When the Chicago Bulls signed Richard Hamilton to a three-year, $15 million deal in 2011, they probably expected more production than what Rip has provided. The 13-year NBA veteran has struggled to say on the floor during his time with the Bulls -- he played in 28 games last year and has suited up for just 21 this season -- so everyone is starting to wonder whether general manager Gar Forman is looking to trade Hamilton before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
For the record, Forman has denied that Hamilton is on the trade block, but many observers are connecting the dots in other ways. The 34-year-old shooting guard has become expendable for two reasons: (1) marginal production and (2) salary cap implications.
Marco Belinelli has stepped up as a versatile option at shooting guard for the Bulls, and his ability to handle the ball and hit threes brings a different dimension to the team. The organization also recently signed three-point specialist Daequan Cook. Meanwhile, Hamilton likes to work off screens to get his looks, and the offense is forced to undergo structural changes to accommodate him when he's on the floor.
In reality, it might not be worth it to fully integrate the veteran again. His scoring numbers have dropped in the past two seasons, and it's clear he's on the back end of his long NBA career. Hamilton, who turns 35 in February, seems to know his time is coming to an end. He recently told the Chicago Tribune he won't play past age 38:
"You do start to think about how long you're going to play because you're not at the beginning of your career. You're toward the end. I don't see myself playing any longer than when I'm 38. That will be my max by far."
The salary cap situation is the other half of the story. Bulls fans have developed a healthy skepticism when it comes to moves that have luxury tax implications, as team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has stated that he is prepared to pay the luxury tax only for a contending team. The tax threshold is set at $70.3 million this season, and the Bulls' payroll is currently at $73.5 million.
Under the current system, they would have to pay an extra dollar for each dollar by which they exceed the luxury tax line. However, the amount owed in luxury tax is determined at the end of the regular season, and if a player is traded away before the end of the year, none of his salary is taxed. Keep in mind that the Bulls have never paid the luxury tax.
The final year of Hamilton's deal is only partially-guaranteed, so the Bulls -- or any other team -- could essentially treat Rip as a $5 million expiring contract with a $1 million buyout for 2013-14. The Phoenix Suns had reportedly shown some interest in acquiring Hamilton back in December, but he has struggled to come back from a torn plantar fascia in his left foot and it is unknown if he would be willing to go quietly into the night as a half-season rental on a lottery team.
For what it's worth, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune says "it's unlikely Hamilton will be dealt" before the deadline, and Joe Cowley has suggested that Tom Thibodeau would like to keep Hamilton as a veteran presence for the second-half push this year. The staff over at Blog a Bull has a different opinion on the situation.