NBA Free Agency preview: 5 Bulls scenarios to improve roster

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NBA Free Agency preview: 5 Bulls scenarios to improve roster originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The NBA Draft is in the books, and now, eyes shift to free agency.

The Chicago Bulls should be particularly busy during the upcoming negotiation period, with multiple roster holes to fill, an impetus to win now and the potential to free up significant salary-cap flexibility.

Change appears more than likely to come. But in which areas? And with what approach will Artūras Karnišovas, Marc Eversley and company go about enacting it?

Let’s count down a couple potential scenarios, from most to least exciting.

(Three qualifiers...

One: None of the below considerations take into account 2021 second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu or 2020 second-round pick Marko Simonović. Both are expected to be on the 2021-22 roster, but it would make sense to officially sign them after the team’s bigger moves are made.

Two: All figures operate off the projected $112.4 million salary cap for the upcoming fiscal year and $925,000 rookie minimum salary for roster charges.

And three: The excitement level of a given scenario does not equate to likelihood — or prudence):

1. Clear as much space as possible to chase the biggest fish possible

Exhibit A: This route does not strike as likely or wise, but it’s still technically feasible, so let’s run through it quickly.

Without trades, the Bulls can clear an absolute maximum of $36.9 million in salary cap space this offseason if they — deep breath — renounce the cap holds of all their free agents (refresh yourself on those names here), decline Ryan Arcidiacono’s $3 million team option, waive-and-stretch Al-Farouq Aminu’s $10.2 million 2020-21 salary, and waive-then-stretch the partial guarantees of Thad Young ($6 million) and Tomáš Satoranský ($5 million). Arcidiacono's option deadline is Saturday, Young and Satoranský's on Sunday.

Those moves would leave the Bulls with five players on their roster — Zach LaVine, Nikola Vučević, Patrick Williams, Coby White and Troy Brown Jr. — entering free agency and about $7 million per year in dead money tied up over the next two years by way of the waive-and-stretches.

Those moves would also put them deep into the monetary area code of this year’s top-tier crop of veteran point guards in Chris Paul (should he opt out of his $44.2 million player option in search of a multi-year pay-day), Kyle Lowry or Mike Conley Jr., all of whom would help the Bulls tremendously.

But does that mean the Bulls would be able to pitch any of that trio on the basketball-related desirability of Chicago? No. And the cost is tremendous. So take this avenue, or anything closely resembling it, with a grain of salt, especially given the Bulls haven’t been even tangentially linked to Paul, Conley appears on his way back to Utah and Lowry reportedly has attractive suitors lining up.

(And, before you ask: If Kawhi Leonard, who recently underwent ACL surgery and could miss most of next season, were to decide to decline his $36 million player option and test the free-agent waters, that $36.9 million figure falls short of his maximum first-year salary on a new deal of $39.3 million.)

2. Clear a healthy amount of cap space to pursue a point guard upgrade

Now we’re settling into the realm of reality. While still painful in a few respects, the Bulls have a couple of realistic avenues to get into the low-to-mid-$20 million cap-space range.

The route there that is easiest to envision would involve renouncing all their free agents, declining Arcidiacono’s team option, waiving-and-stretching Aminu and waiving Satoranský, which would clear half of his $10 million 2021-22 salary off the books. 

Said moves would leave the Bulls with six players on the roster entering free agency and $25.7 million under the cap line to spend while allowing them to retain Young.

(Waiving Young on top of that would vacate another roster spot and get them to $33 million in room. Finding a trade for either him or Satoranský before Sunday’s deadline could potentially save the Bulls’ even more cash, and even net an asset or two. But it takes two to tango.)

Given the burgeoning buzz that the Bulls are prioritizing a point guard upgrade this offseason, the first names that come to mind that could theoretically fall in that salary range are Lonzo Ball, Dennis Schröder and Spencer Dinwiddie, each of whom the Bulls could offer a four-year contract. 

Each of those three would be substantial back court upgrades in their own way. 

Ball, 23, is the youngest of the bunch, a creative playmaker, has improved his jump-shot in a seemingly-sustainable way, is an instinctual team defender, and could help the team ratchet up its pace of play (which tanked after the Vučević acquisition). 

