How Lonzo Ball to the Bulls would happen

How realistic is the oft-rumored marriage between Ball and the Bulls? Here is how it would work.

Lonzo Ball is reportedly very available this offseason, and he has been linked to the Bulls for a while now. John Hollinger’s blended salary model pegs his value at around $90m over four years for his upcoming contract, which seems like a reasonable ballpark for his market. Under the NBA’s byzantine contract rules, how could the Bulls add him to the roster? 

There are almost always multiple theoretical ways to get players onto a team, but each path varies significantly in a) how likely it is to occur and b) what a team would need to sacrifice in order to make such a path work.

Here are the ways the Bulls will look to get Ball on the team, how likely each is to occur, and what the team would have to sacrifice to make it happen. 

Option 1: Sign & trade with Lauri Markkanen (preferred but unlikely)

This would be far and away the best way to add Ball if the Bulls could manage it. It would allow them to potentially stay over the cap and retain all of their veteran free agents from last year like Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, and Daniel Theis. 

Unfortunately, this path seems fairly unlikely to occur. First, the salary matching between Ball and Markkanen wouldn’t work. Talks of a potential future sign-and-trade made a lot more sense in the beginning of the season, or even near the trade deadline, when the value of both players were more closely aligned. But Ball has far outplayed Markkanen since those initial discussions, and the contract figures aren’t going to line up any more. Ball will also be subject to base year compensation rules because of the hefty raise he has earned, which makes salary matching extremely difficult in any sort of sign-and-trade involving him.

Second, Markkanen would need to want to come to New Orleans. There are roadblocks there too. He’s said that he still views himself as a starter in this league, and they already have a pretty good guy by the name of Zion at his natural position. Markkanen is a restricted free agent this summer. If he gets an offer sheet from another team that the Bulls don’t care to match (very likely to happen), they will have no say in where he lands next. 

Option 2: Clear cap space by moving on from Tomas Satoransky and stretching Al-Farouq Aminu (most likely and lowest cost option)

Let’s assume that the Bulls need to open up about $25 million in cap space to get Ball. The true number is probably a shade less, but we will use a number on the high side for argument's sake. There are some no-brainer moves that they would start with to create that space. 

First, they’d have to move on from their free agents consisting of Markkanen, Theis, Temple, Denzel Valentine, Ryan Arcidiacono, Cris Felicio, Javonte Green, Adam Mokoka, and Devon Dotson. Note that they could still bring any of these guys back, but it would have to be through minimum deals or the $4.9 million room exception. That would effectively mean that higher-end guys like Markkanen and Theis would almost definitely be gone, but some of those other lesser-paid players could easily be brought back. 

Releasing the cap holds of those free agents would get the Bulls to about $12 million in cap space. That’s still a ways short of the $25 million goal that we set, so there is work yet to be done.

The next move would be stretching Al-Farouq Aminu. Doing so would add another $6 million in cap space, but the down side is that the Bulls’ cap would be impacted $3.4 million every year into the 2023-24 season, thus limiting future spending when the team is presumably good and the margins matter significantly more. 

Stretching Aminu would get the Bulls to $18 million in space, still not enough for Ball. 

You may have heard that the Bulls would need to move on from either Thad Young or Tomas Satoransky to make this final cap finagling maneuver work, and hopefully now you can see why. Young makes $14.1 million with a $6 million guarantee and Satoransky is at $10 million with a $5 million guarantee. 

The Bulls could eat the $5 million guarantee on Satoransky and call it day, which would be extremely easy to do. That would get them to $23 million. They could also stretch that guarantee, getting them up to $25.7 million in space. That should be enough for Ball. The down side is that like Aminu, stretching Satoransky’s guarantee would impact future spending through the next three seasons.

A better path would be to try and trade Satoransky for free. That would open up more space and not impact future spending. He’s on a solid contract, and it is pretty reasonable to think that a team with cap space would be willing to take him on without giving anything meaningful back. Using this path, the Bulls could get off Satoransky’s money and have about $27 million to spend, more than enough to get Ball.

Bottom line, if the Bulls want Ball then trading Satoransky and moving the rest of their free agents sans Thad Young would be the best way to make it work.

So where could Satoransky go? The Celtics make a lot of sense, and have already been suggested by multiple people. They have a trade exception, meaning that they could take Satoransky straight onto their team without giving anything meaningful back. 

The Knicks, Thunder, Spurs, Mavericks, Raptors, Hornets, and Pistons should all have enough cap space to trade for Satoransky as well. I would think that one of these teams would be interested. If not, the Bulls could always attach a second-round pick to sweeten the deal. 

Option 3: Clear cap space by moving on from Young and stretching Al-Farouq Aminu 

The Bulls could also clear up space by moving on from Young. The down side here is obviously that Young was a better player than Satoransky last season, and he was crucially important to their success last year. The benefit is that they could probably get something of value back for Young such as a draft asset whereas that would be much harder with Satoransky. 

Trading Young is by far preferred over eating his contract. They should be able to do that, as his contract is pretty good value. But if they did have to pay out his deal themselves, here is what it would look like. 

Eating Young’s guarantee would get the team to $25.5 million in space. Stretching that guarantee would get them up to $29.5 million. 

Finding a trade partner to take Young straight into their cap space (more difficult since he makes more money than Satoransky) would get the Bulls above $31 million in cap space, enough to add Ball and one other rotation player. 

Satoransky is the guy that the Bulls would likely move if Ball is the only target. If they’re aiming for someone bigger or multiple players, they would need to move on from Young or possibly both Young and Satoransky both to make really big moves.

Moving Young, Satoransky, and the rest of their free agents would get the Bulls up to $39 million in space. That’s as high as they can get without getting too crazy. It’s enough to add Ball and have $14m+ left over to renegotiate-and-extend Zach LaVine or add another starter-caliber player. 

Either way, there are realistic paths to getting Ball onto the team that are not too difficult to pull off. The biggest hurdle is that they would likely have to fill at least eight spots on the roster with only $4.9 million in a small cap exception left to spend, plus as many minimum-salaried players as they like. That would make the depth of the team paper-thin. 

The bottom line is that the deal can be done. The real question is whether the Bulls think that Ball is worth his price tag, and how high the bidding will get. 

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