In case you haven't noticed, the Bulls' roster is getting awfully crowded these days. Assuming restricted free agents Zach LaVine and David Nwaba return (which is likely), Fred Hoiberg's rotation for the 2018-19 season is pretty much set.
The Bulls figure to start Robin Lopez, Lauri Markkanen and Justin Holiday up front, with LaVine and Kris Dunn in the backcourt. The second unit figures to have Wendell Carter Jr. at center, with Bobby Portis and Nwaba at the back-up forward spots and Cameron Payne and Denzel Valentine/Chandler Hutchison at guard.
That leaves Jerian Grant, Cristiano Felicio and Omer Asik, as well as last season's two-way players Ryan Arcidiacono (who was spotted working out at the Advocate Center on Monday) and Antonio Blakeney to fill out the roster. Paul Zipser (non-guaranteed contract), Sean Kilpatrick (non-guaranteed contract) and Noah Vonleh (free agent) are unlikely to be back.
With minutes at a premium for all the young players on the roster, Hoiberg and his staff won't be asking Carter and Hutchison to take on the kind of featured role Markkanen assumed as a rookie last season. Both players could conceivably work their way into a starting role at some point, but it's more likely they'll be asked to provide energy off the bench initially as they learn the fine points of the offense.
Carter knows all about the incumbent starting center, eccentric 10-year veteran Lopez, and he's looking forward to absorbing everything thrown his way. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I've heard plenty of stories about Robin,” Carter told me after Monday's news conference. "It's going to be exciting just to get to meet him, get to learn from him. He's been in the league for 10 years, so it's someone who will have part of the blueprint for me."
Lopez has only one year remaining on his contract, and it's possible he could be a target for teams looking for expiring deals at the trade deadline. But at least for now, the plan is for Lopez to serve as a mentor for Carter as he tries to learn some of the tricks of the trade at the center position.
Hutchison figures to be eased into significant playing time as well. Even though the four-year college player at Boise St. has a well-defined skill set, he'll initially find himself behind LaVine, Holiday, Nwaba and Valentine at the two wing positions. But Hoiberg loves Hutchison's ability to make plays in the open court, and his positional size will be welcome after using Valentine and Nwaba at the small forward spot for parts of last season.
For his part, Hutchison can't wait to compete for playing time once training camp opens in September. "No one's guaranteed anything. I'm just going to be one of those guys, a hungry dog coming in fighting for a job. I don't see that I'm entitled to anything, I just know that they picked me, and that's it. I'm with the organization, and now the work begins. So, I'm excited to compete."
Hutchison increased his scoring average all four years at Boise St. and has the ability to defend four positions. In today's NBA, that kind of versatility should earn him some court-time right away, but he'll have to beat out veterans to become a part of the regular rotation.
The Bulls' front office could look to make some trades to ease the roster log-jam, and they have a number of players on one-year or rookie deals that figure to be attractive to teams seeking salary cap relief. So, even though the Bulls won't be a bidder for expensive free agents this summer, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be a quiet month of July on the transactions front at the Advocate Center.
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Several NBA insiders have been reporting LeBron James is already busy working the phone lines, trying to create his next super-team when the free agent market opens for business on July 1st. James has been linked to the Lakers for some time, but it doesn't sound like San Antonio has any plans to help LeBron out by trading star player Kawhi Leonard to L.A. for 50 cents on the dollar.
If Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford can't convince Leonard to stay the course in San Antonio and sign a five-year, $219 million "super-max" extension, they'll try to trade him East, where the Celtics and 76ers will be waiting with a rich collection of talented young players and draft picks. Boston could offer Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and future draft picks they're owed from the Kings and Grizzlies that figure to be in the lottery. Philly could try to package Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and this year's first-round draft pick Zhaire Smith.
Either way, if the Spurs decide they have to trade Leonard, it's unlikely he'll be sent to a Western Conference team. Leonard might eventually make his way to L.A. to join the Lakers or Clippers, but it sounds like he'll have to wait until next summer when he can become an unrestricted free agent.
