While it might seem like the Chicago Bulls haven’t been to the playoffs in quite a while, it’s actually only been two seasons. But those two seasons have been long ones, as the Bulls have turned in two of the worst records in franchise history. For a team that had made the playoffs in 11 out of 13 years before this downturn, it has been a difficult transition. The good news is that Chicago doesn’t seem all that far away from turning things around.
Through a series of trades, paired with some solid draft picks, the Bulls have a nice core to build around. When Chicago traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, they netted a pretty solid return in Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls matched an offer sheet from the Sacramento Kings for LaVine in the summer of 2018. It seemed somewhat questionable at the time due to the contract averaging $19.5 million per season, but LaVine paid back that faith by turning in the best season of his career. When healthy, he gives Chicago a playmaking, scoring guard, which is always something in demand around the league.
LaVine’s backcourt mate has had a rougher go of it. Dunn hasn’t been able to stay healthy in two seasons with Chicago, and hasn’t developed his offensive game as much as was hoped for. He remains a poor shooter and only average as a playmaker. Dunn’s defense was supposed to be NBA-ready, but he’s also slipped on that end. For a roster that has players in place at several rotation spots, Dunn’s lack of development leaves a question at the point guard spot.
Two of the players filling rotation spots are young big men Markkanen and 2018 first round pick Wendell Carter Jr. Those two are the building blocks the franchise is constructing the roster around. Unfortunately, due to injuries for both players, Markkanen and Carter were limited to just 436 minutes together over 21 games last season. Given a primary objective for Chicago was seeing how the two bigs fit together, this was definitely a missed opportunity.
Missed opportunities due to injuries was sort of a theme for what became a wasted season. Only guards Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison and center Robin Lopez appeared in as many as 70 games for the Bulls. Denzel Valentine, once thought to be a rotation wing and potential starter, missed the season. LaVine was limited to 63 games, Markkanen 52, Dunn 46 and Carter 44. Those four players make up the core of Chicago’s rebuild and they only tallied 191 minutes together over 12 games. Better health for those four in 19-20 will go a long way towards more success for the Bulls and a better understanding of exactly what they have.
Noticeably absent in that grouping was a true small forward, but Chicago punted on some 2019 cap space to acquire their small forward of the present and future at the trade deadline when they acquired Otto Porter Jr. from the Washington Wizards. Porter only played in 15 games with the Bulls, but they were 15 good ones as he shot 48.8% from behind the arc, while scoring 17.5 points per game.
With Porter essentially being Chicago’s first big offseason acquisition, the Bulls can turn their attention to filling out the rest of the roster. While not a roster move, John Paxson and Gar Forman made their first significant signing of the summer by signing Jim Boylen to a multi-year contract to remain head coach of the Bulls. Boylen replaced Fred Hoiberg during the 18-19 season and had mixed results. While some didn’t care for his old school nature that involved long practices, lots of running and repetitive drilling, the Bulls brass appreciated his ability to connect and get some positive results from a young roster.
Now the Bulls hit the offseason with a high draft pick and a projected $22 million in cap space (this figure assumes the NBA will approve the Bulls petition to have $3 million in dead money removed from the cap due to Omer Asik’s career-ending injury). Pre-lottery, the Bulls are sitting in the fourth draft slot. They’d love to move up enough in the lottery to be in position for a shot at point guard Ja Morant. Due to Dunn’s lack of development, point guard is the one position where Chicago doesn’t have a player that you feel good about growing with the rest of the roster. Morant would be that player for the Bulls. He’s not a great shooter, but there is enough shooting already in place. Morant would excel at breaking down the defense and finding teammates spaced around the arc. He’s also competitive enough defensively, with a good frame, that Boylen would likely feel comfortable plugging him from day one.
After the draft, Chicago has more than enough cap space to fill out the rest of the roster. Some of that could go towards retaining Ryan Arcidiacono. He’s become a favorite of Boylen’s and fits in well as a backup point guard. The team could also look to re-sign Wayne Selden, who has some potential as a backup wing. The rest of the free agents, including veteran center Robin Lopez, will likely be let go in favor of cap space.
Expect Chicago to focus on filling out the rest of the rotation with veterans. If they can’t get in position to draft Morant, the Bulls should look to add an experience point guard to both mentor and push Dunn. Players like Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley or Cory Joseph fit this bill. If Chicago wants to make a bigger splash, while also hurting a division rival, they could extend an offer sheet to Malcolm Brogdon, who is scheduled to be a restricted free agent with the Milwaukee Bucks. Given the rising cost of the Bucks roster, the Bulls could craft a big enough offer to make Milwaukee swallow hard while deciding to match or not.
The Bulls could also use a veteran backup big man. Lopez is probably out of the picture due to both cost and circumstance, but he’ll need to be replaced. Ideally, Chicago will add someone who can swing between the two big spots and play alongside either Markkanen or Carter in two-big lineups. Players like JaMychal Green, Anthony Tolliver or Frank Kaminsky make sense in this type of role.
This summer isn’t about adding a superstar talent, barring a top-tier point guard option becoming interested in Chicago. It’s about adding the right players to the mix and pushing the rebuild forward. If the Bulls do that, they might snap this mini-playoff drought quicker than most expect.
Guaranteed Contracts (9): Antonio Blakeney, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn, Cristiano Felicio, Chandler Hutchison, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Denzel Valentine
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Shaquille Harrison, Walt Lemon Jr.
Potential Free Agents (6): Rawle Alkins (RFA – Two-Way), Ryan Arcidiacono (RFA), Robin Lopez (UFA), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (UFA), Brandon Sampson (RFA – Two-Way), Wayne Selden (RFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($3 million): Omer Asik (Bulls have applied for an exclusion due to Asik having a career-ending injury)
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #4
Maximum Cap Space: $28.2 million
Projected Cap Space: $22.1 million