In the 22 years since Michael Jordan's Bulls were tragically dismantled by Jerry "Crumbs" Krause, the team has missed the playoffs 11 times and, only once, advanced as far as the Eastern Conference Finals. An organization that used to represent the gold standard in the NBA, quickly became defined by ineptitude in the front office which, consequently, led to a subpar product on the court. The mighty had not just fallen, they had crashed to the ground in a fiery wreck.
In 2008, things began to take a turn for the better when, despite the Bulls having the worst odds to receive the first pick in the draft, their ping pong ball miraculously emerged and the team used their good fortune to select Derrick Rose, the hometown hero destined for superstardom. In retrospect, Bulls fans would come to understand, while Rose provided countless thrills with his freakish athleticism and brought respectability back to the organization, ultimately his tenure simply represented more heartbreak.
Now, we find ourselves allowing for optimism once more. In 2020, the not-so-dynamic duo, commonly known as GarPax, was finally disbanded after years of poor draft picks and free-agent miscalculations. In their place, we find Artūras Karnišovas (Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations), and Mark Eversley (General Manager). Karnisovas is lauded for his part in resurrecting the Denver Nuggets while Eversley, the first person of color to serve as GM for the Bulls, comes from the Bryan Colangelo executive tree.
To this point, Karnisovas and Eversley have done a fine job cleaning up the mess left behind by their predecessors. Their first decision came in June when they drafted Patrick Williams with the fourth overall pick. At 19 years old, Williams was, and still is, the youngest player in the league and, despite being considered unpolished by many draft pundits, Karnisovas and Eversley were able to look past that to see his untapped potential. Recently, Williams has been compared to Kawhi Leonard for both his game and demeanor. If his play of late is any indication, that's not so farfetched.
Two months later, the Bulls fired head coach Jim Boylen and signed Billy Donovan to be his replacement. Hiring Donovan, known for his ability to develop young players, was an enormous step in the right direction for an organization looking to build towards prolonged and sustainable success. The difference between Boylen and Donovan has been night and day. The players now demand more of themselves and the Bulls expect to win. While the team's maturation process still has a ways to go (Wednesday night served as proof), their arrow is finally pointing up.
Which leads us to how Karnisovas and Eversley can transform the Bulls into contenders for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Here's the good news; the team will have a ton of cap space this offseason when the contracts of Garrett Temple, Denzel Valentine, Luke Kornet, Cristiano Feliciano, and Otto Porter Jr. come off the books. Here's the bad news; the 2021 crop of free agents is especially thin, even more so if you're in the market for a big (see graphics below). Just because you have money, doesn't mean you should spend it.
What do you do when you have the finances to improve but it doesn't make sense to splurge on free agents?
First, you extend your own stars. Internally, the most pressing decision will be Lauri Markkanen who's scheduled to be a restricted free agent this offseason. Markkanen is very athletic for his size and has an extremely unique skillset as a 7-footer. His ability to play away from the basket and stretch the defense makes him a nightmare matchup on most nights. This year, he's averaging 19 points per game on 51% shooting from the field and 42% from downtown. The problem isn’t what he can do on the court, it’s his inability to stay on it. As of today, since being drafted in 2017, Markkanen has only played in 189 out of 267 games due to injury. The question becomes, what does a supremely talented, yet oft-injured player fetch on the open market?
When you look at the contracts of players with similar production, an educated guess would be four years, $130 million. Given his age and ability, it's safe to say other teams will have interest in signing Markkanen, who now becomes the defining x-factor in the Bulls' long-term plans. Assuming the team does right by Zach LaVine (which we'll discuss below), if the Bulls opt to re-sign Markkanen, they'd be dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold, essentially eliminating any chance to make a splash in the extremely deep 2022 pool of free agents. But if they don't re-sign him and then strike out in free agency, they've let a promising young talent walk with nothing to show for it.
The best plan of action for Markkanen would be to let him become a restricted free agent and wait to see what other teams are willing to pay. The Bulls could then match his offer sheet and, if they're confident in their ability to acquire a big name in 2022, work out a sign-and-trade deal in exchange for draft picks. This way, the team can hedge their bets and eliminate the possibility of coming away empty-handed. For many, it would be painful to see Markkanen go but this organization has, in large part, been defined in the past by their propensity to play it safe. And here’s another benefit to the Bulls deciding to part with Markkanen; by freeing up the PF spot in the starting lineup, Williams’ development is allowed to continue without hindrance.
Then, as previously mentioned, there's Zach LaVine who's set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Sure, the Bulls could hold off on addressing the situation until his contract is finished, but he’s playing at an elite level and he’s earned the right to receive an extension now in good faith. There isn't much to think about here, financially speaking. The maximum the Bulls could offer LaVine is four years, $152 million and they'd be foolish to give him anything less. Luckily, we’ve seen nothing to indicate otherwise, in fact, dating back to June of 2020, Karnisovas was reportedly consulting LaVine before making decisions. It certainly sounds like the Bulls plan on keeping him in Chicago for the foreseeable future.
But, as important as is it is for the team to reward the face of their franchise, the front office can't stop there. For better or worse, depending on which side of the fence you sit on, the modern-day NBA is a "Big Three" league. As it stands, the Bulls have one of three necessary pieces needed to win a title, LaVine. Williams could potentially develop into piece number two but he's still a teenager and it's going to take time. Therefore, since free agency in 2021 won't produce what the team needs, they're going to have to look outside the organization to orchestrate a deal.
