With the Bulls projected to have between $20 to $23 million dollars to spend when the free agent market opens for business at 5 p.m. on Sunday, the assumption had been the front office could add two or three quality veterans to the youngest team in the NBA. Problem is, with so many teams having serious cap space this summer, the price for second and third-tier free agents could be driven up higher than we’ve ever seen.
Take Chicago native Patrick Beverley for instance. He’s a defensive menace, solid 3-point shooter and great teammate, who brings a lot of value to any team he plays for. But he also has career averages of 9 points and 3.5 assists. Beverley made $5 million dollars last season for the Clippers and turns 31 years old next month. So, how much is he worth on the free agent market? NBA analysts and agents are predicting Beverley will be looking at a three or four-year deal averaging at least $10 million per season, which sounds crazy considering his career statistics. Given the fact Beverley is not a pure point guard, he’s probably not as high on the Bulls’ wish list as some have speculated.
Same story with other veteran point guards available on the free agent market like Ricky Rubio and Darren Collison.
The Bulls have an interest in Collison’s backup, Cory Joseph, who earned just under $8 million dollars last season. Joseph could be a starter with the Bulls while 19-year-old Coby White learns the ins and outs of the NBA game, but would he leave a playoff team in Indiana for a contract that averages less than $10 million dollars per season? Probably not. And, that’s the problem the Bulls and most non-playoff teams are facing this summer. They might have to seriously overpay to have a chance at adding players who can help them take a significant step forward next season.
Let’s say the Bulls get a positive ruling on Omer Asik’s career-ending medical condition and have his $3 million dollars for next season wiped off their cap. With $23 million to spend, can they really fit three veteran free agents into their budget?
With Kris Dunn’s future as a Bull uncertain, the assumption has been the front office will try to sign a veteran point guard in free agency. Let’s say that’s Joseph on a two or three-year contract averaging $10 million per season. That leaves $13 million to add a veteran big man and a 3-point shooter to come off the bench. The list of potential backups at the power forward and center spots includes Thaddeus Young, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Ed Davis, Kevon Looney, Dewayne Dedmon, Kenneth Faried, JaMychal Green, Jeff Green, Richaun Holmes, Nikola Mirotic, Jonas Jerebko, Dante Cunningham, and Mike Scott.
We’ve been hearing for weeks about mutual interest between the Bulls and Gibson on a Chicago return, but after making $14 million dollars in each of the last seasons, will Taj be willing to sign for less than $10 million annually? If he’s not, that also quickly eliminates several players off the list of available big men, with only Davis, Looney, Faried, the two Greens, Holmes, Jerebko and probably Scott in the Bulls’ price range.
Similar story at the wing shooter position where the Bulls could have an interest in players like Reggie Bullock, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Alec Burks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wayne Ellington, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Rodney Hood, Jeremy Lamb, Austin Rivers, and Garrett Temple. But most of those players will come with price tags too high for the Bulls to afford, with the exception of journeymen like Bullock, Burks, Ellington, and Temple.
Ellington could turn out to be a Bulls’ target after averaging 10.3 ppg for Miami and Detroit last season. The 11-year veteran is a career 38 percent shooter from 3-point range.
So, as we all look forward to the start of free agency on Sunday evening, remember $23 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. If you’re looking for a prediction, I’m thinking the Bulls will prioritize signing Joseph and Gibson in free agency and hope to add a shooter like Ellington with their room exception of just under $5 million dollars. That type of free agent spending won’t draw a lot of national attention, but it will accomplish John Paxson’s objective of adding quality, tough-minded veterans to his young roster.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Meanwhile, other teams around the league are preparing to start chasing the max level free agents on Sunday. Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker is reported to be high on the wish lists of the Celtics, Mavericks, and Lakers. Walker would have to sacrifice close to $50 million dollars by signing with a new team rather than agree to a five-year super max deal from the Hornets worth around $221 million. Walker told Charlotte-area reporters that he might be willing to take less than the full five-year max to help the Hornets improve their roster, but he’s also grown increasingly frustrated with the organization’s inability to make the playoffs consistently and might be ready to move elsewhere for a chance to win.
Boston is conducting business like a team that fully expects to lose free agent stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Danny Ainge made some not-so-cryptic comments to the local media that it’s easier to build a team around players willing to sacrifice for the good of the organization, a clear shot at Irving who reportedly already has his eyes on joining the Brooklyn Nets. Boston added an odd mix of players in last week’s draft, two small guards in Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, shooting guard Romeo Langford and hard-working forward Grant Williams. Don’t discount the ability of Brad Stevens to build a playoff team around the talents of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, but the Celtics’ expected run as the “Beast of the East” never materialized the way Ainge had hoped.
Irving would love to bring Kevin Durant with him wherever he goes, but it’s hard to imagine Durant tying his future to the mercurial Irving, who’s already burned bridges in Cleveland and Boston. Nets’ GM Sean Marks could be facing a difficult decision on Sunday, whether to commit to Irving without any assurances that Durant or another All-Star like Jimmy Butler will follow. Signing Irving will most likely mean saying goodbye to restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, who’s coming off an All-Star appearance in just his fourth NBA season. If the Nets aren’t able to add another impact player in free agency besides Irving, they might not be any better than the team that surprised most NBA analysts with their run to a sixth seed in the East this past season.
