The Inbounds: How to avoid the luxury tax and influence the playoffs, a Chicago Bulls story

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

There’s something obscenely obvious in the fact that we, the media (but not really because most NBA media think Bird rights have something to do with trash talk about a three-point shot), the basketball twitter intelligentsia, fans,  whoever rail on the Chicago Bulls for doing precisely what we rail on other teams for not doing.

They don’t overspend. They don’t overpay for a non-contender, and they work diligently to get the best deal possible in every negotiation. Those are all good things, right? We acknowledge that the concept of overpaying is inherently bad? You can’t say the Miami Heat overpay for anyone, it’s not just that they win but the production they get from any given player relative to their position and standing is worth the investment made. The Spurs have made a killing off of getting their top guys to buy in to the point they actually take paycuts and then getting value guys on value deals to plug in around them. These values are good. You can argue the opposite, that if your owner is willing to swallow that luxury tax, the money doesn’t matter, at least not to fans, but it’s difficult to say that avoiding overspending is bad.

And yet it’s pretty conclusive that everyone finds the way the Bulls do business… distasteful.

And I’m not talking recently. Not like Jerry Reinsdorf just walked in off the dot-com craze. The man’s been cracking walnuts since Jordan. Let me re-emphasize this. We’re talking about a guy who busted spherical objects regarding the greatest player of all time, in his prime, his All-Defense perfect sidekick and arguably the greatest coach of all time, just to save a few bucks.

This is not some small-market, struggling franchise we’re talking about. Reinsdorf’s not selling his car(s) to pay his mortgage (since, you know, real estate is his bag, that would be especially shocking).  The Bulls have consistently been in the top five for attendance regardless of how good they’ve been, and in the top three for profit according to Forbes for several years. They make money hand over horns. It’s a major-market team with a cool color scheme who happens to be identified with the greatest player of all time. So yeah, they do pretty well. But that hasn’t stopped them from making fiscal responsibility their No. 1 priority at all times.

And we’re seeing it today. From Tom Thibodeau’s contract to whether to match Omer Asik, to all of a sudden, yes, signing Marquis Teague, there’s always something the Bulls are doing to scratch out a few more dollars. What’s up with Teague, you ask? Take it away, Mark Deeks:

Nevertheless, however small the 2012/13 saving will be in the context of overall payroll expenditure, it seems to have been deemed sufficient. As mentioned above, the Bulls are over the luxury tax as of today. They have $71,837,061 committed to only 11 players, not including Nate Robinson, nor Teague. They’ve never been above it before, and they surely don’t intend to be above it this time – it doesn’t take a great deal of foresight to see the Bulls trading Rip Hamilton at the deadline, with enough cash to offset his remaining salary, at a time that Derrick Rose is able to play again, and after Rip has (theoretically) rebuilt his value as a player. This is pretty much guaranteed to happen. And it will be much easier to achieve the less they sign Teague for. The cheaper he comes, the more dead weight salary Chicago can take back for Rip, the easier he’ll be to deal.

via ShamSports.com: NBA News That Doesn’t Really Matter: Marquis Teague is still unsigned, and you’re probably not going to like why.

So to make sure the have room to ditch Rip Hamilton in order to avoid the luxury tax, they’re working down the total amount of Marquis Teague’s rookie contract.

It’s here that we have to address the Boozer issue. The Bulls do in fact employ Carlos Boozer on a pre-2012 max contract. So you can say that they a. committed to a max deal for a free agent in order to contend b. overpaid for a player and continue to do so and c. have not amnestied him to get under the tax, despite two opportunities to do so. But you have to understand, when Boozer was given that contract, it was market value. It wasn’t a great deal, but it also wasn’t a disaster. It will look worse as time goes on because of the new CBA, and there’s no way to spin it was a good deal, but it was also not a bad deal. (It did, however, almost immediately morph into a bad deal. So there’s that.)

And the discussion of amnestying Boozer loses the point a little bit. If you’re trying to avoid the luxury tax, you want to save money, right? Well, even if you amnesty Boozer, and someone takes some portion of his deal on the amnesty waiver (which someone would), the Bulls are still paying for the remainder of that contract, plus the money to bring in players to replace him. Off the league’s books isn’t off Chicago. What’s the point in amnestying Boozer to save money when amnestying him if you wind up spending in total what you’d spend in the luxury tax anyway, paying him off and then replacing him?

(It should be noted the one huge counter to all this, the relative ease to which Derrick Rose was signed to his extension, only re-enforces the point. It’s not that the Bulls don’t spend the money on what they should, it’s that they tend to carry any opportunity to squeeze blood from stone to the furthest possible moment and then go on with it. Rose’s structure was determined by the CBA and there was little to carp on, hence why the deal got done smoothly. They’re still a team with a high payroll, just one that constantly is working to scrape the crust off the top.)

The Bulls are a classic example of what we expect from big-market owners. We expect them to break the bank to build a winner, to use the resources at their disposal to abuse the inherent advantages and develop a contender. The Bulls have instead tried to develop a contender with considerate, you can even say frugal spending, and have done a pretty decent job at it. But they’re judged on a big-market curve and it’s there that they fail.

Which is not to say that I’m advocating in favor of the Chicago Way, here. (They put one of your guys in the hospital, you trade Kyle Korver to the morgue!) The fans and city have provided them with one of the most successful franchises in sports. They’re asking for the team not to waste Derrick Rose’s career, to pay what they need to to contend, to not use circumstance (Rose’s injury, the new CBA, age, health, etc.) to justify spending cuts, which is a classic Bulls move. That’s pretty reasonable. Bulls fans wouldn’t be upset if the team was bad and they cut spending. They’d be happy. Fans want cheap losers to allow for improvements to make expensive winners.

The fact may be that despite all the punitive efforts of the new CBA, the new NBA model may dictate that for big-market franchises to compete at the level to which they have become accustomed to, they’re going to have to time when they want to bite that bullet. And Reinsdorf has repeatedly dangled that carrot. Somewhere, someday down the line, he may pay that luxury tax. But until then, he’s going to keep maneuvering to suck the most money out of late-first-round rookies, swapping out bench units when they become available to reach market value, tip-toeing around paying a top-three coach in the league what he’s worth, and making mountains of cash off the process.

It’s infuriating. It’s genius. It’s frustrating. It’s sustainable. It’s a bad way to run a team. It’s a great way to run a business. And they’ll still manage to succeed enough to put the criticism at bay when the ball is tipped. Thank God for Derrick Rose.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.