The Bulls will enter free agency with approximately $20 million in cap space. That's far short of the amount needed to sign a max-salary player, but there is a path for the team to land a star - if one chooses to play in Chicago. With rumors out of Brooklyn that D'Angelo Russell would be on his way out if the Nets sign Kyrie Irving, coupled with the uncertain futures of both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Bulls fans are wondering "what if." I'll let much wiser people debate if the Bulls should extend an offer to any of these players; I'll outline how it could happen.
In terms of this discussion, it's very important to note that not all free agents are eligible for the same max salary. The league has three tiers of max free agents, broken up by years of service. Players with 0-6 years of service are in one tier, 7-9 years in another, and 10+ years of service in the last.
Players in the more experienced tiers can get a much larger contract over players coming off their rookie contracts. The wonderful Larry Coon explains this in detail in his CBA FAQ. The exact 2019-20 salary cap will be announced at the end of the month. It's currently projected at $109 million, and for this scenario, we use that number. Essentially, tier 1 players can get 25 percent of the cap, tier 2 30 percent and players with 10+ years of experience can get 35 percent of a team's cap.
Russell would fall into the 0-6 years tier, earning him a first year salary (the one that matters in terms of cap space) of approximately $27.2 million. Klay Thompson has eight seasons of experience and is eligible for a first-year salary of about $32.7 million. His teammate Kevin Durant can sign a max deal starting at $38 million.
Step 1- Get medical waiver on Omer Asik's $3 million cap hit.
The Bulls will find out by June 30 if the league approves their waiver request on Asik. The former Bulls big has a $3 million cap hit of guaranteed money on the books for the 2019-20 season. The team waived Asik back in October and it looks like his NBA career may be over after dealing with arthritis and Crohn's Disease. The NBA is likely to approve the Bulls request, and they'll get that money back in cap space for free agency.
Step 2- Waive and stretch Cristiano Felicio
The league allows teams to waive players and stretch their contracts over several years to lessen the immediate cap hit a team takes. Felicio is owed approximately $15.7 million over the next two seasons. The stretch provision means teams can spread out the cap hit of a waived player twice the years remaining on the deal, plus one. This translates to a cap hit of approximately $3.1 million over the next fives years instead of the amount he's owed. This means the Bulls would gain an additional $5 million in cap space this summer.
Accomplishing steps 1 and 2 will clear enough cap space for the Bulls to sign a 0-6 year free agent, so if Russell wants to play for the Bulls and the front office feels he'd be a good fit, it would only take these two steps to sign him. It gets more complicated for the more experienced free agents.
Step 3- Trade Kris Dunn for a 2nd round pick.
Dunn is owed $5.3 million for the 2019-20 season. Trading him for a second round pick would net the Bulls a cap saving of $4.4 million. The reason the Bulls don't get to keep the full amount is that teams have to account for a roster spot against the cap when they go below 12 players. Trading Dunn would get them into the 7-9 years tier and allow them to sign Klay Thompson (or any of the other free agents at that tier).
Step 4A- Trade out of the first round of the 2019 draft
Here is where it gets a lot more difficult for the Bulls if they want to sign a 10+ year free agent. They have to clear about $5 million more in cap space. Let's safely assume they aren't going to trade Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter for pennies on the dollar just to clear cap space. Otto Porter's contract makes him a very unlikely trade candidate as well. Trading the No. 7 pick for a future first nets them another $4.4 million, close enough to get to that max slot with other small moves.
The major flaw with this is the draft is June 20 and free agency starts 10 days later. You're not going to get a commitment from any superstar worth this amount until June 30, so essentially this option is off the table.
Step 4B- Trade Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison for second round picks
This option is a lot more likely if the Bulls can sign a superstar in the 10+ years tier. Hutchison showed promise in his rookie season, and despite missing all of last season, Valentine should be able to get you something (especially if packaged with Hutchison). I doubt the team wants to punt on Hutchison after one season, but they'd have to, if this was the only thing in the way of signing a franchise changing star.
If you want to dream for the Bulls, our friends at NBC Sports Boston put together a list of the top free agents available. The likelihood is that the Bulls will use their cap space to sign a few veteran free agents to give them some much needed depth, but should they dream big, there is a path to be in play for a star.