Bulls NBA Trade Deadline Primer: Buy or sell, cap space implications

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Rob Schaefer
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Bulls Trade Deadline Primer: Who will stay and who could go? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

After a 23-point collapse against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, the Bulls sit at 18-21 (2-3 since the All-Star break) and ninth in the Eastern Conference -- two games out of fifth and 1.5 out of 11th, the last spot out of the play-in.

One week remains until the March 25 trade deadline. In that span, the Bulls face the Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers. That's two of the West's best embedded in there, and the Bulls enter Thursday 4-15 against teams currently at or above .500.

“Everything always seems to go up until the last day,” Billy Donovan said. “I think Artūras (Karnišovas)  has been on the phone, taking phone calls, just like everybody else in this league, doing his job.”

With trade winds looming around the league, here’s a primer of where the Bulls stand:

Candidates

Should the Bulls sell, Thad Young would certainly be the team’s most enticing, non-Zach LaVine player to opposing teams. Young is shooting a career-high percentage from the field (60.1%) while averaging a career-high 4.4 assists in a refurbished role and brings versatility, knowhow and veteranship that could help multiple contenders. Plus, he’s under contract for next season (at $14.2 million, but with a partial guarantee of $6 million).

Tomáš Satoranský -- who has been productive in his minutes, revived his shooting and owns a partial guarantee next season -- and Garrett Temple also profile as productive veterans. 

The snag: Donovan’s recent change to insert Young and Satoranský into the starting lineup for Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White telegraphed both a desire to maximize the current roster, and a perception that Young and Satoranský are essential to the team’s competitiveness. Temple has missed the last three games with an ankle sprain, but has also been a linchpin in some of the Bulls’ best lineups.

"It showed to me that we’re definitely trying to win," LaVine said of the starting lineup change.

Impending Free Agents

Lauri Markkanen looms largest here. After his side and the Bulls failed to reach agreement on an extension of his rookie-scale contract last offseason, he’s set for restricted free agency this summer, where the Bulls will be able to match any offer sheet he signs.

  • The good: Markkanen is currently averaging a career-best 18.7 points on 50.4 percent shooting, plus a high volume 40.8 percent from 3-point range. Karnišovas and Billy Donovan have publicly praised Markkanen at every turn. In the offseason, Karnišovas said “we would like him (Markkanen) to be part of this organization for a long time” and on March 1 said that, when healthy, Markkanen was meeting preseason expectations.

  • The uncertain: Karnišovas said that first bit before the two sides landed $4 million apart (annually) on an extension. And while Donovan has challenged Markkanen to affect the game in ways other than shooting, he’s averaging 5.9 rebounds (career-low), 2.9 free-throw attempts (second to career-low) and 0.9 assists (career-low) per game. 139 of Markkanen's 250 shot attempts this season (55.6%) have been catch-and-shoot 3s.

So his case will be interesting. There’s no indication Markkanen could be on the move, but once the deadline passes, the Bulls will be locked in to extending, matching or letting him walk for nothing.

Otto Porter Jr. is also playing out the last season of his max contract with a salary of $28.5 million. That’s difficult for most teams to match without the Bulls taking on salary beyond this season, and Karnišovas has said they value future cap space. Plus, Porter isn’t reliable from an availability perspective, having missed 18 of the team's 39 games already this season.

What if they… Buy?

There hasn’t been much smoke in the rumor mill on this front lately, but Donovan and Karnišovas clearly value winning, and have both referenced an emphasis on making the players in their building better. 

So adding to the roster can't be completely ruled out of the equation. The Bulls own all their first round picks moving forward, plus a stable of young players including Markkanen, White, and Carter -- though their values are nebulous.

The case for selling would center on a belief that this roster is in need of mass overhaul -- the new starting unit flubbed its first legitimate test against San Antonio -- and the priority should be stacking future assets. The case for buying: The Bulls are on the precipice of a play-in or lower-wrung playoff run, which could foster development and satisfy LaVine, who is ready to win now and is again extension-eligible this offseason.

The case for standing pat: Hope you can have your cake and eat it too with Option No. 2 while not actively sacrificing long-term assets. This organization remains in dire need of those, given how much the young core has sputtered while playing together this season.

Soon, we’ll know where Karnišovas and Co. fall on that decision-making spectrum.

Keep an eye on the books

The Bulls have a high variance of cap space outcomes this offseason depending on the resolution of Markkanen, Young and Satoranský’s situations, and where their first-round pick falls. They can be anywhere from middling to flush with room.

One pressing matter, with LaVine’s current contract expiring after the 2021-22 season, is figuring out his long-term fit with the franchise. As posited by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, the Bulls can adjust and extend LaVine’s current contract to four years, $151.7 million (with a starting salary of $33.7 million) this offseason, but they would need at least $14.2 million in cap space to do it. 

Committing to winning down the stretch of this season would undoubtedly help make the case for LaVine to stick around. He’s taken a massive leap in scoring efficiency this season, and added steps forward as a playmaker and defender. He also just turned 26 in March.

Other considerations

Playing this season on a qualifying offer, Denzel Valentine owns a no-trade clause. 

Carter is eligible to extend his rookie-scale contract after this season. 

Markkanen met the starter criteria with Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs, making his qualifying offer this offseason $9 million, and his cap hold $20.2 million.

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