Over in Philadelphia, 76ers ownership has gone on record saying they’ll do whatever it takes to bring free agents Tobias Harris and Butler back on long term, max contracts. But with All-Star guard Ben Simmons looking at a max contract extension this summer, and All-Star center Joel Embiid already making max dollars, will the Sixers be willing to go that deep into the luxury tax for a chance to win a championship in the next few years? Butler could be a target for both of the L.A. teams, and the versatile Harris will be fielding offers from a number of teams with big money to spend.
The East could be top heavy with championship caliber teams if Butler and Harris return to Philly and Kawhi Leonard re-signs with Toronto, but there’s also the possibility that at least two of those players head West with the Clippers making an all-out pitch to recruit Leonard. Plus, Milwaukee has to re-sign several key free agents, including Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon. The entire conference could look a whole lot different when players start signing contracts on July 6.
Position-less basketball is the hot new buzzword in NBA circles, but it's also an important one.
Consider what the 2016-17 Bulls rolled out the same year the Golden State Warriors Death Lineup'd their way to an NBA title. Led by the Three Alphas of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, here's how the minutes shook out, per Basketball Reference.
Rondo played 100% of his minutes at point guard despite having played 42% of his minutes at shooting guard the year earlier for the Kings (a year in which he shot 36.5% from deep). Wade played 84% of his minutes at shooting guard. The following seasons, the last two of his career, he played 31% at point guard, 54% at shooting guard and 15% at small forward.
Butler played 93% of his minutes at small forward. The next two seasons, in Minnesota and Philadelphia, his minutes were split up at 45% shooting guard, 48% small forward and 7% power forward.
Taj Gibson played 96% of his minutes at power forward and Robin Lopez played 100% of his minutes at center. Nikola Mirotic played 88% of his minutes at power forward. Over the last two seasons, he's played 74% of his minutes at power forward and 23% at center (and 3% at small forward).
Sensing a theme here?
While the NBA zigged toward position-less basketball, the Bulls...didn't do anything. They had traditional roles, had little depth that allowed them to tinker with lineups despite that being the best way to utilize Fred Hoiberg's philosophies, and they failed. Yes, they led 2-0 on the Celtics in the first round of the postseason. No, that didn't make that entire season any less of a mess.
Fast forward two years and one rebuild later, and the Bulls enter Year 3 of the post-Jimmy Buckets era with some serious versatility.
The latest signal that this franchise is ready to move forward came on Thursday when the Bulls drafted North Carolina guard Coby White. He's not a traditional point guard, and the Bulls don't want him to be. In fact, the Bulls' entire offseason feels like it could be more about finding the right players instead of the right positional needs.
"John (Paxson) and I have had great conversations about our team during the year, at the end of the season, about what we thought we needed, where we thought we needed to go, and today is a product of that, of those meetings, those discussions, and his view," Jim Boylen said Monday. "We talked about positional size a lot, we talked about speed, quickness, athleticism. Those are the things we thought we needed with the group of guys we had, to add to them. Whether it’s vertical spacing, speed, making defenses chase people over, all those kinds of things, we discussed. And as we went into the draft process we were hoping to find players to help us with that. Thankfully we have."
Of White specifically, Boylen said the Bulls won't "put him in this box where he just has to play this way," Boylen added. For the first time arguably since Nate Robinson in 2013, the Bulls have a legitimate shooting threat at point guard. What's more, the 6-foot-5 White can play off the ball and spot up for perimeter jumpers, something that makes Zach LaVine more valuable and the offense more versatile.
The Bulls are finally looking to look like a versatile group. Otto Porter's defensive ability will give the Bulls the option of playing small, something that prior to his arrival just meant Chandler Hutchison getting abused in the post. Lauri Markkanen is a work-in-progress as a center, though his limited minutes and skill set give optimism that it's something he can do in spurts going forward. LaVine was never going to take on a full-time point guard role, but he was more than comfortable with the ball in his hands acting as an offensive initiator last season, maybe Kris Dunn, LaVine and White all share the floor together.
We could even see second-round pick Daniel Gafford and Wendell Carter Jr. together in massive frontline spurts if the opposition calls for it. That's more fantasy than reality, but having the option is something they didn't have in the past.
The next step is free agency. With the Bulls, in theory, having starters at all five positions - White could move to the bench if Paxson goes after a veteran free agent - the Bulls can again get versatile and hone in on particular skill sets instead of simply trying to round out the depth chart. It doesn't feel like the Bulls will make a major splash - either giving Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon a gigantic offer sheet or finding room to sign Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell - but they'll be aggressive with their more than $22 million in cap space. They need point guard depth, more shooters on the wing and a locker room presence (Cris Felicio is a month younger than Otto Porter, the oldest player on the Bulls).
"We have a very good idea of what we want. But we’re going to have to wait until the 30th to go at it. But we know we need to add some veterans," Paxson said. "Definitely, we’re looking for a couple of veteran guys that fit well with this young group – be pros, show these guys every day what it means to be a professional. Most guys that last a long time in this league, they last because they’ve been pros. They take care of themselves, they’ve played well, they’ve done all the right things. And that’s always best example for young players.”
The roster is far from a finished product. Injuries aside, the Bulls still won just 22 games a year ago, don't have max cap space, and White isn't Zion Williamson.
There's work to do. But for the first time during the rebuild, the Bulls are going to have options. The roster is beginning to look like what a group of NBA players in 2019 should look like. The Bulls are getting versatile, and it's an important step forward.