What the Bulls should do in free agency
Explaining the options open to them, and what their best course of action is
Free agency is one of the most exciting times for NBA fans, but the league’s complicated salary cap makes it extremely difficult for casual fans to know what is even possible under the rules. Fortunately for Bulls fans, I’ve simplified the process to show the line of thought that management will probably be following as they start creating their summer plan.
The Bulls have two big options open to them; They can either operate as 1) a cap space team, which would allow them to add a few splashy new players from other teams or 2) an above-the-cap team, where they would prioritize bringing back their veterans from last year. Each option has different pros and cons, and the path they take will depend heavily on who they think they can get to sign on.
Which path should the team pick? The flow chart below outlines the steps that the team will probably be going through as they formulate their summer plan. Follow the chart and see where you land, then I’ll share which path I think they should choose.
The cap space route
The biggest driver of whether the Bulls act as a cap space team or an above-the-cap team will be if they can get a top tier free agent to agree to sign with them. Mike Conley or Kyle Lowry would be near-perfect additions for this team if they were willing to come, and the Bulls could pull off the maneuvers to add them by operating as a cap space team. They’d have to lose most of their veterans to pull it off, but the price would be worth it. For more detailed specifics on how they would have to make this happen, I recommend the work of Ryan Borja.
Getting commitments from either of those players seems like a long shot right now given their age, current situations, and the stage of development that the Bulls find themselves in.
The trickier question comes with players a tier or two down like the oft-rumored Lonzo Ball. He could likely earn a multi-year deal starting somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million annually. For the Bulls to add a player like Ball, they would either have to execute a sign & trade for him or clear off a ton of money from their books. They’d do so by moving on from most of their key rotation players from last year like Lauri Markkanen, Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, and Daniel Theis.
It’s reasonable to think that Ball is worth turning over most of the roster. Personally though, I do not believe that he could replace the production of so many quality guys from last year’s team. The Bulls would have to fill out the rest of the roster with small cap exceptions and minimum contracts, and it’s important to remember that they were surprisingly the no. 12 defense mostly because of smart players like Satoransky, Young, Temple, and Theis. For most of the year, the team played great with those vets and completely fell apart when they were off the floor.
Another separate option if the team chose the cap space route would be to renegotiate-and-extend Zach LaVine. This would eliminate LaVine’s flight risk after next season, giving him a long-term max contract in 2022 starting at roughly $34 million annually (For more on the mechanics of LaVine’s potential extensions, read Jason Patt at Forbes).
The security of having LaVine locked up would be nice, but the Bulls would basically be punting on meaningful ways of improving the team next season and losing key pieces in the process.
I would pass on this option too. It’s a calculated risk, but it’s probably better to keep LaVine on his current value deal and hope that the Bulls are good enough for him to sign that same max as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Operating over the cap
Being an above-the-cap team is a lot less sexy of an option for the Bulls, but it’s the right one barring unforeseen interest from an All-Star level player. They won’t bring in many new faces going this route, but they will have the option of keeping all of their veteran players that drove most of their success last year.
Young is a no-brainer to bring back because he will have a ton of value on his $14 million expiring contract. He was obviously great last season, he could potentially help bring back LaVine next year due to their close relationship, and he can bring back a lot in a trade.
The same is true for most of the other guys on the team. Temple was one of the most important role players on the team last year, and the cost of bringing him back is small. He will probably agree to another one-year deal at around $5 million or less, although this would give him an automatic no-trade clause. Exercising Satoransky’s $10 million option gives them a useful player on an expiring deal that will have positive trade value. Theis will be trickier, and my best guess (and it's a total guess) is that he will probably command a multi-year deal starting at around $7 to $9 million annually.
The Bulls can bring all of these guys back using their bird rights, and they don’t have to worry too much about running out of space to spend. Devon Dotson could also come back on a minimum or another two-way deal.
The rest of the free agents on the team (Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacono, Cristiano Felicio, Denzel Valentine, Javonte Green, and Adam Mokoka) are low priority. The Bulls could either try to bring them back on team-friendly deals or let them walk. They could also explore moving Markkanen in a sign-and-trade to get Ball (they'd have to add more stuff) or another good rotation piece.
The Bulls could also add one or two new free agent players by following this route, but they would be limited to roughly $9 million in spending via the mid level exception. That’s enough to add another solid rotation piece or fringe starter.
Bringing back a team of Coby White, LaVine, Patrick Williams, Theis, Nikola Vucevic, Troy Brown Jr, Young, Satoransky, Temple, Dotson, and a $9 million free agent signing would give them a solid 11-man rotation. They could also bring over last year’s promising second round pick Marko Simonovic from Europe. But it might be a little bit disappointing to run back essentially the same group that underperformed last season.
Fortunately, the Bulls wouldn’t be limited to just those 11 or 12 players. They’d essentially be loading up their roster with value contracts that combine extremely well in potential trades, and they could consolidate a bunch of those rotation guys for a more high-end talent.
You’ve probably heard before that the grease that makes trades flow is expiring contracts. What makes it even easier to pull off a trade is if you have multiple expiring contracts of different sizes, and if those expiring contracts are guys that can actually play. The Bulls will have plenty of both if they choose to operate under this plan.
This is a much more realistic avenue of adding top-end talent than overpaying for the weak free agents that would realistically switch teams. President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas has already shown a ton of creativity and aggressiveness in making numerous trades at last year’s deadline. He’s hired a group of executives with connections to a ton of teams throughout the league. If another All-Star level player becomes available, the Bulls could have the pieces to pull off a move with their combination of expiring vets, promising young players in Coby White and Patrick Williams, and two first-round picks from 2025 onward.
Operating as a cap space team and signing a new player like Ball, Victor Oladipo, Dennis Schroder, Demar DeRozan, or Kelly Oubre may seem like a better option at first blush. But the issue is that the Bulls are probably going to have to overpay for a top 20 free agent in this class, and they are also going to have to waste a decent portion of their cap space by paying some of their players to go away. That is not a great use of finite resources.
By operating as an above-the-cap team, the Bulls are going to be able to squeeze every penny of value out of their payroll. They will still have weaknesses at point guard and the wing, but they will put themselves in a great position to swing a trade for those spots and add with the $9 million that they do have to spend. This path allows them to add the most overall talent to their roster, and it gives them flexibility to mix-and-match pieces in trades down the line.
Bottom line, if the Bulls do choose to bring back most of their productive-yet-unspectacular vets from last year, don’t be disappointed. It's the smart play and may very likely be a precursor to another series of moves down the road.
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