Jimmy Butler’s temporary run as the Bulls’ starting small forward will come to an end soon, with Luol Deng likely to return from a right hamstring strain on Monday against Charlotte.
But Butler as the full-time starter could be a more distant destiny. His presence in the lineup served as a reminder of the unsettled future of the Bulls’ roster.
Here’s a quick look at the numbers: In five games as a starter, Butler has averaged 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while hitting 21 of 22 free throws.
Those figures are inflated, considering Butler has played 45.2 minutes per game. Coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t expect that sort of endurance from his small forward over a full season.
Well, probably not.
Here’s another set of numbers that illustrates the tough circumstances faced by the Bulls this summer: The salaries of Deng, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson add up to $70.86 million.
This year’s luxury tax threshold was $70.3 million. And the rules change starting next season. It used to be, if a team was $12 million over the luxury tax threshold, it paid $12 million in tax.
The new collective bargaining agreement includes more prohibitive tax penalties. A team that’s $12 million over the threshold would pay $21.25 million in taxes next season.
The long-term task faced by Bulls management is to build another championship contender around Rose. Butler probably fits into that group, along with Noah, Gibson, Euro future star Nikola Mirotic and whoever is selected with the Charlotte draft pick the Bulls got in the Tyrus Thomas trade.
There’s not much chance the Bulls are going to pick up a future championship piece before the Feb. 21 trade deadline and this year’s roster is starting to come around. Butler, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli have become reliable reserves. They’ll never match the former Bench Mob, because it will probably be a long time before the NBA sees a backup center as good as Omer Asik.
So the changes are more likely to come this summer, but what will happen?
Rose isn’t going anywhere and since the Bulls didn’t hang on to Asik, Noah is almost certainly the long-term center. Using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer is likely to be considered.
If anyone is going to leave in a trade, it would probably be Deng, simply because he’ll be heading into the final year of his contract at $14.3 million. The goal may be to acquire a few smaller-salaried pieces and give the roster more flexibility.
The Bulls are worried they could end up losing Belinelli this summer. He played well enough while filling in for Richard Hamilton that he’s likely to command more than the $1.95 million the Bulls paid him this season.
Hamilton has a partially-guaranteed deal for next season and a contract option worth $5 million. That’s very similar to the scenario that led the Bulls to send Kyle Korver to Atlanta last year.
The future is bright, as long as Rose recovers from his ACL tear, but still very uncertain for the Bulls. If your money is on Butler starting at small forward long-term, that’s probably a good guess.
Another PG tears ACL:
Not long ago, a torn ACL seemed to be a relatively uncommon injury for an NBA player. Now it’s almost an epidemic. The latest player to be lost to the knee injury is Boston’s Rajon Rondo. It happened on Friday at Atlanta, but the team didn’t immediately recognize the severity. He reportedly warmed up in preparation for Sunday’s game against Miami, realized it was bad and went to get an MRI.
In less than a year, Derrick Rose, Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, New York’s Iman Shumpert, Atlanta’s Lou Williams and Rondo have gone down with ACL tears.
Rubio and Shumpert have returned, with Rose probably a couple weeks away. Fortunately for the NBA, recovery from these injuries isn’t career-threatening. Thirty years ago, this would have caused an alarming loss of star power.
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