Bulls

NBA Free Agency: How Bulls may handle Kris Dunn, other restricted free agents

NBA Free Agency: How Bulls may handle Kris Dunn, other restricted free agents

As travel and game schedules come into focus for the NBA’s Disney bubble, the Bulls remain on the outside looking in.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t items on the agenda. Though in the distant future, it’s never too early for the team’s new front office regime to begin planning for the NBA draft, scheduled for Oct. 16 with the Bulls likely to own a top-10 selection, and free agency, set to open two days later.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hurdled into limbo everything we know about the current CBA, the Bulls weren’t likely to be big players in this free agency period. Should Otto Porter Jr. opt in to his roughly $28.5 million player option, the team was projected to be over the cap before the offseason carousel even began.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

Still, decisions loom on restricted free agents Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Shaq Harrison. Here’s a rundown of the case for and against retaining each, along with a purely speculative prediction of how their free agencies will play out:

Kris Dunn (Qualifying Offer: $7.1 million)

The case for: Dunn transformed himself into a useful NBA player this season, albeit on just one end on the floor. By the tape, he’s an incredibly versatile defender, capable of suffocating perimeter threats of all shapes, sizes and shiftiness. Playing just 24.9 minutes per contest, he still stands second in the NBA in steals per game (2.0), seventh in steal rate (34.1%, min. 1,000 minutes) and fourth in deflections per game (3.7). That havoc-wreaking nature is one of the only two reasons the Bulls’ aggressive, trapping defensive schemes were viable (along with Wendell Carter Jr.), as evidenced by the following splits:

  • Nov. 29 - Jan. 6*: 103.9 DRating (2nd in NBA); W/L: 7-11

  • Jan. 7 - Jan. 30**: 109.9 DRating (13th); W/L: 6-7

  • Jan. 31 - March 11: 116.5 DRating (29th); W/L: 3-12

  • For the season, the Bulls held opponents to 103.6 points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the floor (a DRating that would rank second in the NBA) and 110.4 points per 100 possessions with him off (would rank 18th)

*Dunn slid into the Bulls’ starting lineup on Nov. 29 with injuries to Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison. Carter sprained his ankle in the third quarter of a game vs. the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 6, missed nearly eight weeks

**Dunn sprained his MCL in the opening seconds of a game vs. the Brooklyn Nets, missed rest of season

There’s some strength of schedule and roster context noise in there, but the point stands: he’s impactful.

Does he make sense as part of the Bulls’ long-term plans? We’ll get to that in the next section. But Dunn’s 2020-21 qualifying offer being bumped from $4.6 million to $7.1 million by way of a coronavirus-induced salary cap modification could create a best of both worlds scenario. This year’s free agency market didn’t have many cap-space-flush teams before the pandemic threw everything into flux. Coming off an MCL sprain, Dunn securing north of his current probable market value for one year and getting a chance to re-establish himself to possible suitors could be worth eschewing long-term security for the time being (if that long-term deal was even out there to begin with). For the Bulls, already projected to be an over-the-cap team, shelling out an additional $2.5 million for Dunn is all but a blip on the radar, and in a defensive specialist role, he could prove useful.

The case against: This isn’t complicated: Dunn’s shooting, as it stands now, is untenable for this team. In 2019-20, he regressed even from a career 32.3% mark from 3-point range, hitting just 25.9% of his looks from distance (2.2 attempts per game). On NBA.com-defined “wide open” 3s, that figure dips to 24.1%. Sure, he was instrumental to the Bulls forcing a league-leading 18.3 turnovers per game, and a league-leading (by a chasm) 19.8% of the Bulls’ points this season came off cough-ups. But smart teams regularly left him unguarded in the halfcourt. The Bulls’ offense has enough problems without further cluttering driving and passing lanes, and for all the defensive metrics I could swirl, none of them led to meaningful progression in the win column.

And, on top of it all, Dunn turned 26 in March. At this stage of the Bulls’ rebuild, it probably doesn’t make sense to even marginally muck up the long-term books on a player with his offensive limitations — perhaps not even next year’s, alone. Without yet knowing the full scale of the coronavirus’ impact on the cap, it’s plausible that that $2.5 million disparity is a more significant bump than it seems now. Before addressing their RFAs, impending lottery pick and (non-taxpayer) mid-level exception, the Bulls already have $106,027,707 committed for 2020-21. The luxury tax line last season fell at roughly $133 million. How far might that drop when all is said and done? It’s impossible to say. The point is, how the hiatus impacts higher-ups’ financial calculations around the league moving forward remains to be seen. Plus, should Dunn play next year on the QO, he would have the right to veto any trade he’s included in, which negates the argument of trying to recoup value for him on the trade market.

Prediction: Dunn plays out 2020-21 on the qualifying offer, but no long-term pact is reached

(Last note on Dunn: Ryan Borja brought up an interesting point on Twitter the other day… What if the Bulls withheld the qualifying offer, instead opting to try to negotiate a one-year deal with Dunn at a lower price? It’d be a gamble, but with relatively no risk from the Bulls’ side — aside from possibly perturbing Dunn’s camp — for the reasons enumerated above, and Shaq Harrison-related ones we’ll get to in a second. We don’t have enough of a track record from the new regime to know if this is a stunt they’d pull, but something to consider.)

Denzel Valentine (Qualifying offer: $4.6 million)

The case for: When Valentine is engaged and afforded the opportunity, he’s a brand of player the Bulls should have use for. A 36.6% career 3-point shooter (4.2 attempts per), he canned 39.7% of his “wide open” long-range looks this season (third to only Ryan Arcidiacono and Zach LaVine on the team of players who took more than one per game), and he’s the second-best passer on the team by a country mile. Those qualities on their own should be enough for a bench role in the Bulls’ self-professed read-and-react, 3-pointer heavy offense.

The case against: That role never consistently materialized under Jim Boylen, even amid widespread injuries, when Valentine returned from an ankle operation that cost him all of 2018-19, and it’s not clear exactly why. Most likely, the rationale was a smorgasbord of suspect defense and bouts of bad shot selection. Regardless, if there wasn’t a steady rotation spot for him this year, I don’t see why that would emerge moving forward, especially as the new front office regime looks to put their stamp on this roster. Still, Valentine remains talented; perhaps he’s a fresh start away from carving out an NBA niche.

Prediction: The Bulls don’t extend the qualifying offer, and Valentine plays elsewhere next season

Shaq Harrison (Qualifying Offer: $1.7 million)

The case for: That qualifying offer is so paltry, it wouldn’t really make sense not to extend it. Harrison isn’t going to swing the Bulls’ long-term fates by any stretch, but as an end-of-the-bench energy guy, there aren’t many with a better attitude in the league. He lives in passing lanes — Shaq’s 1.5 deflections per game translates to 4.9 per 36 minutes — willingly (and capably) takes on tough on-ball assignments, and even showed some improvement on his jumper in the run-up to the pause, hitting 44.4% of his 3s (1.8 attempts) in the 15 games he played following Dunn’s season-ending injury. And if Dunn walks, Harrison could replace a modicum of his defensive intensity at both a fraction of the price and none of the risk.

The case against: Hogwash to your deflection harping, cherry-picked 3-point numbers and cliche coach-speak. Harrison is solid for what he is, but if the Bulls are to push into a new era, investing a roster spot in him would be only a holdover until a better option emerges. 

Prediction: Harrison returns on the qualifying offer in a fraught cap environment — though if he did reel in a multi-year offer sheet, the Bulls decline to match

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BULLS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BULLS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BULLS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.