By Ben Golliver
Who wants to swap underwhelming, overpaid power forwards?
The Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors have engaged in exploratory trade discussions on a deal that would swap the Bulls' Carlos Boozer for the Raptors' Andrea Bargnani, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Other players with smaller contracts would have to be added to the deal to make the salary-cap math work, should talks indeed progress to a more serious level, but sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that both teams have given consideration to the move.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the Bulls initiated the trade talks but that a deal between the teams is "unlikely" to come to fruition.
Boozer, 31, is in the middle of a five-year, $75 million contract that pays him $15 million this season, $15.3 million next season and $16.8 million in 2014-15. He is averaging 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and shooting 47.2 percent this season.
Bargnani, 27, is in the middle of a five-year, $50 million contract that pays him $10 million this season, $10.8 million next season and $11.5 million in 2014-15. The final year is a player option, which he's likely to opt into unless he manages a remarkable and unexpected career revival. This season, Bargnani is averaging 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists while shooting just 40.1 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from deep. He missed roughly two months with an elbow injury before returning to action this week.
Let's not beat around the bush. This proposed trade would be laughed off the court for basketball reasons. For all of Boozer's annoyances and faults, he was a fringe All-Star candidate this season and is a key reason why the Bulls have been neck-and-neck with the Pacers at the top of the Central Division despite the absence of Derrick Rose. He's helped Chicago to a No. 7 ranking in rebound rate and he hasn't stood in the way of the Bulls' No. 3 ranking in defensive efficiency. More than half his shot attempts come from the paint and he's got a solid mid-range shot to keep teams honest.
Bargnani, on the other hand, has been about as unwatchable as it gets. Take your pick from these words -- lethargic, unproductive, inefficient -- or take them all. The Raptors were 4-17 with him in the starting lineup to open the season and they went 13-14 before he returned to action on Wednesday. What more do you need to know? He's an unmotivated defender not known for his toughness who hasn't been in the postseason since 2008; more than two-thirds of his shot attempts have come from outside the paint over the last two seasons. How or where or why he would fit into Chicago's plans as anything other than a bridge to clear out Boozer's contract is a mystery.
Chicago's rationale behind this trade proposal, of course, would be all financial. The Bulls sit roughly $5 million over the luxury tax line and are headed into luxury tax territory again next season unless they start trimming. The fundamental issue they face is essentially the same one that broke up the Thunder and Grizzlies: it's difficult to commit eight-figure (or close) salaries to four different players without incurring more punitive luxury tax penalties under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Thunder elected to downsize out of James Harden, who wanted a max contract, and the Grizzlies shipped off a max guy in Rudy Gay. Boozer, like Gay, is paid as a max player while being one or two steps below a max-quality player. There's no question that he's the odd man out if Chicago is choosing between him and Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. The Bulls also committed above mid-level money to power forward Taj Gibson, whose new deal goes two years longer than Boozer's. That all suggests the Bulls are headed towards a post-Boozer reality fairly quickly.
The question, though, is when. Dumping Boozer now would be a bigger blow than the Harden or Gay trades because of the timing and because they can claim to be legitimate title contenders whereas the Grizzlies are not. The East simply presents an easier route than the West and the Bulls' current core proved it can advance as far as the East finals in 2011. Chicago, already set to reincorporate Rose into the mix after a season-long rehabilitation from knee surgery, would be stuck dealing with two major moving parts and less than two months of regular season games to get things right if the traded Boozer before the Feb. 21 deadline. Moving Boozer now wouldn't necessarily be blowing up the season but it would have a major, major impact for a team that is arguably the East's second best when fully healthy.
There are a few other advantages to waiting until the offseason. For starters, there's the amnesty clause, which could be used to clear out Boozer without taking back the $22+ million of future salary owed to Bargnani. If Chicago's notoriously stingy ownership balks at writing the amnesty check without getting a player back, the summer presents another alternative: trading Boozer into a team's cap space and taking back smaller salary commitments in an uneven trade. That route could prove to be preferable, as it would keep Chicago's core intact this season and potentially provide greater cost savings if the right buyer can be found for the final two years of Boozer's deal.
As for Toronto, this would amount to another trip on the Bryan Colangelo Express, as Rob Mahoney brilliantly dubbed it. The allure of trading Bargnani is serious, as the team and player are clearly ready for a split, but Toronto needs to be shedding dollars wherever possible, not stockpiling yet another major, multi-year commitment. If this proposal did go through, the Raptors would be looking at a financial commitment of more than $55 million (almost the entire salary cap) to just five players: Gay, Boozer, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Landry Fields. That would be a funny thought if it wasn't so incredibly painful. That core, plus Kyle Lowry, still wouldn't be a major threat in the East playoffs and their only consolation prize would be finishing second to the Lakers in the "most expensive mediocre team" conversation. Not exactly a place you want to be without the benefits of the Lakers' television deal. In sum, a downsizing style trade involving Boozer makes a lot of sense for the Bulls and it's coming sooner or later, assuming they decide against the amnesty route. This particular move, though, makes little sense, and one would hope Chicago ownership would be willing to pay to play out their hand the rest of the season. As for the Raptors, they should be running the other direction from taking on new salary, meaning Colangelo is probably licking his lips and opening his wallet in anticipation as we speak.