The schedule is set, and somehow, someway, it appears the NBA is back after what will have been a four-and-a-month long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bulls, though, are decidedly not. As you surely know, they were left out of the league’s 22-team restart plan housed at Disney World.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons for Bulls fans to tune into the eight remaining seeding games and ensuing 16-team playoff that will kick off July 30 and run through mid-October.
Here’s a rundown of some Bulls-related angles to keep hip to during the season restart:
Ex-Bulls go ring chasing
Two prominent former Bulls find themselves in pole position for shots at a first NBA title this season: Joakim Noah with the Los Angeles Clippers and Kyle Korver with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Noah has yet to appear in a game for the Clips this season, as he officially inked a 10-day deal with the team (which has since been extended through the end of the season) just two days before play was suspended. But his journey to this point is quite a story. After a resurgent campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19, Noah, in a freak accident, sliced his achilles while trying to move an ice tub; though he didn’t rupture it, it took six months to rehab.
It’s unclear how much of the on-court ability he showed in Memphis will still be there when the time comes, but he slots in as the third-string center for the Clippers behind Ivica Zubac and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell — at the very least, Noah will bring heart, hustle and muscle, and a veteran presence. His late-career comeback bid — and quest for Ring No. 1 — adds a really fun wrinkle for Bulls fans grasping for ways to get emotionally invested in the restart. It’d be awesome to see Jo ascend the NBA’s mountaintop, even if not in Bulls red.
And regardless of how much Noah actually plays… Man, would a Western Conference finals that pitted his Clippers and LeBron James’ Lakers against one another bring back memories. The NBA is wasting no time giving us what we want in that respect:
NBA cutting right to the chase. LeBron James vs. Joakim Noah — er, Lakers vs. Clippers will tip off July 30 at 8 p.m. CT. Jazz-Pelicans earlier that night— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) June 26, 2020
Korver, meanwhile, has bounced from contender to contender seemingly his entire career, but he now finds him situated with about as prime a chance at a chip as in any of his 17 seasons in the league. The Bucks own the best record in the NBA (53-12) entering play and all-time statistical credentials; off the pine, Korver appeared in 50 games for Milwaukee before the pause, averaged 16.7 minutes per game and hit 41.5% of his 3-pointers on 4.1 attempts per contest. He’ll be instrumental to any run the Bucks make.
As of this writing, old pals Jerian Grant (Washington Wizards), D.J. Augustin (Magic), Justin Holiday (Pacers), Robin Lopez (Bucks) Rajon Rondo (Lakers) and, of course, Jimmy Butler (Heat, who are one step lower on the contender totem pole), are also set to enter the bubble. — Schaefer
Mid-level exception targets?
The Bulls are not projected to be major players in 2020 free agency when the window opens on Oct. 18. Once Otto Porter Jr. opts in — and it feels apt to talk about that decision in such certain terms — to his roughly $28.5 million player option, the Bulls can expect to be well over the cap (wherever it lands), especially with decisions on restricted free agents Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Shaq Harrison looming, and a likely top-10 draft choice on the way.
In here: Otto Porter Jr.’s player option deadline is Oct. 17; Lauri Markkanen becomes rookie-extension eligible Oct. 18; Zach LaVine/OPJ/Felicio are veteran-extension eligible Oct. 18 https://t.co/3FDQvGiGMy— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) June 26, 2020
So, the new management regime will be working the margins this offseason. That likely means using the non-taxpayer (assuming the cap doesn’t fall so far the Bulls leap over that line) mid-level exception to try and upgrade on the outer edges of the roster. Last offseason, the non-taxpayer MLE broke out to about $9.3 million. This year, it’s anyone’s guess due to the uncertainty surrounding the league’s revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and other factors we’ll get to in a moment.
Whatever that final figure ends up being, it’ll be role player territory — ideally on the wing. In his latest mailbag, K.C. tossed out some names that could be in the Bulls wheelhouse with that exception. Of that handful that are on bubble-team rosters: Jae Crowder (Heat), Wes Matthews (Bucks; player option), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Lakers; player option), Glenn Robinson III (76ers) and Alec Burks (76ers). Speaking speculatively, some others that could be worth keeping on the radar: Stanley Johnson (Raptors; player option), Justin Holiday (Pacers), Marvin Williams (Bucks), Kent Bazemore (Kings).
None of this is nothing worth writing home about yet, but it’s worth keeping half an eye on. — Schaefer
Potential 2021 free agency ramifications
The Bulls are projected to have significant cap space for a stellar free-agent class in 2021. But there remains much unknown regarding the salary cap, which faced potential stresses even before the pandemic because of a loss of revenue from China in the fallout from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s comments about Hong Kong last fall.
If this restart doesn’t crown a champion, well, there’s no telling what can happen to the league’s books — and the Bulls’ and other teams’ free agency plans. It’s possible, if not likely, the league would move to void the current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association.
Barring a trade, 2021 free agency marks the next best opportunity for the new management team of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley to significantly upgrade the roster. It’s a deep class.
So maximizing whatever revenue is possible for the remainder of the 2019-20 season thanks to TV contracts is important for the league’s bottom line.
There is talk that the league will keep the salary cap at around the $109 million it stands this season. That’s $6 million less than current projections, but still would place the Bulls as potential major players in free agency.
If this restart doesn’t reach the finish line, all bets are off. — Johnson