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.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

Associated Press
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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.