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.

PBT Podcast: Heat vs. Nuggets NBA Finals talk, Vogel to Suns

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After three games of the NBA Finals, there are still so many questions. Can the Heat stop the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll? Will Miami find 3-point shot again and will that be enough? Is Denver the team that does not wilt under the pressure Miami puts on them? Is there a better player on the planet than Nikola Jokić?

Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin from NBC Sports get into all of that, then talk coaching hires. Is Frank Vogel a good hire in Phoenix? speaking of coach talk, Corey’s Jukebox talks Monty Williams and how a classic Aretha Franklin song sums him up.

Finally, the conversation turns to Team USA and the roster headed to the Philippines for the World Cup this summer — a lot of young, athletic talent, but will any of the American NBA elites join them? Also, who is your favorite NBA mascot?

You can watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Miami has thrived in adversity all playoffs. They have plenty of it in Game 4.

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MIAMI — Throughout the Heat’s playoff run, Erik Spoelstra has been confiding in and getting encouragement from another Miami coach — and it’s not Pat Riley.

Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel and Spoelstra have become friends.

“We’ve been texting back and forth,” Spoelstra said. “We share very similar thoughts about finding strength in adversity and using those as lessons to help you grow.”

Through that prism, the Heat have a real growth opportunity Friday night.

Miami trails Denver 2-1 in the NBA Finals heading into Game 4, and while that game is not technically must win for the Heat, it is in practice.

Getting that win means Miami finding some way to slow the Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray two-man game. Which is what every team has tried to do all playoffs long with no success, but Game 3 was the peak of their two-man game. The Nuggets stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls in Game 3, and those plays were the heart of both getting a 30+ point triple-double — the first teammates ever to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game, ever. Murray and Jokić played 40 minutes together in Game 2 and the Nuggets were +14 in those minutes (in a game they won by 15).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

That might be the best adjustment the Heat can make —throw a lot of bodies at it, sell out to stop the Murray/Jokic two-man game and dare any other Nugget to beat them. Force them to diversify the offense. Denver coach Mike Malone has been able to lean into defensive lineups because Murray and Jokić provide enough offense, it’s time for the Heat to challenge that practice.

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

The Heat need to make adjustments, too.

One adjustment they will not make is playing Tyler Herro, he has been officially ruled out for Game 4. Herro went through a brief part of the fake practice/shootaround in front of the media on Thursday, but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game, and while there were not a lot of details it didn’t sound like Herro was all that close.

Another thing the Heat need to do is less adjustment and more effort and luck — they simply have to shoot better.

Denver’s size bothered the Heat in the paint and Miami shot just 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Heat also got up 35 attempts from 3 but only hit 31.4% of that. Credit Denver’s size in the paint and they’re staying home with shooters for some of that, but Miami can — and Friday night must — do better.

Which brings up an interesting question: This deep into a playoff series, is it more about strategic adjustments, or effort and just playing better?

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

Whatever Miami does defensively, Denver will score, they have an elite offense led by a two-time MVP in Jokić. If the Heat are going to even this series headed back to the Rocky Mountains, they must find more offense.

“I mean, they, they have a really good defensive scheme. They have good defensive players,” Duncan Robinson said. “You know, for us offensively, it’s going to be about creating advantages and really putting pressure on their schemes and their players to scramble and kind of get them a motion and a lot of that happens when we’re moving the ball attacking, playing to our identity.

“We had stretches last night, and definitely stretches in this series where we’ve done it. And, we’ve definitely had stretches where we haven’t gotten to that as much as we’d like to, so we’ll continue to work through it.”

They have to work through it fast because time is running out.

Bucks’ Middleton reportedly has knee scoped, should be ready for camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Bucks said an MRI of Khris Middleton‘s knee just before the start of the playoffs was clean even if his play made observers question that news.

Turns out, maybe it wasn’t totally clean.

Middleton had his knee scoped after the playoffs, but he will return to his offseason training in July, reports Shams Charania and Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

The report said the surgery was to clean up “an issue that plagued him this past season,” and it was scheduled before the Bucks’ playoff run began. So, they knew, as did most anyone who watched Middleton and didn’t see the same burst as he had in the past, especially on the defensive end. He looked a step slow.

This minor surgery shouldn’t change Middleton’s or the Bucks’ off-season plans. Whatever those may be. Middleton has a $40.4 million player option, something he reportedly is considering opting out of to re-sign a longer deal with Milwaukee — or elsewhere — likely at a lower per-season salary but with more total dollars (the team may also reach an extension with him). At age 31, Middleton may want the security of years.

Milwaukee needs Middleton and his shot creation, plus his two-way play, if they are going to compete at the highest levels. However, they need the healthy Middleton who was an All-Star and All-NBA player, not the one that only played in 33 games last season due to wrist surgery and knee issues.

It will be an interesting offseason in Milwaukee with 35-year-old Brook Lopez a free agent and Jrue Holiday becoming extension eligible in the fall. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season, but the roster is getting old and expensive fast, and a pivot is coming. At some point. But maybe not this summer.

Nuggets’ Christian Braun on verge of history, NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive years

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MIAMI — Only four players have ever done it: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Henry Bibby and Billy Thompson.

Christian Braun could become the fifth player to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship in back-to-back seasons.

Last season he was the second-leading scorer on the Kansas Jayhawk team that won the NCAA tournament, with Braun scoring 12 points and grabbing 12 boards in the title game against North Carolina.

Braun isn’t just riding the Denver bench to his piece of history, he scored a critical 15 points in Game 3 to spark the Nuggets win. Braun scored 11 points in a stretch at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth when Denver pushed its lead to 21, then held off the early fourth quarter charge from Miami that had defined the Finals for two games.

Braun’s cuts to the rim — not to mention his steal and dunk — were things of beauty.

“I told him, you won us the game…” Nikola Jokić said of Braun (which was generous considering Jokic’s 32-21-10 triple-double). “He won us the game, and he was really good tonight.”

“Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The physical, aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.”

Denver drafted Braun with the No. 21 pick and it was a perfect fit for the Kansas native (who led his high school team, Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, to three state titles). Braun was drafted onto a contending team and was given a clearly defined role by Malone. Braun took that and earned his minutes with hustle and defense all season long, and sometimes the points come with that.

“Those guys make it really easy,” Braun said of playing with Jokić and Jamal Murray. “Playing with those guys, they make the right play every time. My job is just to be ready when my name is called…

“Like I said, my job is not very hard; I’ve just got to come in, play with energy, and they find me in the right spots on offense and the defense just give effort. So those guys have trusted me all year and put me in the right spots and my job is to deliver.”

Braun was ready to deliver and it showed.

If he and the Nuggets can deliver a couple more wins, he will be part of a select group in history.