By: Matt Flynn | Staff Writer
We continue our grading and recap of each NBA team’s off-season by turning to the Chicago Bulls. If you click on my author page below, you can see my write-ups of some other teams, including the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
The Bulls come in as one of the more interesting teams looking toward the future. They’re mired in a rebuild, but some of their choices this off-season have left them with uncertainty about what this team will look like in even a year, let alone by 2020-2021 where they could be ready to compete.
They were a team with a ton of cap space, and opted to enter the restricted free agent market and pick up expensive players on multi-year deals instead of selling their cap for future assets, which we’ve seen teams like Brooklyn and Atlanta do.
We’ll see how it goes, but just looking at their roster makes it clear that there are some competing interests within the organization.
Here’s the way their roster looks currently with the salaries in millions:
PG- Kris Dunn (4.2); Cameron Payne (3.3); Ryan Arcidiacono (1.3)
SG- Zach LaVine (19.5); Chander Hutchison (2.0); Antonio Blakeney (1.3); Antonius Cleveland (1.4)*
SF- Jabari Parker (20.0); Justin Holiday (4.4); Denzel Valentine (2.3)
PF- Lauri Markkanen (4.5); Bobby Portis (2.5); Cristiano Felício (8.5)
C- Wendell Carter Jr. (4.4); Robin Lopez (14.4); Ömer Aşık (11.3)
This means that they currently have about 105 million in salary pledged, so they are around 3 million over the soft cap, but nowhere near the tax line, meaning they can cut any number of these back of the roster players to bring guys in at the minimum throughout the season on tryouts without worrying about the tax, as well as use their room mid-level exception on a player in the buyout market, if necessary. They appear to be caught between attempting to be a playoff team, as well as scooping up young players to rebuild, so more moves to increase their win total could be possible.
They will also need to make at least one roster cut, with several players at the minimum at the back end of the roster. One other potential move is waiving Aşık, who is owed over 23 million the next two seasons. They could stretch his two years over five years, and carry dead cap weight of about 4.6 million per year. I find it more likely that they will wait until next year to do this.
The reason is because they face some important expiring contacts, with Robin Lopez’s 14-15 million per year and Justin Holiday’s 4.4 million per year coming off the books next year, as well as facing restricted free agency on both Bobby Portis and Cameron Payne. They also carry team options for Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine.
All of this being said, they figure to line up with between 67 and 76 million of guaranteed money next season, leaving them with space to sign a 2019 free agent to a max contract. It may make more sense for them to just pay Aşık’s gaudy salary this year, and then split his 12 million remaining over 3 years instead.
They should still be players in the 2019 free agent market, despite signing some restricted free agents to multi-year deals this off-season. The worst contract on their books might actually be Felicio, who’s not an NBA player but is owed 24 million over the next three seasons. Why they offered that deal, I’ll never be sure.
Also in terms of bookkeeping for the future, they don’t currently hold any draft rights on players but they do have their own first round pick next year, meaning that they can add another value player in 2019 regardless of their cap room. I don’t expect the Bulls to be a playoff team, but even if they sneak in as an 8 seed, that pick will still be fairly valuable to helping them fill out the roster.
The following players are additions from last year’s team:
C- Wendell Carter Jr. (drafted, 1st Round-7th Overall from Duke)
SG- Chandler Hutchison (drafted, 1st Round-22nd Overall from Boise State)
F- Jabari Parker (signed in free agency from MIL)
G/F- Antonius Cleveland (signed in free agency from ATL)
G- Ryan Arcidiacono (converted two-way player from last season)
G/F- Antonio Blakeney (converted two-way player from last season)
The following players are departures from last year’s roster:
G- Jerian Grant (trade w/ ORL, CHA)
G/F- David Nwaba (free agency, signed with CLE)
F/C- Noah Vonleh (free agency, signed with NYK)
G- Sean Kilpatrick (free agency, still available)
F- Paul Zipser (free agency, still available)
As stated above, they had two first round picks, which they used on Carter and Hutchison. For Hutchison, he looks to be a part of the back court rotation after averaging 20 points per game at Boise State. He was the main fruit of the Nikola Mirotić deal, where they sent over Mirotić and 2018’s second rounder (which is why they didn’t have one) for a first round pick and some bad money, Aşık included. The saga of Mirotić and Bobby Portis not getting along made plenty of news, and they essentially had to unload him, receiving this first round pick in return that became Chandler Hutchison.
He has higher upside than some of the other guys in the backcourt, so hopefully he gets a chance to play this year. As for Carter, they needed a high-upside offensive player who fit their style next to Markkanen, but who also offers some rim protection. Carter will compete to start over Robin Lopez this year at Center.
