The Chicago Bulls entered the offseason with one of the best benches in the NBA, but it has incrementally been dismantled over the past two weeks. Piece by piece, the reserves that were a major component of the team with the best overall record over the past two seasons have been taken apart. The Bulls’ self-proclaimed “Bench Mob” has seen several players depart to satisfy their ongoing salary cap quandary.
After parting ways with C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer earlier in the week, the Bulls reportedly traded Kyle Korver to the Atlanta Hawks for potentially a second-round draft pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves and/or a traded player exception. The deal is still pending a passed physical and Hawks general manager Danny Ferry said Friday on NBA TV that it has not yet been consummated. Korver’s contract was not fully guaranteed for next season at $5 million but held a $500,000 buyout, a price the Bulls won’t have to pay now.
For Chicago, the move accomplished exactly what the organization has seemingly set out to do this summer: Cut costs – even if it means cutting ties with contributing players. The Bulls continue to act like the NBA's big market team with small market budgetary concerns.
Despite the fact that Korver was far and away the Bulls’ best pure shooter, there had been a dwindling belief that he would remain with the team. Among the trio of Brewer, Korver and Watson, Korver had the best chance and best reason to stick around. But for a franchise trying its hardest to either stay under the luxury tax or take as small of a tax hit as possible, he became expendable.
Days earlier, the Bulls declined the team option on Watson and waived Brewer, whose $4.37 million contract for next season was fully non-guaranteed. Watson will no longer fill the role as Derrick Rose’s backup and Brewer won't serve as the versatile swingman who started 43 games a season ago. In their respective places will be Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler. Still, the team’s biggest loss for now is Korver.
Top to bottom, Bulls players – especially Rose – loved having Korver on the court. He commanded such a presence spreading the floor and creating room for teammates. As Tom Thibodeau repeatedly stressed, even when Korver wasn’t making shots he still demanded attention and assured that the opposing defense had to be on-point in its rotations.
Mostly, Korver was the perfect shooting counter to Rose’s drive-and-kick game, the ideal fit next to a point guard who dictates so much defensive attention himself. Rose had the ultimate trust in Korver, often referring to the sharpshooter as a closer who “could definitely put the game away.” Spending two seasons under the ever-demanding Thibodeau admittedly elevated Korver’s value on both ends of the court as well.
Korver’s two-year stint with the Bulls did leave some more to be desired. While he averaged 8.2 points on 42.5 percent shooting from three-point range, his production dropped tremendously when it mattered most in the playoffs, with his knock-down stroke regressing once defenses honed in on him.
Nevertheless, as the case will continue to be throughout the offseason, and probably next summer as well, so much has been affected by Rose’s torn ACL. Korver is the latest example of a player whose future with the Bulls was impacted by the Rose situation. Within the Bulls’ organization it has to be wholeheartedly believed that Korver would have finished out the final season of his three-year deal had Rose been healthy. Instead, Rose is slated to miss a significant portion of next season and his absence made it more palatable for the Bulls to relieve themselves of Korver’s contract.
With the departure of three valuable reserves, the Bulls’ depth will absolutely take a severe hit. No matter the night or opponent, Thibodeau consistently showed trust in his reserves, and it paid off with a mix of shooting and constant energy more often than not. When the Bulls dealt with consistent injury issues last season, it was the bench group that kept the team in so many games – a perfect cast of unselfish, understanding characters who embraced their roles.
“Our bench is as deep as when I was with the ‘04 Pistons,” Mike James told me in late April. “We are just as strong and just as good when the starters were out of the game. There are never any letdowns.”
The trade of Korver has also opened up a roster spot that must be filled with shooting. Even with Korver, the Bulls’ major need was another player or two who would spread the court. Over the past couple weeks, they have been linked to free agent Michael Redd. Redd resurrected his career a season ago with the Phoenix Suns, but still has knee worries and is far from his former lead-scorer self.
But the Bulls have other issues on their docket as well, starting with whether to match the three-year, $25 million offer sheet Omer Asik will soon officially sign with the Houston Rockets. In spite of the fact that unrestricted free agent John Lucas III is seeking a multi-year deal and a larger role, Bulls management has remained in touch with his camp regarding him returning on a one-year contract worth the veteran’s minimum. Lucas is still open to coming back, but he knows the Bulls are highly unlikely to budge and could very well end up with the Washington Wizards. Chicago is also working toward signing Taj Gibson to an extension, as the forward will become a restricted free agent next offseason.
Even so, the financial logistics are taking their toll on the Bulls. General manager Gar Forman said last week that he and the rest of the front office would make basketball moves, not financial ones, but make no mistake: Trading Korver removes the team’s lone pure shooter while providing cap flexibility in the process. Rather than being contenders for big-name additions this summer, the Bulls now have just the veteran’s minimum to offer and could have the mid-level exception at their disposal if they elect to not match Asik’s deal.
Just three months ago, it seemed like the Bulls had all the ingredients to make a deep playoff run. Championship aspirations were engraved into their minds on a daily basis, and they finally appeared fully healthy and capable. All those hopes have now been dashed. Rose is now out indefinitely and the strong bench that was better than the starters on some nights last season is being disassembled.