Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls get the band back together

Sam Smith reviews the major moves of free agency, including the return of Butler, Dunleavy and Brooks to the Bulls

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By Sam Smith | 7.9.2015 | 8:00 a.m.

The Bulls are putting the band back together. But will it be able to hit the high notes?

That’s the musical and basketball question as the Bulls are poised to basically conclude their NBA free agency starting Thursday by resigning their new Mr. Fabulous, Jimmy Butler, and coming to terms with fellow sole men Mike Dunleavy and Aaron Brooks.

The moratorium on free agency signings expired 12:01 Eastern time Thursday. Although teams were not permitted to discuss or officially sign contracts with free agents until July 9, the Bulls reportedly were quick to address in informal talks their returning veterans, Butler and Dunleavy. Then earlier this week, the Bulls reportedly settled with Brooks on a return for a second season to back up Derrick Rose.

Meanwhile, it was another vibrant and, in some respects, shocking NBA free agency period, essentially presaging free agencies of 2016, 2017 and 2018, which are expected to be expansive with additional salary cap space for all teams from the new $2.4 billion TV contract with the NBA.

The big story was the free agency haul of the San Antonio Spurs, who drew a commitment from the prize summer free agent, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. In perhaps the individual stunner of the summer, Pacers forward David West declined a $12.6 million option to remain with the Pacers and committed to a veteran’s minimum deal of about $1.5 million to join the Spurs and hopefully play for an NBA title. It’s arguably the biggest financial sacrifice a player has made in the name of joining a top team. Those moves along with the promised return of Kawhi Leonard on a long term deal, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili have established the Spurs as early title favorites along with Cleveland and defending champion Golden State.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the theme of free agency, which was small market.

The Lakers and Knicks were basically shut out of all their top choices as free agents flocked to smaller markets where they believed they had a better chance to compete for a title or the playoffs. The biggest name player to do so was Detroit’s Greg Monroe, courted by the New York and Los Angeles. But Monroe committed to Milwaukee, virtually unheard of since small, out of the way, poor weather markets traditionally have been anathema to free agents. However, Marc Gasol, also courted by the Lakers and Knicks, elected to return to Memphis while super star of the future Anthony Davis said he’d agreed to a long term deal with New Orleans that will keep him there at least five more years.

These sorts of commitments to small market teams, especially over so called glamour markets, had basically been deemed impossible previously. But it’s something of a NFL-ization of the NBA as parity and equality spread throughout the league.

Cleveland with LeBron James also remained a destination again as Mo Williams passed up several offers to commit to a return while the Cavs also locked up Kevin Love long term and are the overwhelming favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference again.

But other Eastern teams fortified themselves as Miami will bring back Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic and now may have the most balanced and talented starting five in the East. The Wizards lost Paul Pierce to the Clippers but recouped with Gary Neal and Jared Dudley while Atlanta kept Paul Millsap and added Tiago Splitter, the latter the center they needed to give their front line more size. Though the Hawks did lose DeMarre Carroll to Toronto. The Raptors lost Lou Williams to the Lakers. The Pacers moved Roy Hibbert to the Lakers and lost West. But they planned to bring back Rodney Stuckey while getting a commitment from Monta Ellis. Brandan Wright committed to Memphis.

There was yet another surprise Wednesday on the eve of the players able to officially sign contracts. The Mavericks apparently had lured another major free agent, DeAndre Jordan, from big market Los Angeles and also gained a commitment from Wesley Matthews with Portland turning over its roster. But word surfaced Wednesday that Jordan was having second thoughts and might resign instead with the Clippers. That after Mavs owner Mark Cuban had even been fined $25,000 by the NBA for discussing the agreement with Jordan before the July 9 conclusion of the moratorium. Jordan ultimately spurned the Mavs to return to the Clippers. Wesley Matthews, however, was still said to be headed to the Mavericks.

Rajon Rondo will hook on with the Kings for one season to try to resurrect his market value after a lost season in Dallas. The Kings also dumped three players, including their lottery pick from last season, for more salary cap room. But they were essentially spurned and come into the season with an inflammatory circumstance and rumors of a DeMarcus Cousins trade or firing of coach George Karl.

The Knicks did get commitments from Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams and the Lakers from Hibbert, Williams and Brandon Bass. But all the top players bypassed the Lakers as they did the Celtics, the latter making a trade for David Lee and adding Amir Johnson. Thus it’s still well outside the playoffs and looking in for most of the prestigious markets while they wonder about the lures of Milwaukee, New Orleans and Memphis. And San Antonio, which is more than the Mexican cuisine.

