Bulls might waive Nate Robinson to save money (and possibly for another reason, one for which I have no evidence)
December 19th, 2012

K.C. Johnson reports that the Bulls, despite being a number four seed without having their MVP on the court, are sorely tempted to waive Nate Robinson.

In one of the most unheralded high quality moves of the summer – unheralded because the dominant Bullsean narrative of the summer was rightly one of cost-cutting and player-dumping – the Bulls were able to sign Robinson to not only a minimum salary contract, but a partially guaranteed one at that. Of the $1,146,337 Nate is owed – an amount which, if he’s kept for the full season, the Bulls will owe only $854,389 of – only $400,000 is guaranteed, becoming fully guaranteed if not waived on or before January 1st [not the 10th, as reported elsewhere]. In an industry where the permanent goal is to sign as good as quality of player as is possible for as cheap of a price as is possible, this is an incredibly good contract. The institutional maligning of Nate as a player that dates back years cannot (or should not) ignore the fact that he’s a hugely talented player who can single handedly turn the outcome of NBA games. And the Bulls should know this, because he’s done that more than once for them this season.

The move would be, of course, patently ridiculous. Even if the season was a wash, you don’t waive a most vital contributor to save on what, by NBA standards, is a nominal fee, and by no standard is the season proving to be a wash in the first place. Nate is third on the Bulls in PER, the only man who can consistently create a shot off the dribble in Rose’s absence, arguably the team’s best ball handler, its only creative backcourt player, and one of its best shooters. He’s even being masked defensively by the Bulls’s meticulous defensive system, and is thus a hugely important player to a team whose season is still important. There are absolutely no basketball reasons why Nate should be cut on the basis of his performance thus far, and the justification offered – that Marquis Teague is showing “signs” – is an unbelievably tepid excuse. Teague has not yet even had the Bulls career of Acie Law, who at least managed three good games to Teague’s two. Excited by his future as they may be, there is absolutely no reason why Teague should play ahead of Nate if the Bulls want to win games.

The move, then, would be financial. In a best-case scenario for them, cutting Nate on New Year’s Eve will save the Bulls about $900,000 after tax calculations, if they are not able to get under the luxury tax threshold by season’s end. However, in light of the concurrent rumblings about the desire to move Rip Hamilton, which wasn’t difficult to predict, they likely will do so, therefore they’ll only be saving about $450,000 on Nate, an even smaller amount. It’s also an amount that much of which would more than likely have to be spent again anyway. Chicago only has 13 players on the roster on the moment, and although the NBA allows for 12 for two weeks at a time, 13 is the mandated minimum roster size. Someone will have to be signed – or a succession of people on 10 day contracts – to meet that requirement. And that would demand spending the saved money again. In short, then, the Bulls should suck it up and pay.

If the Bulls decide they absolutely cannot afford to spend an extra $400,000 on a projected backup, there are many other ways to go about it. The obvious candidate to go is Vladimir Radmanovic, signed to a guaranteed deal and completely unused on the court, the sixth player on a six man forward depth chart. Vlad is also signed to the minimum of $854,389, and, come trade deadline day of February 21st, two thirds will already have been billed to the Bulls. There are many teams out there with open roster spots and no luxury tax concerns who would happily take him and a $375,000 check – $100,000 more than will be outstanding on Radmanovic’s salary – just to take the cap hit. To the recipient team, it’s a free $100k. If the Bulls would rather not sign that check, a second-round pick would be equally well received.

There is no reason to believe this kind of deal is not available to them, considering the amount of precedence that exists for it across the league in reason seasons. Failing that, though, he might take a buyout. Or they could perhaps make the increasingly inevitable Rip-Hamilton-and-a-pick-to-Cleveland deal happen, whilst adding Vlad and Omri Casspi to it. There are always, ALWAYS ways around this that don’t involve cutting a bargain of a player just to save on a trivial amount.

As this is the same team that squeezed Teague of of $170,000 for no justifiable reason, it is entirely possible that this supposedly negligible amount is nevertheless deemed sufficient to merit losing one of their best players. That, however, would be unpalatable. So would be the grim but plausible reality that Bulls brass have sullied on Nate simply because they don’t like his style of play, a reality which would involve prioritising aesthetics and perceived importance of fundamentals over actual positive impact. Flawed as Nate is, he’s still incredibly useful. It would be depressing for that to be overlooked in deference to stylistic reasons.

Perhaps, then, there is another justification. In the search for a palatable reason for this rumour to exist, perhaps there exists something off the court. It is demonstrably proven to all Bulls observers that Robinson has been better for them this season than the starter ahead of him, Kirk Hinrich, whose perceived defensive value just does not offset the incontrovertible fact that he just can’t play the other end any more. Indeed, it’s been so apparent at times that it’s painful. We should not, therefore, assume that the players don’t know this either. Nor should we assume that a basketball locker room is unlike any other workplace in the world. And people in workplaces bitch.

When a backup is wildly outplaying a starter on a nightly basis, but the team is more emotionally and financially invested in the starter, they have two options; they can divorce themselves from that investment and maximise their incumbent assets on the court, or they can get rid of the thing that’s making their investment look worse. In doing so, they reaffirm their investment, and, they hope, help it realise its potential. The investment then has every opportunity to succeed, without being able to feel superior breath down its neck all the time. It’s asset management, or at least, it pertains to be. And so perhaps that is why we have arrived at this point.

As the title suggest, I have no evidence that this is what is indeed happening. I merely posit the theory that it might, on account of the fact that it has happened sufficiently often elsewhere. [Find a team with a struggling starter and a worse backup, and ask yourself why they won’t at least upgrade the backup.] And I posit it mostly in the vain hope that there’s a reason that this course of action is being discussed, other than the overarching and unavoidable “Bulls are spendthrifts” narrative. It is, however, merely my own whimsy. And I’m not sure I even want it to be true.

All this cost cutting is the direct result of signing Hinrich to the oversized and unnecessarily ambitious contract that they did. His underperformance, predictable as it was, should have meant a greater reliance upon his superior backup. As it is, it might cost him his job.

Something’s not right there.

(NB – The above is all contigent on the Bulls actually considering this as an option, rather than just is being an option available to them. The two are very different.)

Posted by at 4:05 PM