Bulls

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

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USA TODAY

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.