5 Bulls storylines to watch in pivotal 2022 NBA offseason

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5 storylines to watch in pivotal Bulls offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls completed the 2021-22 season last week with a 4-1 first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks.

A 46-36 regular-season finish, and a return to the postseason for the first time in five years, mark progress for a franchise that has wandered the wilderness since trading Jimmy Butler in 2017. But there remains plenty to address this offseason to ensure that progress isn’t just a one-off.

With that in mind, here are five storylines to watch in a pivotal Bulls offseason:

1. Zach LaVine’s unrestricted free agency

Artūras Karnišovas, Billy Donovan and multiple key players made clear in their exit interviews with reporters that they want to keep this team’s core intact and build continuity over multiple seasons. The biggest obstacle to doing that is LaVine walking in free agency.

For the first time in his career, LaVine is an unrestricted free agent, so there is a real danger of that happening (or the Bulls being backed into a sign-and-trade). The last time he hit the market as a restricted free agent, the Bulls’ previous management regime allowed LaVine to test the waters — then matched a four-year, $78 million offer sheet from the Sacramento Kings.

“I thought it was four out of the four,” LaVine said when asked if he feels he was underpaid three out of the four years of that contract, which paid him $19.5 million per season.

It’s no secret that LaVine is looking for max money this offseason, with that below-market contract and his ascendance into a two-time All-Star the backdrop. Working in the Bulls’ favor are LaVine’s Bird rights, which allow them to offer him a five-year contract worth roughly $212 million — one year longer and more than $50 million more than an outside team can offer.

There are, of course, other factors at play. LaVine will soon meet with an outside specialist to determine next steps for treating his left knee, which nagged him for the last three months of the season and has gone under the knife in the past (ACL tear, 2017). Karnišovas shot down the notion that LaVine’s knee history would affect negotiations in his end-of-season comments and professed a desire to keep the All-Star guard in Chicago long-term.

And so, the ball is in LaVine and his agency’s court. Stay tuned.

RELATED: Zach LaVine approaching first UFA with open eyes

2. What marginal improvements can the Bulls find?

Should LaVine return, don’t expect major shakeups to the Bulls’ core of DeMar DeRozan, LaVine, Nikola Vučević, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams.

“Hopefully we can keep the core together and work around the margins,” Karnišovas said of his offseason plans.

So the question will be how — and where — the Bulls improve the roster on the margins. If the Bulls stay under the luxury tax line of $149 million, which is possible even with LaVine on a standard max, they will have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal. Last offseason, it was that exception that netted Caruso, but the allotted salary (projected $10.1 million this season) can also be divided between multiple players.

Other than the mid-level, the Bulls have the 18th pick in the draft and the trade market with which to work. Shooting, frontcourt size — for rebounding and rim protection purposes — and general depth stand out as needs.

As for assets? A surplus, lottery-protected future first-round pick from Portland lies in the chest. And of all the players on the roster, Coby White, who is extension-eligible this offseason, will be the most pressing to monitor, given the crowdedness of the Bulls’ guard room. At age 22 and coming off the best shooting season of his career (38.5 percent from 3-point range), White has value in Chicago or elsewhere despite a poor finish to the regular season and playoffs.

3. Getting healthy

The Bulls no doubt suffered some freak injury misfortune this season. The biggest two examples: Losing Williams (for 65 games) and Caruso (for 22 games) to wrist surgeries derived from flagrant fouls.

Still, getting healthy, and setting up for durability in 2022-23, should be a focus up and down the roster this summer.

First, there are the ailing left knees of Ball and LaVine. Each member of the Bulls’ starting backcourt is soon set to visit knee specialists to determine next steps, which could involve surgery in one or both cases. Caruso — who, beyond his wrist fracture, suffered foot, hamstring, back and head injuries in 2021-22 — also has an eye on returning to 100 percent in the coming months.

“Obviously broken wrist, concussion, those things are out of my control. But the little nagging muscle injuries, to take care of that, to make sure that I can be out there for my team, and for us to have all our guys out there to build the habits we need to, build the symmetry, the chemistry you need to win at a high level,” Caruso said during his exit interview of his goals for the offseason.

Caruso, who logged 41 appearances in 2021-22, has played in more than 60 regular-season games once in the last three seasons. Ball (35 games in 2021-22) has done so just once in his five-year career, and now has undergone two meniscus surgeries in his left knee. A February MRI showed nothing structurally wrong with LaVine’s left knee, but his lingering pain is concerning nonetheless.

The bright side is that DeRozan (76 games, third in NBA in total minutes) and Vučević (73 games) proved remarkably durable in each of their first full seasons as Bulls. But the rest of the core has an injury history that looms as a dark cloud over the team’s future prospects. Yes, the Bulls had success when healthy. But can this group’s health be relied upon moving forward?

“I'm hoping for durability, I'm a positive guy,” Karnišovas said. “We're gonna look at everything and we're gonna try to get them healthy this summer leading into training camp…

“I expect them to be healthy. But any additions that we're gonna make to the roster, it's more towards versatility and being flexible because the season is long and you have to have a good quality roster for flexibility.”

4. Patrick Williams’ development

With only marginal additions expected this offseason, the importance of Williams’ development swells. Him blossoming into even an above-average starter is one of the primary avenues for the Bulls to ascend into a higher tier of contention.

Williams — who averaged 9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6 field-goal attempts in just 17 appearances in 2021-22 — and the front office were on the same page in terms of where the second-year forward needs to improve moving forward.

“Consistency," Williams said when asked which areas of his game he wants to improve in his third season. “Being consistently aggressive. Whether it's making shots or missing shots, you can't really control that. But just having my presence felt on the game consistently I think could be a next step.”

Added Karnišovas: “I think his (Williams’) skillset is pretty complete, what he can do athletically not a lot of players can do in our league. I just think the biggest thing for him is experience and confidence. We're always gonna ask him to be more aggressive.”

The work that goes into Williams building the stamina and game-savviness to do that continues this summer. His docket is likely to feature hellish Los Angeles workouts with DeRozan, and possibly a second Summer League run. By the end of it, the Bulls hope he can sustain some of the end-of-season flashes he displayed more consistently in a pivotal, and hopefully less injury-plagued, third season.

5. How will the Bulls approach the draft?

The Bulls own the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft and are without a second-round selection. While not a premium slot by any means, it’s one that has produced rotation players in the recent past — Tre Mann (Thunder), Josh Green (Mavericks) and Lonnie Walker IV (Spurs) in the last four years, alone.

Karnišovas and company could go the route of attempting to identify a cheap, cost-controlled depth piece with upside with that pick. Or, as they’ve done with plenty of their future draft capital in the last two years, they could flip it as part of a package for immediate help.

“We’ve got to explore everything,” Karnišovas said when asked if he is more inclined to keep or trade that pick. “We had a pretty busy summer last summer, and a lot of things you still cannot project going into draft or free agency.

“The way I allow things to settle for the draft is you get a better feel a week or two before the draft because you’re going through workouts and interviews. You get a better feel. Then obviously the prep for free agency is going on at the same time. Once it gets closer we’ll probably have a better idea, but right now it’s hard to say in terms of what kind of opportunities we’re going to have.’’

If the Bulls do trade the pick, they will have to do so after officially making the selection on draft night because of the Stepien Rule, which forbids trading future firsts in back-to-back years (the Bulls owe the Magic their 2023 first-rounder as part of the Vučević trade). So there is sure to be intrigue on draft night — and in the run-up to draft night — whichever direction they take.

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