The Bulls nailed the start of free agency

Digging Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and the process that got them to Chicago

The Bulls made some widely-praised moves on the first day of free agency, picking up Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade and adding Alex Caruso a few hours later. I was a fan of both moves, and I was even more so impressed with the underlying process that it revealed about the Arturas Karnisovas regime. 

Let’s start with Ball. The cap semantics are boring, but the important stuff is this: The Bulls were able to pull off some complicated maneuvers that allowed them to spend significantly more than they would have been able to had they signed Ball outright without the cooperation of the Pelicans. They gained even more spending power by negotiating a sign-and-trade with Houston for Daniel Theis. 

These cap machinations are not easy things to figure out. There are a lot of moving pieces and a lot of cooperation needed from multiple parties. It showed the value of having a front office with multiple connections throughout the league. A significant part of that was cap specialist JJ Polk, who also happened to work for the Pelicans in his previous stint before Karnisovas hired him.

The moves go over the heads of 99% of fans, but they are vitally important to adding the most salary and talent possible onto this roster under the collective bargaining agreement. The Bulls nailed the nitty-gritty of these transactions.

Ball’s contract, a reported four years at $84 million, is a steep price to pay. But he’s the perfect fit for what this team has needed. 

Karnisovas stressed the importance of speeding the team up after it had slowed down considerably post-Nikola Vucevic trade. Ball is a fantastic transition player and has historically gotten all of his teams moving. 

Ball’s shooting is also a much-needed addition. He has transformed himself into a solid 37-38 percent shooter over the past two years on very high 3-point volume and has improved his putrid free throw shooting up to a respectable 78 percent last year, albeit on few attempts. He’s probably not going to get to the rim a ton, but the Bulls don’t necessarily need a ball-dominant point guard with Vucevic and Zach LaVine drawing most of the attention of defenses. Ball should be able to capitalize off the advantages that those two create, which is the ideal role both for him and for the team. 

Ball’s defense will also be a plus. He’s not necessarily a lock-down defender on-ball, but he reads the game at an extremely high level and his help defense will clean up a lot of the messes from teammates. Expect him to get his hands on a lot of balls (he has been 80th+ percentile in steal rate every year of his career) and convert those plays into easy transition scores for teammates. 

Ball’s signing had been in the works for a while, but bringing Caruso on board came completely out of left field. This has been a signature of the Karnisovas era, and another indicator of the competitive advantage he has in his ability to keep information on lockdown. 

I have always been a fan of Caruso’s game. He is an incredible defender, both on-ball and as a helper. He has felt underrated to me, maybe partly because of his balding appearance. During last year’s broadcast, announcer Stacey King playfully compared Caruso to Sweet Pea and noted that “headbands aren’t for everyone.” Meanwhile, Caruso locked down Zach LaVine into a miserable 7-of-23 shooting night and helped force him into seven turnovers. 

Defensive ability is very hard to gauge. Film is the best way, and I encourage those who want a deeper dive to skip around and watch some of these highlights compiled by the YouTube channel Pick & Roll. The things that stand out to me are that Caruso is really good at staying in front, showing his hands to avoid fouls, getting over screens, staying in plays, and rotating to correct spots to help teammates out or pick off passes. 

Caruso has been an absolute stud in numerous defensive metrics. His defense rates in the 99th percentile in EPM, my favorite all-in-one metric. He also rates as one of the top players in BBall-Index’s LEBRON rating and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR. 

Like Ball, Caruso’s usage is probably going to be pretty low. But at his price slot, the Bulls aren’t signing him to be a star. He has turned himself into a very good 3-point shooter, and the Bulls are going to have some wide open areas for Vucevic and LaVine to work with these additions. 

Karnisovas outlined his vision in his first public comments to the media, of acquiring basketball players who could pass, shoot, play multiple positions, and have high basketball IQ. He has very aggressively gone after those qualities with all of his major additions thus far in Ball, Caruso, Vucevic, and Patrick Williams. 

That’s another bullet point in the pluses column of the Karnisovas era. In the past, Bulls management would throw a bunch of players together and tell the coach to figure out the fit. That approach did not work, and the teams post-Thibodeau generally underachieved as a result of severe roster imbalance.

This free agency represents a stark departure from that old approach. The Bulls may finally be better than the sum of their parts, because all of the new pieces on this roster fit specific areas of need. 

Point of attack defense was a weakness, and the Bulls needed to upgrade if they were going to play a center with limited mobility. Karnisovas went out and got arguably the best guy on the market in Caruso. 

The Bulls needed solid off-ball players who could playmake off secondary actions and shoot if they were going to maximize their best offensive weapons in Vucevic and LaVine. Ball and Caruso are perfect for that role. 

This team makes a lot of sense on paper. The talent is all complementary. Not only did the Bulls add quality players, they made the ones already on the roster a lot more dangerous.