The Bulls have been one of the elite teams in the NBA since the summer of 2010, when they missed out on LeBron James and instead added Carlos Boozer and coach Tom Thibodeau. They seem poised to once more make a move toward the top of the Eastern Conference with the impending return of Derrick Rose from injury. Several executives believe they, more than any other team in the Eastern Conference, could have what it takes to knock off the Heat, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe (Twitter link).
So, it's somewhat surprising that they apparently initiated discussions last week with the Raptors about swapping Boozer for Andrea Bargnani. Chicago fans have peppered Bulls.com scribe Sam Smith with potential Boozer trade scenarios nearly as long as Boozer has been in town, and while the 31-year-old power forward hasn't lived up to his five-year, $75MM contract, he has been playing some of his best basketball of late. He averaged 19.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in January, well above the 15.3 PPG and 8.9 RPG he's posted over the past two years as a whole. Not coincidentally, the Bulls went 12-4 last month and rekindled talk of title contention.
If the Bulls are serious about the Bargnani deal, they wouldn't appear to be entirely motivated by finances. As Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors noted when he wrote about the rumor this afternoon, the Raptors don't have an expiring contract to aggregate with Bargnani's deal to make the salaries match in such a swap, meaning Chicago would have to take on at least one more player on a multi-year deal. Plus, the trade would short-circuit any chance either team could seek salary relief by amnestying Boozer or Bargnani, as traded players aren't eligible for the amnesty clause.
Bargnani's deal, which has $32.25MM left on it including this year, ends in 2015, the same year Boozer's does. Bargnani also comes with a 5% trade kicker the Bulls would have to pay. Still, he's due about $5MM less per season that Boozer is, and depending on whom the Raptors add to the deal, the Bulls could at least lower their tax bill this season. Chicago is close to $4MM over the tax line, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf has never been a taxpayer, as Mark Deeks of ShamSports documented.
Perhaps the Bulls simply want to sell high on Boozer, believing that he'll revert back to the norm following his recent hot streak. If so, his contract makes it difficult, meaning they'd likely have to take back another sizeable deal that another team doesn't want. Only the Magic have a trade exception large enough to absorb Boozer's $15MM salary this season, but Orlando doesn't make much sense for him. The Nets appear willing to dangle Kris Humphries and his $12MM salary, but I don't think two teams that entered Friday in a tie for fourth place in the Eastern Conference would be motivated to help each other out. That's part of the problem with teams that might have interest in Boozer from a basketball standpoint, as Eastern contenders like the Heat and Celtics would like to boost their front lines, but probably not in any way that enhances Chicago's title chances.
If the Bulls do trade Boozer this year, it would have to be with a team that's not afraid to take on long-term commitments. With so many franchises trying to clear cap space for either this summer or 2014, when King James could hit the market, there aren't a ton of options. In an injury-plagued season, the Timberwolves are looking toward the future and it seems like they're ready to make a move, so maybe they'd be willing to consider a core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Boozer, but I doubt it. Unless the Bulls get something done with the Raptors, I think Boozer stays put, at least until the summer, when Chicago might have a field of trading partners wider than the one out there now.