A big name who has been linked to the Bulls in trade rumors this year is Nikola Vucevic. The Orlando Magic currently sit at 13-26 with the fourth-worst record in the league and could be looking to shake things up. Vucevic would immediately give LaVine the most talented teammate he's had since being sent to Chicago but, considering he's under contract until 2023, the Magic will undoubtedly have a hefty price tag attached to their star center. What it would take to acquire Vucevic, however, remains unknown because, as of now, there are no ongoing negotiations, at least none which have been publicly reported. So, here’s my offer to Orlando:
C - Nikola Vucevic
C - Wendell Carter Jr.
PG - Markelle Fultz (Expiring Contract)
PG - Coby White
SG - Evan Fournier (Expiring Contract)
SF - Thaddeus Young
C - Khem Birch (Expiring Contract)
SF - Otto Porter Jr. (Expiring Contract)
C - Cristiano Feliciano (Expiring Contract)
Bulls 2021 First Round Pick
One of the major hurdles of any trade is making sure both teams can absorb the incoming finances. In this case, the Bulls and Magic nearly break even (see graphic below). Furthermore, the expiring contracts on both sides represent tremendous value. The Magic would be in line to save $36,018,259 when Porter Jr. and Felicio come off the books while the Bulls would save $32,378,597 by allowing Fournier, Fultz, and Birch to hit the open market. Opting to let Temple, Valentine, and Kornet walk would save an additional $11,659,800 which brings their total to $44,038,397.
In terms of personnel, Orlando receives two young players who have yet to fulfill their full potential in Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White. They also get veteran Thaddeus Young, who's not only having arguably the best season of his 14-year career, but is also invaluable as a leader and proverbial "locker room guy". By all accounts, Aaron Gordon isn't happy with the Magic and has reportedly said he's open to a change of scenery. Perhaps Young's presence can soothe tensions between Gordon and Orlando. In addition, the Magic now have two first-round picks in a draft considered to be far superior to last year's.
In Vucevic, the Bulls receive a bonafide superstar and one of the top bigs in the game. By making this trade, they suddenly find themselves only one piece away from their own Big Three. Fournier has played very well this year to the tune of 18.5/3.8/3.1 and can fill in at both the SG and SF positions. Fultz has yet to live up to the promise that prompted Philadelphia to move up in the draft to select him but he's produced a respectable line of 12.9/3.1/5.4 this year with the Magic. He would provide depth off the bench for Tomas Santoransky who would take over starting duties with White in Orlando. Birch is simply a throw-in who plays similar to Daniel Gafford; not much offense but a great rebounder and defender. And, by trading Markkanen, as discussed previously, the team could potentially recoup the draft pick they just gave Orlando.
If this trade were to go down, here's how the Bulls depth chart would look for the rest of this season:
Which brings us to the final piece of our championship puzzle; reeling in a major free agent from the loaded class of 2022 (see graphic below). One name that stands out from crowd, especially when considering age, is Bradley Beal. But he won't come cheap. Beal is eligible for a max contract, equaling 35% of the 2022 cap ($112 million), meaning he'll command $161.96 million over four years. Assuming the Bulls ultimately decide to let go of Markkanen, they'd have the necessary cap space to absorb Beal's contract and create a potent Big Three with LaVine and Vucevic. It's important to note that Beal has a player option and could decide to stay in Washington, but he's made it clear he wants to win and it doesn't appear the Wizards are close to doing so. Playing with LaVine and Vucevic would present Beal with the opportunity he's been clamoring for.
After all of this, believe it or not, the team would still be in good shape financially. The 2022 salaries of LaVine, Beal, Vucivec, and Williams would account for $110,912,000 combined, leaving the Bulls with $25,688,000 left to fill out the roster, something which wouldn't be hard to do seeing as how free agents would be lining up for a chance to win a ring in Chicago. With the remaining funds, the Bulls could easily add a few impactful veterans to their bench and, just as importantly, plan for the future. Because let’s not forget, if Williams continues to develop at this rate, he’ll certainly command top dollar in 2025 when he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent. By that time, the Bulls will have some important decisions to make, as Beal and LaVine will have one year left on their deals. The latter will be 29 and, barring injury, in line for his second consecutive max contract while Beal will be 33 and looking to secure one final long-term agreement.
In addition, if the Bulls decide to extend Vucevic’s current deal, which expires in 2023, the terms will certainly be higher than the four-year, $100 million contract he’s currently honoring. This adds another element to take into account in regards to future budgets. Something working in the Bulls’ favor? The salary cap and luxury tax threshold are set to increase incrementally from 2021 until 2024, a plan set forth by the league to offset losses due to the pandemic. It’s a safe assumption that in 2025 and 2026, when the Bulls would need to be big spenders once more, those figures would jump even higher. Here’s what the league has laid out for the next three years:
2021-2022: $112 million cap, $136.6 million luxury tax threshold
2022-2023: $115.7 million cap, $140 million luxury tax threshold
2023-2024: $119.2 million cap, $144.9 million luxury tax threshold
As you can see, the conditions are appropriately ripe for the Bulls to pounce and, in the next two years, go from a team described as “up-and-coming" to one the league genuinely fears. Will it happen? If you're a person who plays the odds, probably not. I'll be the first to admit that. And, if it does, the players coming and going could be very different than the ones mentioned above. Is it realistically possible? Absolutely. It's not a simple process and it won't be easy but we, as Bulls fans, can take solace in the fact the front office finally has the right men for the job. It's time to see what they're made of.