Bulls

Are Bulls facing a big-man dilemma?

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Are Bulls facing a big-man dilemma?

The reserve big-man duo of Omer Asik and power forward Taj Gibson closed out the game for the Bulls for the second consecutive evening, but although attention is newly focused on that trend, the pattern actually goes back to last season's playoffs, when Tom Thibodeau kept the young tandem in for the stretch runs of contests against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Thibodeau said all the right things afterward, reminding reporters that struggling starters Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer often carry the team, but it was telling that he listed how the quartet of big men bring different strengths to the table.

After praising the "lockdown defense" ability of Gibson and Asik, the coach talked about how some of his post players bring scoring, indicating Boozer's strong suit, while others bring defense before throwing in that some bring playmaking, a nod to Noah's unique ball-handling and passing, which is, at the present moment, his only advantage over his fellow big men, as he's struggled to score the ball this season. Boozer, though one wouldn't know it from his solid field-goal percentage, has also experienced scoring issues -- after coming into the season in top-notch physical condition, he again seemingly has difficulty finishing, due to a lack of explosiveness, and has regressed in terms of running the floor in transition -- making Gibson and Asik, both of whom continue to have increasing confidence on offense, particularly the latter, the logical choices to play crucial minutes, contracts aside, especially when one considers how much Thibodeau emphasizes the team establishing a defensive presence.

Noah took responsibility for his recent downturn in production and Boozer was diplomatic when questioned about his dwindling fourth-quarter playing time, and on a team with the chemistry of the Bulls, there's unlikely to be a rift, but the scrutiny placed upon the ongoing saga will only intensify, even as the team keeps winning. Keep in mind, however, shooting guard Rip Hamilton hasn't been healthy for much of the season and is still making an adjustment to his new squad, but in the limited time he's been on the court, his subtle play-making skills have directly benefited both Boozer and Noah.

At the same time, Noah's perceived regression on offense could fuel new-found rumors about the Bulls' willingness to engage Orlando in a potential deal to acquire Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard. Although Chicago didn't make his list of desired destinations, Magic general manager Otis Smith has a tough decision to make -- whether to trade Howard by the March 15 trade deadline or risk losing him in the offseason -- and the Bulls could have the right pieces to tempt him, as a more-than-serviceable center in Noah (it wouldn't hurt that fans of the University of Florida, where Noah won two national championships, would likely be less disappointed in losing Howard with the arrival of the former Gator), a top-five NBA small forward in Luol Deng (after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, is there a player at the position outright better than Deng, one of the league's best two-way talents?) and a young power forward in Gibson (paired with holdovers Glen Davis and Ryan Anderson, the Magic would have a solid frontline, even with Howard's departure) and a combination of the Bulls' coveted, currently-protected future first-round draft pick from Charlotte (acquired from the Bobcats in the Tyrus Thomas deal) and their own 2012 first-round pick, as well as potentially a role player like swingman Ronnie Brewer or the rights to 2011 draft choice Nikola Mirotic (though the Bulls are on high on the European prospect, who won't arrive in the NBA for at least another season or two, and ideally, wouldn't want to part with both him and Gibson), in exchange for Howard and possibly Hedo Turkoglu and his massive contract would have to at least intrigue him.

That said, the Bulls are a 10-2 team and with the current roster -- again, don't forget that Hamilton hasn't been at full strength -- appear poised to be one of the top-two teams in the Eastern Conference again, if not better. Furthermore, simply renting Howard for the remainder season and banking on a newly-constituted team finding instant chemistry, as well as the center wanting to return to Chicago, regardless of the results, is a calculated risk and perhaps one not worth it, considering the talent the Bulls would have to jettison to make it happen.

How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

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USA TODAY

How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

The Bulls will enter free agency with approximately $20 million in cap space. That’s far short of the amount needed to sign a max-salary player, but there is a path for the team to land a star — if one chooses to play in Chicago. With rumors out of Brooklyn that D’Angelo Russell would be on his way out if the Nets sign Kyrie Irving, coupled with the uncertain futures of both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Bulls fans are wondering “what if.” I’ll let much wiser people debate if the Bulls should extend an offer to any of these players; I’ll outline how it could happen.

In terms of this discussion, it’s very important to note that not all free agents are eligible for the same max salary. The league has three tiers of max free agents, broken up by years of service. Players with 0-6 years of service are in one tier, 7-9 years in another, and 10+ years of service in the last.

Players in the more experienced tiers can get a much larger contract over players coming off their rookie contracts. The wonderful Larry Coon explains this in detail in his CBA FAQ. The exact 2019-20 salary cap will be announced at the end of the month. It’s currently projected at $109 million, and for this scenario, we use that number. Essentially, tier 1 players can get 25 percent of the cap, tier 2 30 percent and players with 10+ years of experience can get 35 percent of a team’s cap.

