By Argie Grigorakos
It has been 16 years since the Chicago Bulls have celebrated at Grant Park. Historically, celebrations at the park are only reserved for championships, and during the 90’s it almost became an annual theme. The most intriguing aspect of sports is putting a winning roster together that can ultimately win a championship. A lot of different variables must be put into place in order for a successful organization to be created. A savvy and intelligent management team is required. A driven and motivated coaching staff is always desired. Drafting the right type of players that fit your culture is most valued. Watching those players grow and develop over the years proves most gratifying. Ultimately however, the most critical element of the whole process may be having the full support of ownership. The groundwork and foundation of the team is established from the top, and many sacrifices must be made in order for the team to achieve their ultimate goal, a championship. In almost all cases financial backing, or support is required when an organization is striving for a ring.
For years Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner and Chairman of the Chicago Bulls, has had a reputation of being fiscally conservative when it came to upgrading his basketball roster. Arguably the last few seasons has brought the most criticism, as many national media members, such as Jeff Van Gundy and Bill Simmons, have gone out of their way to portray the Bulls ownership as a “cheap” organization. Be it through articles, blogs or radio stations, it has been stated that the Bulls run their business as if they play in a small market, not in one of the largest cities in the US. They have questioned recent moves that saw contributing players exit due to salary issues. For instance, after the 2011-12 season Omer Asik, a back up 7 foot center, didn’t see his contract matched by the Chicago Bulls as the Houston Rockets sign him to an offer sheet. The contract proved to be too rich for the Bulls. At the time, Asik was possibly top 5 in the league defensively at his position. Also this past season Bulls fans witnessed their team captain Luol Deng traded for future picks and the expiring contract of Andrew Bynum, which would be eventually waived. At the time, Luol Deng was a 2 time All-Star and the leader of team. Both Deng, and Asik were vital contributors to the team, and true professionals within the organization. It would be fair to criticize the Chicago Bulls for letting go such hard working and no nonsense type of athletes, but the current Collective Bargaining Agreement left them with no choice.
When dealing with restricted free agent Omer Asik in 2012 the Houston Rockets were able to structure a deal that would require the Bulls to pay $14.9 million in his last year, if they matched the Rockets offer. Essentially if matched Omer a backup center for the Bulls, would be paid more than the starter, Joakim Noah (13.2 million in 2015). The salary cap is projected to be at $63.2 million in 2015, which would mean Noah and Asik combined would be making $28.1 million. That is over 40% of their cap dedicated to one position. Shouldn’t salary be distributed more evenly when building a roster? In the Luol Deng case, a move had to be made once Derrick Rose was determined out for the season due to his meniscus injury. The chances of a Bulls championship plummeted, so it was decided to look at the near future and creating immediate flexibility. With Derrick suffering two knee injuries in as many years, it became obvious that he would need help carrying the offensive load in the future. A second true scorer is what the team lacks, and by trading Luol it gives the Bulls the option to fit a scorer in an opened salary slot made available.
There are other ramifications that will be avoided by the Luol Deng trade that would eventually allow the team to add talent to the roster. If the Bulls were going to stay above the Luxury Tax apron, certain avenues couldn’t be explored in order for them to upgrade their roster. For example, teams above the threshold cannot use the bi-annual exception to sign a player. Also, they could only offer a mid-level exception that equates 3 years, not the usual 4, at a smaller annual salary. Finally, luxury tax paying teams cannot participate in sign and trades. These type of restrictions would’ve kept the Bulls from being able to fully upgrade their roster. Yes Jerry Reinsdorf will eventually save money by not being a repeater tax offender come this summer, but essentially these moves had to be made in order for the team to be fully upgraded. The Bulls also have the amnesty provision available to them which allows Carlos Boozer and his contract to be eliminated from the salary cap. He is owed $16.8 million in 2015 which can be waived, and decrease the salary cap even further. The “cheap” Bulls would essentially be paying an athlete his full annual salary to not play for them next season. If the provision is exercised, the Chicago Bulls will have a little over $10 million dollars of cap space to chase a couple of free agents that fill team needs, or they can continue to trade their assets to open up more cap space for a major star like Carmelo Anthony. By not keeping Asik and trading Luol, the Bulls can now explore all avenues with no restrictions.
Unfortunately, even defending the Bulls moves the last few years through analysis will not erase the stigma that has been placed on Jerry Reinsdorf. Jerry will always carry with him the stigma of being a “cheap” owner. The reputation has followed him since the Michael Jordan era. Ironically he may have created the stigma himself, by a statement he made almost 18 years ago. It has been well documented and rumored that after agreeing to a 30 million dollar one year contract in the summer of 1996 with Michael Jordan, Jerry said “ I’m gonna live to regret this.” Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all-time and had been underpaid for so many years, everyone including Jerry knew that he deserved that contract. It may have been a case of tongue and cheek, but that statement has still followed Reinsdorf to this day. Whether or not that statement was made, Michael Jordan went on to be quoted in the Chicago Tribune by Terry Armor on July 13, 1996, “It really didn’t take any negotiations which is the way I wanted it,” Jordan said “I’m very happy”. The process took two days, and Michael would agree to the terms from the golf course via his mobile phone. Jordan would eventually go on to receive a raise the following summer, as he earned a little over $33 million for the 1998 season. Jerry recognized what MJ had done for the organization and paid him handsomely as compensation. Even in 1994 when Jordan went to play minor league baseball, Reinsdorf paid his full basketball salary for that year. That made MJ overpaid as a minor league slugger.
Jerry Reinsdorf and the Chicago Bulls have constantly showed their willingness to pay for top talent, and it may have not been more evident than in the summer of 2010. The Bulls were one of few teams that were desperately seeking to sign LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to enormous multi year deals. Even though the players chose to eventually unite in South Beach, the Bulls showed a resolve and persistence in trying to recruit the stars by meeting with them numerous times and pitching their ideas to them. Money was never a factor. As the 2014 season is about to conclude, what awaits the NBA is the draft later this month and free agency in July. The Bulls will have a variety of different ways to improve their roster and put together a championship team. They have created the flexibility to take the next step. It is up to management and most importantly ownership, to shut down their critics, so come next June all that hopefully will be left is setting the diamonds in championship rings.