They’ve made one trade in the offseason so far. It appeared that Orlando needed a point guard and liked Jerian Grant’s upside after having a season with some mild improvements last year. The Bulls knew that they needed to clear some space, so they traded Grant and revoked the qualifying offer on David Nwaba in order to be able to make the free agent signings with their cap space.
Nwaba is now one of the most intriguing free agents from the class, and is rumored to have signed a deal with Cleveland. Here’s the full deal:
Chicago gets: G- Julyan Stone (from CHA, later waived)
Orlando gets: G- Jerian Grant (from CHI), C- Timofey Mosgov (from CHA), 2020 2nd Rounder (from CHA)
Charlotte gets: C- Bismack Biyombo (from ORL), 2019 2nd Rounder (from ORL)
The deal means Mosgov was moved twice in the same offseason, Charlotte gets a player back who can actually help them this year, and Chicago, in order to clear space, got rid of Grant and were able to waive Stone without him affecting their cap because he was absorbed into their cap space. While the deal did help them facilitate the restricted free agency signings, this move is really judged by your perspective on the Bulls’ future.
If you like them giving 40 million combined to LaVine and Parker per year, then this move was good to help facilitate that, because you needed to use the necessary cap space, and they were not in a position to wait and use bird rights on LaVine because Sacramento made that massive qualifying offer.
LaVine ended up being signed to a 4 year, $78 million dollar deal, and the Bulls went 2 years, $40 million for Jabari Parker. I’m conflicted about these signings. On the positive side, I totally understand what the Bulls are going for. A lineup of Dunn, LaVine, Parker, Markkanen and Carter is wonderful offensively with plenty of floor spacing and all guys with developed offensive games. That lineup also offers a ton of switchability defensively as well, and some of the bench guys, like Justin Holiday, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine can all defend multiple positions.
The Bulls are crafting a roster of talented guys who can fill multiple roles in a true plug and play lineup style. They’re a shooting specialist and a better offensive point guard away from looking pretty dangerous, so I can see why they made the decision to go with LaVine and Parker. The upside is palpable.
LaVine clearly struggled returning from his ACL injury last year, so the twenty-or-so games he played isn’t a fair sample size of what he can be as a player. Before his injury in the 2016-2017 season, he averaged 19 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and shot the three at 39%. While this offensively efficient year looks great on paper, he also was a -2.4 box plus minus in points per 100 possession defensively.
He was barely an above average player that year because of his defense cancelling out the positive impact offensively. It’s clearly not for lack of athleticism, but rather that LaVine needs to become a smarter player and buy into a team system defense. In order for him to be worth his contract, he needs to improve that part of his game, we all know the shooting and explosiveness that made him a weapon offensively will return.
Jabari is the same type of deal after multiple ACL injuries. In 2016-2017 before his injury, he averaged 20 points per game, six rebounds, shot the three at 37% and was a clear value player in spite of below average defense. Jabari also struggles as a play maker, relying a lot on his own offensive repertoire, and has never been much of a passer.
Then, in a limited run last year returning from injury, the defense only got worse. Now, as a small forward, he’ll be playing out of position because of Markkanen, Lopez, Carter, and Portis clogging up the Power Forward/Center roles.
Jabari will need to improve his passing and focus more on his defense if he wants to have success as a wing, and the same goes for LaVine. LaVine needs to refine his offensive craft and become a smarter defensive player, using his athleticism and length to his advantage.
I can see why these guys make sense, though. You’re looking at monstrous offensive upside with two guys who can both get twenty points a night, joining a young front court of Markkanen and Carter which only bolsters it. Maybe the max contract guy they target will start, and move either Jabari or LaVine to the bench as a sixth man/scorer, but for now, they have to find a way to make this lineup work cohesively.
They’re going to score points, but they’re also in danger of being run out of the gym by athletic teams. Perhaps their entire rebuild led to this moment, knowing after the Jimmy Butler trade that they would need to pay LaVine a larger contract. Maybe it’s better to pay these two guys than try to get uncertain picks in the draft to become a key contributor.
They saw two players with tangible offensive upside and are trying to make it work. There will be growing pains, but I’m not as low on these signings as some are. I see the potential for an athletic lineup that can score and improve defensively. I also see the criticisms of seeing these guys go cold from the floor and not be able to stop anyone.
LaVine still really excites me as a player, and Jabari still has the tools to become a legitimate scoring threat consistently, but there are noticeable drawbacks.
Let’s see how this pans out throughout the year. If it works and the Bulls are competitive, it means these two players are earning their contracts. If it fails, Jabari was only a two year signing and you still have plenty of cap space to boot to get back into a proper rebuild.
I’d give their offseason a B.