Chicago’s cap conundrum

Before we begin, an apology to all 0.5 of my loyal readers, as I’ve taken a bit of a break from Armchair 3. Now that my life is, to a degree, settled, I’m hoping to become a more frequent poster.

You would think the challenge facing the Chicago Bulls’ future is Derrick Rose’s health. And it is. Rose, the NBA’s 2010-11 MVP, is their franchise guy … no doubt. Without him, the Bulls are a fringe playoff team that could sneak into the dance but has no chance surpassing Miami or even the East’s second-tier clubs.

With a healthy rose, Chicago, even with a pared down roster, is probably the East’s second-best team, right there with Boston (they’re struggling right now, I know), New York, Brooklyn and Indiana. But the gap between Miami and those teams is insurmountable, barring LeBron James being hit by a bus.

But Chicago’s got an even bigger problem brewing: long-term cap flexibility. The new CBA set this year’s salary cap a shade above $58 million, with the luxury tax threshold around $70 million. And here’s the bad news for Chicago: even before Taj Gibson’s extension in October (he signed for four years, $38 million), they already had about $60 million wrapped up in four players — Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng — through the end of next season.

Gibson’s extension kicks in after the season, so next year, not counting Rip Hamilton’s $5 million team option, which I can’t see Chicago picking up, the Bulls already have more than $73 million on the books … for 8 players. Boozer’s making $15.3 million, Deng $14.3 (his deal comes off the books at the end of the year), Noah $12.1, Kirk Hinrich $4, Jimmy Butler $1.2 and Marquis Teague $1.0. Boozer’s on the books through 2015, and Noah 2016. Rose and Gibson, your core, through 2017.

Now you can’t really blame Chicago’s brass. They went deep-sea fishing in the summer of 2010, luring the likes of LeBron and Dwayne Wade, but came up with empty nets, overpaying for Boozer to appease their star. (Cleveland GM Danny Ferry did much of the same in 2005, striking out on Ray Allen and Michael Redd before guaranteeing Larry Hughes $80 million.)

The problem: A better version of Chicago’s current roster went head-to-head with Miami in 2011 and lost. If Chicago wants to compete with LeBron, Wade and Bosh, they need to amnesty Boozer, thereby taking his contract off the cap figure (but still paying him, obviously), and find a GM silly enough to take on Noah’s contract. Otherwise, Rose is inked through 2017 with a team that’s good enough to get in the playoffs, but not good enough to compete. After which, they’ll have to fully reload, ala the Atlanta Hawks.

If you’re Derrick Rose, that’s a scary parallel.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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