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Bulls may look cheap, but moves made (or not) with eye toward future

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Letting a high-priced big body like Omer Asik go in free agency makes sense in Chicago. (Getty Images)  
Letting a high-priced big body like Omer Asik go in free agency makes sense in Chicago. (Getty Images)  

Few teams had a more curious offseason than the Chicago Bulls. Still reeling from Derrick Rose's knee injury in the playoffs, the Bulls suffered another series of perceived defeats when they lost several key bench players from a team that won 50 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

As fate and collectively bargained madness would have it, the Bulls will be a luxury tax-paying team next season for the first time since the tax went into effect in 2002 -- and they will do so under circumstances that saw them replace high-salaried players with lower-paid replacements. So what goes around sometimes comes back around in unexpected ways.

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The Bulls' long history of avoiding the tax line under chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has saddled the organization with a reputation for being cheap. So when the Bulls stood by and allowed key rotation players Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III to walk in free agency while trading Kyle Korver to the Hawks for a trade exception and cash, the frugality refrain was back louder than ever.

But if we've learned anything from the first full offseason under the new CBA, it's that no moves can be evaluated in a vacuum. Under the owner-driven financial reset and attempt to level the competitive playing field, it isn't simply about who wants to be a big spender and who doesn't anymore.

The previous $1-for-$1 tax system was successful in preventing the big-market Bulls from going on spending sprees, but by and large the system wasn't as effective a deterrent as owners had hoped. By the final year of the 2005 CBA, seven of the league's 30 teams were taxpayers. Worse, it was the same suspects year after year -- the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks, Magic, etc.

This is not to say, mind you, that paying tax was a recipe for success, as evidenced by the Knicks' league-high $195 million in tax payments that generated one playoff victory over a decade. (Not one playoff series, mind you. One playoff game.) But it isn't simply the escalation of tax rates starting next season that has small- and mid-market owners confident they'll have a better chance to compete. It's the restrictions on tax-paying teams that theoretically will stop the piling-on effect.

The piling-on effect is what allowed the rich to get richer by acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade, completing a lopsided financial trade or using exceptions to add more salary to a payroll that was already among the league's highest. Such maneuvers are being taken away from tax-paying teams, and it's the threat of losing that flexibility that has caused the historically big-spending Mavericks to show restraint -- and the historically restrained Bulls to show even more.

Kyle Korver's jumper was too expensive for the Bulls. (Getty Images)  
Kyle Korver's jumper was too expensive for the Bulls. (Getty Images)  
So it isn't simply that Reinsdorf didn't want to pay Asik, Brewer, Korver and the rest. By virtue of an unforeseen provision in the CBA that made Rose eligible for a higher max salary, the Bulls are paying the tax next season either way. But what executives Gar Forman and John Paxson decided the Bulls weren't going to do was become trapped by the new restrictions on taxpayers, which would've robbed them of the flexibility needed to churn the roster over the next two summers.

Had they matched the Rockets' offer sheet for restricted free agent Asik, the Bulls would've had to account for $15 million on their cap for a backup center in 2014-15, the year Luol Deng's $14.3 million salary drops off their books. Rather than commit $25.1 million over three years to Asik, the Bulls signed Nazr Mohammed for the $1.3 million veteran's minimum.

Instead of paying Korver, Brewer and Watson a combined $12.5 million next season -- when Rose is expected to be out until March recovering from knee surgery -- the Bulls replaced them with Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson. Among them, only Hinrich (two years, $6 million) got more than a one-year deal. The roster shuffling also will result in an expanded role for Jimmy Butler, who performed impressively in Las Vegas Summer League with coach Tom Thibodeau in attendance. Long-range shooter Vladimir Radmanovic also was added on a one-year minimum deal.

The Bulls' front office went through a painstaking exercise in advanced metrics and concluded that, based on historical production, those departed from their so-called Bench Mob and their replacements will be close to a wash in the short term. But that isn't the point. The point is, the moves weren't made with an eye only on the 2012-13 season, of which Rose will miss about four months and during which Chicago will be hard-capped at $74 million after using part of their mid-level on Hinrich and the bi-annual on Belinelli. They were made for the purpose of preserving the tools -- acquiring players in sign-and-trades, making uneven financial trades, using exceptions -- that will be needed when it comes time to restock the roster for Rose next summer and beyond.

Without Asik's big number on the books, the Bulls have a chance to go from being a taxpaying team to having cap room once they use their amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer either next summer or in 2014. Taj Gibson, who is younger and more versatile than Boozer, is up for an extension as he enters the final year of his rookie deal next season at $2.1 million.

So will the Bulls be worse off in the short term by virtue of an offseason that could be described as cheap or strategic based on your perspective? Possibly, but to be honest, it's hard not to like the reshuffled Bench Mob -- especially when you consider that it entailed the absorption of virtually no money beyond next season and yielded a capable starting point guard, Hinrich, who can mark time effectively until Rose returns. Plus, when it comes time to make a major roster upgrade in the next two years, the Bulls -- like Mark Cuban's suddenly fiscally responsible Mavs -- won't be shut out of the sign-and-trade or exception markets.

To compete in the NBA's newly reshaped competitive landscape, sometimes you have to strategically take a step back before you can move forward again. Sometimes, it doesn't mean you're cheap. It just means you're smart.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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