentially become a valuable player for the future of the Bulls franchise.

Taj-Gibson-on-DWade

Taj Gibson to the Suns, Emeka Okafor to the Bulls

(I must admit that this is the only deal that does not work in the ESPN Trade Machine, but I think that with Okafor’s contract being paid by insurance and the Bulls having a trade exception from the Deng and Teague deals, that this should work out.)

This deal happens on one condition and one condition only: Chicago having insider knowledge that Carmelo is coming to the Bulls if they can offer him a max contract. The Bulls, as they stand today, are just a hair under the luxury tax line. But everyone and their grandma knows that the Bulls are going to Amnesty Boozer at the end of the season, a move that would give the Bulls enough space to make a run at a guy like Lance Stephenson.

But if the Bulls can move Taj for an expiring deal, then the doors are open for a maximum offer for Carmelo. Yesterday, Geo took a peak at a trade rumor involving Anthony and the Bulls. I personally don’t think Knicks owner James Dolan would ever sign off on such a deal, as he seems to firmly believe that the Knicks need a “superstar” and in the hypothetical package addressed in Geo’s article, no such big ticket player is returned to New York.

But as everyone knows, Melo plans to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer to test the waters of free agency. The Knicks know that, and they also know that they can offer an extra year and about $30 million more than any other team can offer. They may not have much of a roster, or a first round pick until my unborn child’s bar mitzvah, but they’ve got that extra thirty mill that they can dangle over Melo’s head.

Tough decisions lye ahead for the former NCAA champion, as he must choose between the Big Apple (the city where his wife reportedly prefers to live in) and competitive basketball. A foundation of Rose, Melo, Noah and Butler isn’t exactly going to have Miami and Indy quaking in their boots, but its a far better core than what the Knicks have surrounded Anthony with.

Such backroom talk is well outside of the rules of the league, but there’s no doubt that free agent tampering is something that many teams practice in the NBA today. Obviously, if the Bulls don’t think Carmelo is serious about joining the Bulls then they would never give away their prized power forward for nothing.

But if Melo can be had, moves must be made.