It’s not a seismic shift in the NBA balance of power with the Cavaliers remaining the favorite in the Eastern Conference and the Spurs, who were contenders and upset early, rivaling the champion Warriors. With the return of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka from injury, the Thunder also will be in the top West title mix. The Heat likely has moved up to a potential top four spot in the Eastern Conference with the Bulls. But it’s hardly guaranteed as the Bucks, Wizards and Pacers each could claim a top four East spot in a much stronger Eastern Conference.

So in the Western Conference, the playoff teams at this early stage look like the Spurs, Rockets, Warriors, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Thunder, Clippers and Jazz and Suns fighting for eighth with the Mavs apparently fading away.

In the Eastern Conference, it looks like the Cavs, Heat Bulls, Hawks, Wizards, Raptors, Pacers and Bucks with the Hornets and Pistons trying to upend someone for eighth.

Of course, that could change once the summer league games are played.

That also makes early losers of the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, Rockets, Kings, Trailblazers and either the Mavs or Clippers, though there are still players to consider in trades. The 76ers? Who knows?

For the Bulls, it appeared to be an eventful/uneventful week and a half as they had the right to match any offer to Butler while Dunleavy apparently made it clear he likes the city and the team and wanted to return.

Most unexpected—or perhaps it shouldn’t have been—was the general league wide trend other than with David West, including with Butler, to take the money.

The speculation and some of it involving Butler was most players would seek short term deals to take advantage of the vastly increasing salary cap starting next year.

Instead, the majority of the players who apparently committed to deals opted for the longest deals they could get and generally with a players’ option for that final season. In Butler’s case, that would be in the fifth year.

Once Butler officially signs the contract, he will become the Bulls player owed the most money and with the longest commitment to the team. It’s seemingly contrary to reports Butler wanted a short team deal, the speculation being he was unhappy and would want to leave the team soon.

Instead, Butler apparently agreed to be locked into the team though the 2018-19 season. Going into 2015-16, Butler will be the only Bulls player on the roster with a guaranteed contract for that season.

Dunleavy’s deal is rumored to be for about $14.4 million over three years with a player option in the third year. Butler’s contract is estimated between $91 million and $95 million with a starting salary of about $16 million. Butler made $2 million last season after rejecting a four-year offer estimated at about $44 million to become a restricted free agent.

Since the actual salaries are based on the salary cap total (the players get a percentage), they cannot be calculated precisely yet since the new salary cap figures are finalized during the moratorium. Contracts also are based on seniority for veteran players and salary cap amounts in future years, so maximum deals can differ in amount.

Butler, who turns 26 in September, had his breakout year last season. He made the All-Star team and was named NBA Most Improved Player. He averaged 20 points to lead the team in scoring along with 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Butler’s career scoring average coming into the season was 8.9 on 31 percent three-point shooting. He shot 39.7 percent overall in 2013-14. Butler shot 37 percent on threes last season.

Dunleavy, who will be 35 in September, averaged 9.4 points and 3.9 rebounds last season while leading the team in three-point shooting at 41 percent. Pau Gasol shot 46 percent on threes, but with just 26 attempts. Dunleavy attempted 263. Dunleavy also reportedly was courted by the Cavaliers as LeBron James was said to have wanted Dunleavy to be like Mike Miller was for his team in Miami.

Brooks slumped in the playoffs. But he had a good season playing all 82 games and starting 21 as Rose had meniscus surgery. Brooks averaged 11.6 points and led the team in three pointers attempted. He shot 38.7 percent on threes and was the fourth leading scorer on the team.

The Bulls, thus, pretty much will have completed their roster for the 2015-16 season once the signings become official.

The budget and roster for the 2015-16 season would look something like this, according to published reports, with salaries in millions and approximations and the Bulls with one of the league’s highest payrolls and paying luxury tax:

Derrick Rose 20.0
Jimmy Butler 16.0
Joakim Noah 14.0
Taj Gibson 8.5
Pau Gasol 7.5
Nikola Mirotic 5.5
Mike Dunleavy 4.8
Kirk Hinrich 2.9
Doug McDermott 2.4
Tony Snell 1.5
Aaron Brooks 1.4
Bobby Portis 1.2
E’Twaun Moore 1.0
Cameron Bairstow 1.0

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