2017 grade: C-
Level of need: High
Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)
Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy
Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.
There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.
If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.
The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.
Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.
Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.
The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.
The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.
And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.
And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.
Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.
For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.
The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.
And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.
What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.
And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.
The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:
So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).
When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.