The other day, Dwight Howard sent the hearts of Bulls fans aflutter with comments that seemed to open the door for him to join his adidas comrade Derrick Rose in Chicago. It's easy to imagine Ken Jeong sitting courtside in his golden jump suit, nodding knowingly after yet another Rose-to-Howard alley oop.
The Bulls have won more regular season games than any other since the beginning of last season. Their core is young and ascending. The chemistry on the court and in the locker room is impeccable -- the kind of environment coaches dream about. But the problem is that there is an awfully big hurdle perched in the sands of South Beach. Every transaction the Bulls make has to be a response to this question: Will this help us beat the Heat?
The Howard-to-the-Bulls chatter certainly falls under the heading of "soft news" but nevertheless, the notion is interesting from a basketball perspective. Howard is the best center in the game, but Chicago is already a championship-level team. Do you dare mess with that?
To narrow things down, there are some assumptions that have to be made:
- Any trade Chicago might make for Howard would involve Joakim Noah going back to the Magic. Orlando would need a young center and Chicago would need to move Noah's dollars. It's the basis around which any Orlando-Chicago trade would be constructed. There has been some confusion about whether or not Noah is subject to Base Year Compensation, which would mean he could not be traded before March 1. According to the team, Noah is not a BYC player. So he can be traded at any time.
- Orlando is going to want draft picks, expiring contracts, cost-controlled rotation players, cash and ready-made replacements for Howard. No team can fulfill all these needs; the Bulls can fulfill quite a few. In each of the subsequent scenarios, we're throwing in Chicago's first round picks in 2012 and 2014, plus the valuable protected pick Charlotte owes them from the Tyrus Thomas trade, a selection that becomes unprotected in 2016. I'm going to also throw in the $3 million in cash that teams are allowed to include annually in trades per the new CBA.
- Larry Coon points out that the new CBA makes extend-and-trade less appealing financially to the player. However, if all Howard cares about are the dollars, then his best option is to wait and become a free agent, whether he exercises his ETO in June or plays out the last year of his current deal with Orlando. The Bulls aren't going to break up a core that might already be good enough to win a title, not unless they get an ironclad assurance that Howard will sign long term. So I am assuming that Howard agrees to an extend-and-trade deal and isn't looking to maximize dollars.
Let's move on to the proposed trades. The win gains referenced in each scenario are set by our SCHOENE projection system, which does an excellent job of modeling the basketball implications of the revamped rosters -- shifting minutes, possessions, floor spacing, rebounding, basket protecting, et al. The not-so-surprising takeaway in all of this: No matter what package the Bulls send to Orlando, Howard improves them on paper.
(Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson for Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, plus picks and cash. -- Bulls gain 7.1 wins)
The salaries work on this deal even though it would put the Bulls over the luxury tax line. The hang-up would be Anderson, who is far too good to be included as a throw-in on a trade for the second time in his career. However, as you will see, the Bulls would be well-advised to insist on the sharp-shooting forward. It may be a deal killer, but so it goes.
The Bulls would likely hold onto Turkoglu for the rest of this season, and hope to flip this summer, which wouldn't be easy to do. One of Chicago's long-term issues is that they have four players signed to multi-year deals that will pay eight figures per season. It's tough to manage a cap that way and there are eventual extensions for Gibson (unless he's dealt) and Omer Asik to consider. Trading for Turkoglu helps Orlando get rid of a player they won't need, especially after Howard is gone, but can't amnesty because they burned that privilege on Gilbert Arenas. It wouldn't be as big of a problem for Chicago, which would have a championship core in place.
Our post-lockout projections set the Bulls' 82-game baseline at 58.7 wins. If this version of trade would have taken place before the season, the baseline would have been revised upwards to 65.8 wins. That's enough to vault them over Miami and puts them in the Air Jordan class of Bulls squads. Orlando has chronically undervalued Anderson, but his play this season may have finally cast aside any aspersions they may have had about him. His inclusion in these scenarios would be huge from a Bulls' perspective and this would be a major negotiating point.
The revamped Bulls would move from fifth to third in projected Offensive Rating and remain first in projected Defensive Rating because, well, you can't move up from first. Actually, that is a factor to consider for Chicago. Howard may be the game's best defender, but it's the Bulls that feature the game's best team defense -- with or without him. In each proposed trade in this piece, Chicago remains at No. 1 in projected team defense.
(Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, plus picks and cash. -- Bulls gain 1.9 wins)
The salaries work under the trade rules with or without Anderson, but the win gain in this version shrinks far enough to make this a poor option for Chicago. The net gain of 1.9 improves the Bulls to 60.6 projected wins, but that leaves them 2.3 games behind Miami and that assumes the team's chemistry remains solid. This is why the Bulls have to insist on getting Anderson, for whom they'd be sending a ready replacement in Gibson.
The thing we have to remember about a potential Chicago-Orlando deal is that the Bulls have all the leverage. They don't have to trade for Howard. Chicago is a championship contender as is and would only be attempting to improve at the margins. Those marginal wins might be the difference between beating Miami or not, but even without them, the Bulls are close enough to the Heat to have around a 40-45 percent chance to emerge in a seven-game series.
Meanwhile, Orlando is held hostage by Howard's option for early termination of his contract this summer. If Otis Smith's relationship with Howard is not repaired by the trade deadline, the Magic almost certainly have to make a trade. And because Howard would have to offer a guarantee of some sort to his new squad, that limits the number of teams Smith can play off each other.
In other words, there is no reason for the Bulls to be timid in these negotiations. If they are going to move Noah, Gibson AND Deng, then Anderson has to be part of the return. If Orlando decides to trade Howard elsewhere, so be it.
CARLOS BOOZER VERSION
(Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Jimmy Butler, plus picks and cash. -- Bulls gain 4.1 wins)
The Bulls don't get Anderson in this version of the trade, but that's offset by not sending Deng to Orlando. That in itself makes this deal more realistic because Orlando would have to pry Deng out of Tom Thibodeau's cold, dead hands anyway. (He absolutely loves the guy.) The Bulls improve by 4.1 wins, putting them basically in a dead heat with Miami.
Chicago still jumps to third in projected Offensive Rating, with Howard's field-goal percentage more than offsetting the loss of offensive rebounding that comes from dealing Noah and Boozer. From Orlando's standpoint, not only do you get your new center in Noah, but Boozer gives you an interior scorer that would otherwise be lacking.
Orlando doesn't get much long-term cap relief in any of these deals, but in place of that, Chicago can offer usable rotation players. In fact, Chicago can offer more legit talent than any of Howard's other suitors. The wild card here is that it's hard to say what Boozer's value is perceived to be around the league. This trade assumes that Smith sees Boozer as a bedrock kind of talent.
If Boozer really is that good, then it's just barely and his days at that level are dwindling fast. In fact, because of Chicago's aforementioned cap issues and need to extend Gibson and Asik, there is a real possibility that Boozer will eventually be waived via the amnesty clause. This trade would allow the Bulls to side step that messy situation -- if Smith values Boozer.
(Dwight Howard for Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, C.J. Watson picks and cash. -- Bulls gain 6.1 wins)
Trades get so complicated in the NBA that sometimes you can over think them. By just trading Noah and Gibson, the Bulls may be able to swing a deal and you wouldn't have the Turkoglu problem with which to deal. Chicago wouldn't want to include Watson, but another player would have to go to Orlando to make the salaries work. Besides, the recent successes of John Lucas III and Mike James indicate that Thibodeau can get by just fine without Watson to run his second unit.
The 6.1 wins the Bulls gain on paper look great, but it's no slam dunk that the deal would work out so well. Any trade that involves both Noah and Gibson robs Thibodeau of much of his team's defensive versatility. He'd be left with Howard and Asik, both true centers, and Boozer as his only big men. There would be no backup for Boozer, so you're left shopping for the likes of Fabricio Oberto or perhaps a stretch-four to fill out your rotation.
Still, I like it. The key would be how Boozer and Howard fit together on the court. They tend to occupy different spaces on the floor. Howard can operate on the block or as the roll man after setting ball screens for Derrick Rose. (How terrifying is that image for Bulls' opponents?) However, if the matchups are right, Boozer can set the screen and pop out for his nice face-up jumper. Heck, Thibodeau could use them in double-screen sets which not only gives Rose all kinds of options, but it clears the lane for his whirling dervish finishes.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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