By Devin Zanskas
Paying three players over $20 million and being a fringe play-in tournament team definitely isn’t ideal. Of the four organizations in the East that are in the play-in tournament, the Miami Heat is the only other team that has three individuals on their payroll with $20 million annual salaries. Perhaps analysts believe that the Bulls jumped the gun by accelerating their timeline prematurely. Although, remaining patient is much easier said than done, especially when a team made the playoffs once in six years, and their cornerstone was extension eligible that upcoming summer. According to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, three- and four-year contracts may be extended upon the second anniversary of the deal being signed. Zach LaVine didn’t end up re-signing with the Bulls until this past summer, but it’s speculated that trading for Nikola Vucevic helped the Bulls acquire his college teammate at USC, Demar Derozan. On JJ Redick’s podcast though, Demar Derozan said that he believed that he was heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, who are his hometown squad, until the Russell Westbrook trade took place.
It would be dishonest to ignore that the Bulls’ struggles started around the time when Lonzo Ball injured his knee, and the updates on his status have been confounding to say the least. For example, the Bulls were on a 51.5-win pace before Lonzo hurt his knee, and they ended with a 46-36 record at the end of the season. Per Sports Illustrated, Ball had a minor meniscus tear, which may only sideline a player for up to two months. Now over a year later, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Ball is preparing for his third left knee surgery, and it’s likely to set him back until either late next year, or the 2024-2025 season. Another difference between this season and last year for the Bulls is their execution in the clutch. According to FiveThirtyEight, the league considers clutch time to be game time within five minutes of the end of regulation or overtime, and a scoring deficit of five points or less. In 2021-2022, the Bulls were fourth in clutch win percentage, and this year, they’re 27th in the same statistic. Now, Derozan and LaVine are fourth and 28th, respectively, and there are no other Bulls in the top-100. Meanwhile, last season Derozan and LaVine were both top 20, and Patrick Williams was ranked 38th.
The first-round pick that was traded to the Magic in the Vucevic trade is only top-four protected. The trade deadline is over a month behind everyone, and it might’ve been far too reactionary for the Bulls to blow up their roster after assembling their core less than two seasons ago. Currently, the bottom four franchises in the standings are all more than ten games back on the Bulls. Even though the flattened lottery odds have rewarded competitive teams, the Bulls would only have a 4.5% chance at the number one overall pick, because they have the ninth-worst record as of now. Therefore, if the Bulls are ever going to cut their losses, and trade away their stars, they should probably wait until they have more control over their first-round pick. Per nba.com, the Bulls are 24th in offensive rating, but fifth in defensive rating despite not having the largest lineups in the association. Given that Vucevic is their most important free agent this offseason, the Bulls can’t quite afford to lose him, unless they’re willing to be even lower in the standings next year. The most cap space that the Bulls could possibly open up this offseason is $17.5 million. However, that might be contingent on renouncing the cap holds for Nikola Vucevic, Coby White, Javonte Green, Ayo Dosunmu, and Patrick Beverley.
There’s the sign-and-trade route, but that would require a high caliber player to be interested in the Bulls, since they’re a team with limited flexibility that couldn’t otherwise sign the free agent. Otherwise, there could be a scenario where Vucevic is hellbent on going to another squad that’s pressed for cash, but his lack of defense may deter teams from hard-capping themselves. Sign-and-trades can be particularly lopsided, because the organization knows that they might also lose the player for nothing in free agency e.g., the sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler. Having Andre Drummond as one of the best backup centers in the league insulates the Bulls from losing Nikola Vucevic. Adding a replacement level center and making Drummond a starter isn’t going to be a viable option for advancing out of the play-in tournament though, let alone staying at the level they’re at now. $17.5 million in maximum cap space simply isn’t enough to reshape the Bulls with a center more talented than Vucevic. For instance, some centers who’ll be unrestricted free agents are Christian Wood, Thomas Bryant, Mason Plumlee, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Naz Reid, Dario Saric, Drew Eubanks, and Jakob Poeltl. Of those listed, only Wood, Lopez, and Poeltl are around the level of Vucevic. Wood has a similar skillset to Vucevic, but he’s less accomplished, and Lopez isn’t likely to leave a championship contender when the Bucks could pay him even more money. However, Poeltl could provide the Bulls with a different look, and the Raptors are only the ninth seed in the East. He wouldn’t necessarily solve the Bulls’ issues on offense though, and Poeltl’s also probably comfortable with being back on the team that drafted him, alongside several former teammates. The Bulls are in a tough spot, but if they don’t want to rely on the promise of Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, and Dalen Terry, the Bulls could get a haul for Zach LaVine or Demar Derozan in the summer.