Russell would fall into the 0-6 years tier, earning him a first year salary (the one that matters in terms of cap space) of approximately $27.2 million. Klay Thompson has eight seasons of experience and is eligible for a first-year salary of about $32.7 million. His teammate Kevin Durant can sign a max deal starting at $38 million.

Step 1- Get medical waiver on Omer Asik’s $3 million cap hit.

The Bulls will find out by June 30 if the league approves their waiver request on Asik. The former Bulls big has a $3 million cap hit of guaranteed money on the books for the 2019-20 season. The team waived Asik back in October and it looks like his NBA career may be over after dealing with arthritis and Crohn’s Disease. The NBA is likely to approve the Bulls request, and they’ll get that money back in cap space for free agency.

Step 2- Waive and stretch Cristiano Felicio

The league allows teams to waive players and stretch their contracts over several years to lessen the immediate cap hit a team takes. Felicio is owed approximately $15.7 million over the next two seasons. The stretch provision means teams can spread out the cap hit of a waived player twice the years remaining on the deal, plus one. This translates to a cap hit of approximately $3.1 million over the next fives years instead of the amount he’s owed. This means the Bulls would gain an additional $5 million in cap space this summer.

Accomplishing steps 1 and 2 will clear enough cap space for the Bulls to sign a 0-6 year free agent, so if Russell wants to play for the Bulls and the front office feels he’d be a good fit, it would only take these two steps to sign him. It gets more complicated for the more experienced free agents.

Step 3- Trade Kris Dunn for a 2nd round pick.

Dunn is owed $5.3 million for the 2019-20 season. Trading him for a second round pick would net the Bulls a cap saving of $4.4 million. The reason the Bulls don’t get to keep the full amount is that teams have to account for a roster spot against the cap when they go below 12 players. Trading Dunn would get them into the 7-9 years tier and allow them to sign Klay Thompson (or any of the other free agents at that tier).

Step 4A- Trade out of the first round of the 2019 draft

Here is where it gets a lot more difficult for the Bulls if they want to sign a 10+ year free agent. They have to clear about $5 million more in cap space. Let’s safely assume they aren’t going to trade Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter for pennies on the dollar just to clear cap space. Otto Porter’s contract makes him a very unlikely trade candidate as well. Trading the No. 7 pick for a future first nets them another $4.4 million, close enough to get to that max slot with other small moves.

The major flaw with this is the draft is June 20 and free agency starts 10 days later. You’re not going to get a commitment from any superstar worth this amount until June 30, so essentially this option is off the table.

Step 4B- Trade Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison for second round picks

This option is a lot more likely if the Bulls can sign a superstar in the 10+ years tier. Hutchison showed promise in his rookie season, and despite missing all of last season, Valentine should be able to get you something (especially if packaged with Hutchison). I doubt the team wants to punt on Hutchison after one season, but they'd have to, if this was the only thing in the way of signing a franchise changing star.

If you want to dream for the Bulls, our friends at NBC Sports Boston put together a list of the top free agents available. The likelihood is that the Bulls will use their cap space to sign a few veteran free agents to give them some much needed depth, but should they dream big, there is a path to be in play for a star.

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Bulls not a part of Anthony Davis-to-the-Lakers trade, but it could have an effect on the draft

Bulls not a part of Anthony Davis-to-the-Lakers trade, but it could have an effect on the draft

Farewell, Lonzo Ball-to-the-Bulls rumors.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Saturday evening that the Los Angeles Lakers have finally acquired Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, and the deal doesn't include a third team.

In exchange for Davis, a six-time All-Star about to enter his prime, the Pelicans recieved Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and three first round picks, including the No. 4 pick in next week's NBA Draft.

There was some speculation - also reported by Woj - that a third team would need to get involved in order to satisfy what Pelicans GM David Griffin was looking for in a package for Davis.

Though the Bulls were never directly connected in reports as a potential third team, it made sense considering they own the No. 7 pick and have a need at point guard.

There was also some speculation - though, again, never concrete news or reports - that Zach LaVine could have been an option in a deal, with the Bulls acquiring the No. 4 pick.

Alas, the Bulls aren't part of the deal. But it still may have an effect on them.

The Pelicans now own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in next week's draft. They're obviously going to take Duke forward Zion Williamson with the first pick but now have options at No. 4. Whereas the Lakers had been linked to Vanderbilt poing guard Darius Garland, the Pelicans really don't have a need there with Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.

That, in theory, could bump Garland down to No. 6 and the Phoenix Suns, which would then free up the Bulls to take North Carolina's Coby White at No. 7.

Wojnarowski also reported that teams are still inquiring about the No. 4 pick from the Pelicans. It's unlikely the Bulls would depart with LaVine though maybe they could put together some sort of package to move up from No. 7.

What's more likely is the Bulls keep their assets intact in such a weak draft class and move forward with the best player available on the board at No. 7.

But it's officially Woj Bomb season, so buckle up. As is the case every NBA offseason, anything can and will happen.