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.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.

 

LeBron James blatantly, obviously travels, referees miss it and don’t make call

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Another day, another “how did they miss that?” call in the NBA. At least this one is not going to lead to a protest.

LeBron James blatantly traveled when bringing the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Jazz, and the officials completely missed it.

There was a double-dribble in there by LeBron, too, if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules. Which clearly we are not.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

The reaction of Bojan Bogdanovic is maybe my favorite part, he’s incredulous.

This play did not impact the game, the Lakers ran away from Jazz early and went on to win 121-96 behind 26 points from Anthony Davis.

Rockets reportedly going to file protest over missed dunk call in loss to Spurs

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Houston apparently has been hoping — unrealistically — that the NBA would step in, rule in its favor on the missed call on James Harden‘s dunk, and give the Rockets the chance to replay the final 7:50 of their double-overtime loss to the Spurs from Tuesday night.

If the Rockets want the league to rule on this, they will have to file a protest, something they are likely to do, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Houston had been optimistic in the wake of the loss that the NBA office would take action without a protest being necessary. However, sources said the Rockets are leaning toward filing a protest to ensure that the NBA office will have to make a ruling…

The Rockets contend that they should either be awarded the win — because they actually outscored the Spurs in regulation — or that the final seven minutes, 50 seconds of the game be replayed at a later date.

There is zero chance the league would overturn the game and hand the Rockets a win. The idea the Rockets even wanted that was described as absurd by some around the league (not directly involved in the case).

Even a protest is a longshot, it requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule which seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Protests rarely go anywhere in the NBA because the bar to clear is very, very high.

No doubt the officials missed the call (even they owned up to it after the game). Here is the play in question.

Mike D’Antoni said he tried to challenge the play but was not allowed to by the game officials. Crew chief James Capers said after the game D’Antoni didn’t make his protest within 30 seconds as is required by the coach’s challenge rule.

Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation.

A protest is a full challenge process that the league would go through, but it’s hard to picture the Rockets winning it.

We’ve seen before with the Last Two-Minute Reports that even if the league admits an officials mistake that could have changed a game nothing is done. An official protest — where just saying the call is wrong is not enough to win — is not very likely to change that. The Rockets would argue that not only was there a missed call but that the crew mismanaged the challenge process. Good luck with that.

The Rockets are going to try, anyway.