Schröder, 27, offers less upside and shooting, but is far more proven as a pick-and-roll playmaker and downhill driver in a half court setting, while being a pest defensively. 

Dinwiddie, 28, is coming off a partial ACL tear, but was a near-All-Star level shot-creator, with plus positional size, in his last full season with the Nets.

Ball, who the Bulls attempted to acquire at the trade deadline, is the name to watch. A restricted free agent this summer, the Pelicans will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs, so a full-fledged pursuit is a gamble. While the Pelicans’ recent shedding of salary in a trade with the Grizzlies — reportedly done with a pursuit of Lowry in mind — has led to some questioning New Orleans’ appetite to retain Ball at a high number, anything can happen. The tidiest solution (for the Bulls) would be to rekindle old trade talks and pursue a sign-and-trade centered on Lauri Markkanen.

Also in this scenario (and any other in which the Bulls operate as an under the cap team): They would have access to the room exception — projected to be roughly $5 million this year — to bring in another free-agent name, albeit a marginal one, and for only up to two years.

3. Clear a healthy amount of cap space and look to improve the team in other ways

Say the Bulls decide to clear the above amount of room, but don’t see pursuits of those three point guards come to fruition. How else could they improve the roster?

Wing depth stands out as an area of need, but unfortunately, options aren’t plentiful in that department. Names that stand out below that mid-$20 million range, but could command more than the mid-level: DeMar DeRozan, Kelly Oubre and Reggie Bullock. But those are just speculative spit-balls.

Or, the Bulls could double up on two less-expensive free agents — one of the above wings (or an even lower profile name) and a point guard fallback option in the vein of Derrick Rose, Reggie Jackson or another. Then add a room exception level name.

4. Clear slightly less cap space and prioritize an extension for Zach LaVine

If the Bulls clear around $14 million in salary-cap space, they would have the ability to raise Zach LaVine’s $19.5 million salary for 2021-22 to his 30 percent max of $33.7 million, and extend him for multiple years after that.

The Bulls could get to a couple million north of that $14 million number (around $18 million) by renouncing free agents, declining Arcidiacono and waiving and stretching Aminu — without losing Young or Satoranský — among other combinations.

But, while locking in LaVine long-term now (and not allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency next summer) has value for a franchise that believed in building around him enough to trade the haul they did for Vučević, it would come at the expense of internal depth and external roster improvements, limiting them to just leftover cap space and the room exception to make free-agent additions.

This is a dynamic LaVine is aware of. In a recent interview with NBC Sports Chicago, LaVine projected confidence that a pact would eventually get done, and that it will compensate him in the manner he deserves, but purported to be flexible on the timing.

“Obviously, I want to be with the Bulls, and you don't want to implicate, you know, free agency, and I understand, like, the cap room that goes into it with a sizable extension with me,” he said. “So, I want the team to be good, but then I also want to be taken care of as well.”

5. Remain over the cap and look to improve the team with exceptions

We saved the least exciting possibility for last. In addition to all the above options, the Bulls may also choose to retain Bird rights on their free agents, stay over the salary-cap line, and use exceptions and/or the trade market to improve the roster.

That would allow them to exceed the salary cap to bring back names like Lauri Markkanen (for whom the Bulls would be able to match any offer sheet if they extend a qualifying offer and make him a restricted free agent), Daniel Theis, Garrett Temple or others. It would also afford them the non-taxpayer mid-level exception — which this year is projected to max at a first-year salary of up to $9.7 million — and bi-annual exception — projected $3.8 million — to use for outright free-agent signings. Mid-level contracts can run up to four years, bi-annual deals to two.

There should be a reasonable point guard market around the mid-level line: Rose, Jackson, TJ McConnell, Alex Caruso, Patty Mills and many others. Wing options include the above names, and possibly others such as Nic Batum, Doug McDermott and so on. Skewing toward youth or veteranship will represent another fork in the road.

Trades littering any of the above scenarios are also, of course, possible, but difficult to project, especially given the Bulls' limited asset base.

What isn’t is the urgency the Bulls have to immediately improve their playoff chances for next year. The options to pursue doing so are plentiful, but in some cases convoluted.

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