Derrick Rose is out for a while after tearing his medial meniscus, potentially the entire regular season. If Rose elects to have the meniscus removed, he could be back relatively quickly, but it could hurt his longevity. If Rose has the meniscus repaired, it could take six months to get back. The playoffs are six months away.
The Bulls are currently above the luxury tax threshold. Chicago paid the tax last season, and as Mark Deeks explained earlier this week, must be concerned about the brand-new repeater tax. That repeater tax forces teams to pay an inflated luxury tax payment if they hit the threshold in any three out of four years. If the Bulls stay over the threshold in 2013-14, hitting the threshold in either of the next two seasons would leave Chicago with a massive tax bill. Keep in mind that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had never consented to paying the tax until last season, despite having one of the richest clubs in the NBA.
So the question is obvious: should the Bulls, currently 6-5, wait for Rose with hopes he'll be himself after recovery, or should they blow it up and look to rebuild a contender over the next couple of seasons?
The question was made easier by the diagnosis: if Rose tore his ACL instead, and that would have knocked Rose out for the entire season and then some. The question is even more simple if Rose elects for removal of the meniscus and comes back within a month or two; there would be plenty of time for the Bulls to get back toward the top of the standings, given how well Chicago played without Rose last season.
But if Rose makes the seemingly logical choice and has the meniscus repaired, putting him out until April, the question is more difficult to answer. Really, there's no wrong answer. But I think the stronger case can be made for waiting for Rose. Here's why.
THE BULLS WITHOUT ROSE ARE COMPETITIVE
Chicago went 45-37 without Rose in 2012-13. They won a playoff series. Even if Rose is out until April, we can pretty much pencil in the Bulls for the playoffs, barring a major injury to Joakim Noah or an extended absence for Jimmy Butler (who is currently out another week or two with a toe sprain). This isn't likely to be a matter of the Bulls slumming in the lottery range and hoping Rose comes back in February to lift them up. They are, no question, a far better team with Rose than without. But they are still a pretty good team without.
THERE ARE MANY BAD, BAD TEAMS
One argument for a quick rebuild this season is that it is the perfect opportunity to pick up an incredible prospect and rebound quickly next season, a la David Robinson, Tim Duncan and 1998. But there's no way the Bulls will be worse at season's end than Milwaukee, Utah, Boston or Sacramento. They'd have to trade three or four players, hold Rose out and find a way to disable Tom Thibodeau. You can probably add Philadelphia, Orlando, Charlotte and Phoenix to that mix, too. A couple of these teams look respectable early on, but it's a long season. Chicago can't compete with that badness. Sacrificing an excellent core -- a legitimately contending team -- for a wild shot in the dark is bad form.
In a similar strain ...
REBUILDING IS HARD
Building around Rose, Butler and a top draft pick sounds good on paper, but the Bulls have been much more than that with stacks of good-to-great defenders, including Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Throwing that away on a hope and a plan is a huge risk.
THE TOP OF THE EAST IS SHALLOW AND FLAWED
The Heat are one Dwyane Wade injury from being vulnerable; Indiana almost got them last spring. Despite Paul George's continued rise, offense can still be a problem for the Pacers. The defense is killer, but Rose is a gamechanger in battles like that. And then there's ... yeah. A healthy Bulls team would be favored against every other East squad in the playoffs.
Forty-five wins should get you home court in the first round this season in the East. Given how things have gone in the Atlantic, it might get you the No. 3 seed.
THERE'S A LESS RISKY OPTION TO FIX THE SALARY ISSUE
The Bulls do, however, need to get under the tax threshold or it will totally hamstring the front office over the next two seasons. With Rose out, losing Kirk Hinrich isn't an option and might not be feasible anyway. Noah is 28 with low mileage, and he plays at a key position. You don't trade Noah to escape the tax unless you get an excellent big man prospect on a cheap (perhaps rookie) deal. Trading Carlos Boozer could save you from the tax this season and next season, but you aren't going to get anything of value for him.
That's why I think Luol Deng might be the key here. He's a fine player, a fringe All-Star any given year. He's a couple of months younger than Noah, which never ceases to amaze me. He's a solid two-way player at small forward. But he's also a free agent in July. The Bulls were unable to reach an extension agreement with him in the offseason, and he's had numerous clashes with Chicago's medical staff over the years. As it stands, unless the Bulls amnesty Boozer or make another huge salary-cutting move in the offseason, the team won't be able to re-sign Deng at a price he's likely to seek and avoid the tax in 2014-15.
Chicago's really in between a rock and a hard place with Deng. To avoid the tax, they need to lose salary before the February 20 trade deadline. That means giving up a pretty big piece, or losing smaller pieces and packaging an asset (like a draft pick). Even if they succeed, they face a tough gambit with Deng in July, and may end up losing him. Remember that Andre Iguodala signed a 4-year, $48 million deal with the Warriors as a free agent. He's a year older than Deng and relies on his athleticism more. He's also more versatile and doesn't have the injury history of Deng. Regardless, Luol is getting paid.
So the fix for both issues: trade Deng this season. It'll be a blow to the team's defense, but with Thibodeau, Noah and Gibson, you still have a top-10 unit. It'd hurt the offense, too, until Rose returns. The Bulls added Mike Dunleavy in free agency; he's a great shooter and decent creator who would get lots of minutes if Deng departed. And Dunleavy is signed through next season, too, adding some safety going forward.
There's one more huge reason trading Deng makes some sense, and his name is Nikola Mirotic. Expectations are that he will make his long-awaited European departure in 2014 and join the Bulls for the 2014-15 season. He won't come free -- he's three years beyond his draft date, so he's eligible for a contract above the rookie scale -- but he'll be much, much cheaper than Deng. And, if the reports from Europe are any indication, he might be as good or better very soon.
Trading Deng for some solid, cheap assets -- a mid-rung point guard, a wing who can defend -- and bringing in Mirotic in July could be just the middle ground salvation Chicago needs to preserve the Rose era while protecting the bottom line. As an unrestricted free agent, Deng will be a rental. But he's young enough that a non-playoff team may be willing to take a dice roll on him with hopes he's stay in July.
When you lose a superstar to a second serious injury, there are no easy answers. Such is life in Chicago right now.