So, where does that leave LeBron? Over the last week we've seen several reports about Paul George seriously considering staying put in Oklahoma City, either by picking up his player option for next season or signing a new deal with the Thunder. The Southern California native had long been considered a veritable lock to sign with the Lakers this summer, but reportedly he enjoyed his experience playing with Russell Westbrook in OKC enough to pass up the "going home" storyline.
If James can't convince George to join forces with the Lakers, and if Chris Paul gets a five-year, max contract from the Rockets, does LeBron just stay in Cleveland for at least one more season? The Lakers could try to sign DeMarcus Cousins, but considering the big man is likely to miss a good chunk of next season while he finishes his rehab from a ruptured Achilles tendon, would that be enough to get James to join a roster of young players still trying to figure out what it takes to win at the NBA level?
James could consider teaming up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia or try to force a trade to Houston to create a monster "Big 3" with Paul and James Harden, but each of those scenarios creates style of play issues. Simmons really can't play off the ball considering his outside shooting issues, and both Paul and Harden have been ball-dominant players throughout their careers.
When you analyze LeBron's options, he might be best off to pick up his player option of $35.6 million for next season and make another run at the Finals with Cleveland. The Cavs drafted dynamic point guard Collin Sexton last week, and the players acquired in the mid-season trades (George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.) figure to be more comfortable next season after going through a full training camp. Boston will likely enter the 2018-19 campaign as the favorites to win the East, but any team with LeBron James on the roster can't be discounted.
Out West, it sounds like the Denver Nuggets are going to make sure star center Nikola Jokic doesn't hit the free agent market for the foreseeable future. Denver has a low money contract option on Jokic for next season, but the front office has been warned exercising that option would likely lead to Jokic leaving the team as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
So, the Nuggets plan to decline the option and sign the 23-year-old center to a max contract after July 1st to keep him in the Mile High city for the next five years. In case you haven't watched much Nuggets' basketball lately, Jokic is one of the best passing big men in the game. He averaged 6.1 assists last season, to go along with 18.5 ppg and 10.7 rpg, leading the team in all three categories.
Denver is quietly building a strong team with sharp-shooters Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to go along with the inside tandem of Jokic and Paul Millsap. And, don't forget the Nuggets were the team that rolled the dice on Michael Porter Jr. with the last pick in the lottery (No. 14 overall). If Porter returns to his pre-injury form, Denver could quickly join the ranks of powerhouse teams in the Western Conference.
Finally, back to the Bulls. Don't expect any fireworks when the free agent market opens at 11 p.m. this coming Saturday. John Paxson has no plans to overpay for a veteran upgrade like Avery Bradley or Will Barton that might help his team win a few more games next season. As we pointed out at the top, the Bulls' roster is already overcrowded at several positions and the front office needs to find out which of young players can be counted on as foundation pieces for a future contending team.
The LaVine contract negotiations will be fascinating to watch. When the Jimmy Butler trade was made last June, Paxson stated unequivocally LaVine would be a big part of the Bulls' future and there was no question about the athletic shooting guard being signed to a long term contract. But after an inconsistent 24-game debut last season, doubts have started to creep in about LaVine's long term fit alongside Kris Dunn and the newly-christened face of the franchise, Lauri Markkanen.
You can expect the Bulls to make a good faith, long term contract offer to the restricted free agent on or shortly after July 1st, but it seems likely LaVine's representatives will shop the market looking for a big money offer the Bulls would have to match. With so few teams having significant salary cap space, LaVine could have a hard time finding a long term offer anywhere near max level. But free agency can be unpredictable, and it only takes one team to mess up the Bulls' salary projections for the next few seasons.
If the Bulls keep their powder dry this summer, they figure to have all kinds of cap room in 2019 when the contracts of Lopez, Asik and Holiday come off the books. Now it's up to the coaching staff and players to show enough improvement during the upcoming season to make Chicago a viable destination for All-Star caliber players stars hitting the market next summer like Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and possibly Paul George.
Paxson has said repeatedly the Bulls plan to be patient and methodical in their "process" of rebuilding the team. But at some point, the front office will need to add a veteran star to the mix of developing young talent, either through a trade or free agency, and all signs point to the summer of 2019 as the key offseason for the franchise.