Klay Thompson

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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High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

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High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

We see this type of story every year. A player who received little attention during the college basketball season parlays a strong finish and impressive athletic testing results into a rapid climb up NBA draft boards.

Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke is one of the players making that kind of jump this year. The 6-foot-8 Clarke was projected as a second round pick at the start of the season, playing in the shadow of his more acclaimed frontcourt mate Rui Hachimura as the Zags won another West Coast Conference title and advanced to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

Clarke started receiving some first round buzz late in the season and really caught the attention of NBA scouts with a 36 point, eight rebound, five block performance against Baylor in a second round NCAA tournament game. His numbers for the season are impressive: 16.9 points per game on 68.7 percent shooting from the field, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. And, he followed that up by testing out No. 1 at his position at the NBA Draft Combine with a 34 inch standing vertical, a 40.5 inch max vertical, and a 3.15 second three-quarter court sprint.

Still, in today's three point centric NBA, some teams are concerned about Clarke's limited shooting range, with most of his points coming within 10 feet of the basket. Clarke says that won't be an issue when he gets a chance to work out for teams over the next four weeks.

"Honestly, it's really just about getting a lot of reps," Clarke said. "I've been getting up so many reps with the NBA ball, from the NBA three, and I've been shooting it really, really well. I'm really hoping that teams get to see that, and know that I've been working on it, and taking pride in getting better every day. If I can just keep on getting better, and teams can see that, I think it will help me out a lot."

Clarke is now considered a possible top-10 pick, with several mock drafts having him going to the forward needy Washington Wizards at No. 9, ahead of Hachimura, who may have received a promise from the Timberwolves at No. 11. There's no question Clarke is an explosive leaper who should have an impact at the defensive end from Day 1.

"Blocking shots is something that pretty obviously I'm good at. I was top 3 in the country last year for college basketball," he said. "So, with that being said, I think I'm only going to get better at it. Just something I can bring to any team I get drafted to pretty quickly."

Just about every college player has to adjust to facing bigger and stronger players once they get to the NBA. It’s one thing to dominate against the likes of Pacific and Pepperdine, but can Clarke succeed against some of the elite power forwards in the NBA? He understands the importance of hitting the weight room this summer.

"That’s something that I would love to do. Obviously, the guys are bigger in the league, so I’m going to have to be bigger too," he said. "There are so many players who have changed their bodies once they got there, so I’m not really nervous about that. I'm just looking forward to playing against bigger guys and better competition."

Would the Bulls consider Clarke at No. 7? There is a need for an athletic power forward to play behind Lauri Markkanen, but Clarke's skillset is eerily similar to all-time Bulls draft bust Tyrus Thomas, and that in itself will probably drop him on the team's draft board. Unless the Bulls trade down, their pick will likely come from a group that includes Coby White, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter.

Like so many other players in the 2019 draft, Clarke falls into the risk/reward category, with his ability to develop a consistent outside shot critical to his long term success. Still, it's been a remarkable climb for a player who was lightly regarded by most NBA teams just a few short months ago.

Around the association

You couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for Golden State All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who was informed after practice on Thursday that he failed to make one of the three All-NBA teams, potentially costing him $30 million on a max contract this summer.

With so many talented guards in the league right now, it's hardly a slight that Thompson failed to finish among the top-6 in media voting. Who would you leave out among the guards that made it? Steph Curry and James Harden were the first team choices, with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving on the second team and Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker third team selections.

An obviously agitated Thompson didn't appreciate receiving the news from the media, and openly questioned how Golden State's run of five-straight Finals appearances didn't carry more weight with the voters. Thompson said it wasn't a big deal, and he would rather win a championship than make an All-NBA team. But knowing how much money he just lost had to be a painful pill to swallow, especially considering a guard from a non-playoff team like Walker was voted to the third team, making him eligible for the super max contract Thompson just lost.

Speaking of Walker, will that All-NBA honor wind up being his ticket out of Charlotte? Hornets' general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team will do everything possible to keep the three-time All-Star, but the price tag for a max extension is now a lot higher, and the small market Hornets may decide they're better off not committing huge dollars to their 29-year-old point guard.

Charlotte has been unable to build a consistent winner despite a number of high draft picks and the ill-fated five-year contract given to Nicolas Batum. Bringing Walker back on a super max deal would lock them into the current roster for the foreseeable future, and given the fact Charlotte has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years, is that really the best strategy? If the Hornets decide to move on from Kemba, teams like Indiana, Dallas and the Clippers will be waiting with ample cap space to offer Walker a four-year max contract.

As we've seen with the explosion of quarterback salaries in the NFL, it seems like every offseason brings a new record contract. How about this factoid from ESPN'S NBA Insider Bobby Marks, who tweeted; earning All-NBA for a second consecutive season now has Giannis Antetokounmpo eligible in the summer of 2020 to sign the largest contract in NBA history. The five-year extension starting in 2021-22 would be worth $247.3 million and carry a $42.6, $46.0, $49.5, $52.9 and $56.3 million cap hit.

There's no question the Bucks will gladly offer that super max extension to a 24-year-old superstar who still has room to grow as player. Giannis is expected to win his first MVP award this season, even though the current playoff series against Toronto is showing how badly he needs to add a consistent jumper and improved free throw shooting to his game. Antetokounmpo's freakish skills and Mike Budenholzer's offensive system have made small market Milwaukee a legitimate championship contender, which is no small feat in a star-driven NBA where players routinely make decisions about their futures based on factors that have very little to do with basketball. Right now, Giannis is happy in Milwaukee and the Bucks are lucky to have the best young player in the game.

