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.
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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