PRESENTED BY NATIONWIDE INSURANCE AGENT JEFF VUKOVICH
Let’s assume Artūras Karnišovas follows through on what he hinted at during his April 14 season-ending news conference.
Let’s project that the six players under contract in Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams and Dalen Terry all return, as do free agents Nikola Vucevic, Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu.
With no current picks in this month’s NBA Draft and assuming Marko Simonovic’s non-guaranteed deal is either let go or re-worked into a G League or two-way contract, that makes 11 guaranteed salaries. That leaves three or four roster spots to be filled via the midlevel, biannual and veteran’s minimum exceptions, depending on if the Bulls carry 14 or 15 players.
Given the franchise’s history of only paying the luxury tax once, it still seems difficult to see how the Bulls can re-sign both White and Dosunmu on top of Vucevic and avoid the penalty. But Karnišovas expressed his desire to re-sign all three.
Asked about this difficult financial needle to thread at that April news conference, here’s what Karnišovas said: “We will have all this time to figure the big things out -- what we're going to do, how to improve this team moving forward. Now, in terms of support from the ownership, from Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf), I'll always add support and just obviously that's going to have to be justified when we're ready to push forward. It waits to be seen this offseason what this team is going to look like.”
Karnišovas has been pretty true to his public messaging in his three years on the job. So despite rival executives speculating that change is coming to the Bulls’ roster, there’s a real chance the Bulls opt to re-sign some or all of their own free agents and work the roster margins to improve.
If this is the case, July will provide answers as to how management fills the remaining roster spots. Although with Lonzo Ball’s future in serious jeopardy, it’s a safe bet the Bulls look to stabilize the point guard position whether that’s by making White the starter, targeting someone with a veteran’s minimum exception or a trade.
Using some or all of the midlevel exception of roughly $12.2 million to add shooting seems a prudent path, whether that’s split between multiple players or not. But the projected $162 million luxury tax line underscores how difficult a needle management must thread to improve the roster if it follows through on its public stance to re-sign most of its free agents and if ownership stays consistent with its stance on only paying the penalty for a championship contending team.
Which the Bulls, as a sub-.500 team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, currently are not.
So how do the Bulls improve if management opts largely for continuity? How do they become a playoff team?
Here are three ways:
Williams takes a jump
Quietly, there was a lot to like from Williams’ third season, even if his statistics didn’t scream “future star.”
He played all 82 games. He shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range. He averaged double figures for the first time on a team with three primary offensive options ahead of him. He guarded myriad defensive assignments without complaint.
While Williams found a home with the second unit down the stretch of the season, it’s time for him to become a full-time starter and continue his upward trajectory. Williams is eligible for a contract extension this offseason, but his biggest news needs to be made on the court.
White solves the point guard position
With Ball possibly missing another full season and his career in jeopardy, re-signing White and having him handle starting point guard duties could have multiple positive effects on the roster.
It could keep one of the better 3-point shooters in the fold while also helping coach Billy Donovan play to his preferred, up-tempo style. Asked about his confidence in White as a starter the day after their play-in loss to the Miami Heat, Donovan said the following:
“He's a lot more equipped, I'd say, today to be maybe in that role than he was a few years ago. So I've got a lot of confidence in Coby and just the way he's gotten better. And he deserves all the credit. He’s the one who put all the work in.”
White has improved his ballhandling and decision-making while still possessing the ability to finish at the rim. He also grew defensively last season.
The Bulls absolutely must increase their 3-point attempts next season. Keeping White, and keeping him on the court more, will help.
The “Big 3” plays better offensively
Individually, LaVIne, DeRozan and Vucevic all had solid seasons. But in their league-leading 1,642 shared minutes together, they produced an offensive rating of just 111.3.
These numbers, plus the fact the Bulls missed the playoffs, certainly could suggest that this three-man core has a non-championship ceiling. But if the Bulls return it, the coaching staff and players must figure out a way to unlock its collective rather than individual power.