Of course, NBA teams wouldn't be paying those kind of salaries if the league wasn't making record profits. Business is good, especially after the new TV deals that went into effect a few years ago. And, with the advent of legalized gambling potentially opening up even more revenue streams, NBA owners will see the value of their franchises continue to soar.

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Breaking down what Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine will bring to '18-'19 Bulls

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USA TODAY

Breaking down what Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine will bring to '18-'19 Bulls

On Tuesday, the Chicago Bulls exercised the third-year option on Lauri Markkanen, and fourth-year options on Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine. This means that all three players will be on the Bulls through the 2019-20 season. The Bulls picking up the options on these three players is hardly news, as all three have long been expected to be a part of the Bulls long-term plans. But with Markkanen, Valentine and Dunn all due to be back around the same time, we look at exactly what each of these players will bring to the Bulls when they return.

Lauri Markkanen: An alternate option to LaVine on offense

To even the most casual of Bulls fans, it should be obvious that Lauri Markkanen’s return is the No. 1 thing that can help this year’s team get back on track. In his rookie season he put up 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and shot 36 percent from the 3-point line. He did all of this while only taking 12.7 shots per game with a 21.9 percent usage rate. The biggest storyline for this year’s Bulls squad was how big of a step forward Markkanen was going to take after his stellar rookie season, and his aggressiveness on offense was going to be a huge indicator, and still will be.

Obviously, the Bulls have gotten use to Zach LaVine controlling the ball--as they should--and he has actually managed to become a more efficient scorer while taking on an astronomical share of the offense (34.3 percent usage rate would’ve ranked second to only James Harden in terms of starters), but the team would no doubt benefit by Markkanen taking some responsibility off of his plate.

Markkanen will probably work his way back into shape slowly, but LaVine’s play style suits Markkanen’s skill set almost too well, and should be able to push Chicago to at least a few surprising victories. Last season Markkanen scored 6.5 points per game from catch-and-shoot opportunities and along with Nikola Mirotic, they were far and away better than any Bulls player in this category. Now with Mirotic out of the picture completely, he will be free to feast on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

LaVine has turned himself to one of the league’s more dominant players in terms of driving to the basket, but his drive-and-kick game leaves much to be desired. With Markkanen’s 7-foot frame (and added muscle) allowing him to shoot over even solid closeouts, he will provide LaVine with an easy escape valve during his more reckless forays to the rim. And the inverse is true as well, as Markkanen’s (likely) improved inside scoring will provide LaVine the opportunity to take less difficult shots from the perimeter.

It seems like LaVine may have plateaued as a passer, capable of racking of 3 assists per game and not much more, but Markkanen is one of the most talented players he has played with in his career, and his presence will open up the floor even further for LaVine, who is averaging a career-high 28.1 ppg.

Denzel Valentine: Secondary rebounding from the wing

Valentine has stated before that he believes he should be a starter in the NBA, and with how poorly the short-handed 2018-19 Bulls are playing, it is hard to say that he shouldn’t be given a fair shot. He had 37 starts last season and shot 38.6 percent from 3-point range, a mark that would make him one of the four best shooters on this year’s team. But there was another area where he stood out last season: defensive rebounding.

Chicago was second in the league last season in terms of defensive rebounding percentage (at 80.6 percent) and it was perhaps the only thing they did well on the defensive side of the ball. And Valentine played a big part in their defensive rebounding prowess.

In 2016-17, Valentine grabbed 2.6 rebounds per game in 17 minutes a night. The following season, he increased that mark to 5.1 rebounds per game (4.5 of them defensive boards) in 27 minutes a night. Even without being a starter, let’s assume Valentine will get north of 27 minutes a night this season. If his numbers continue to progress, you could see a world in which he averages 7 rebounds per game, further aiding the Bulls already potent grab-and-go ability, which they don’t take advantage of enough now.

The Bulls currently sit at 22nd in the league in fastbreak points per game, so far a disappointment considering their 15th rank in fastbreak buckets last season. But you can’t initiate the fastbreak if you can’t secure the rebound. Valentine may never develop the foot speed to be a positive on defense. But he collects defensive rebounds at a higher rate than Jabari Parker despite giving up approximately two inches and 40 lbs to him. The Bulls could use Valentine back, as his specific skill set helps make others better, something that could be a boon for this current roster.

Kris Dunn: The ability to fight through screens

This clip is from Dunn’s rookie year with Minnesota, but it illustrates his defensive prowess perfectly:

He tries to spin around the screen to meet his man and then he tries hard as he can to stop his man from receiving the handoff, resulting in Joel Embiid taking a 3-point shot, which is definitely preferable to giving up middle penetration to a guard. Dunn always gives effort like this on defense, even when his aggressiveness can get him into trouble--he fouled out in the one game he played in this season--like his short performance this season has shown.

When he returns to the lineup, the hope is that Dunn will lead the defense through his actions, though being vocal will help as well.

Obviously the team was upset that Klay Thompson used their horrible defensive effort to set an NBA-record, but again it was their effort. At some point you have to refuse to be embarrassed and if you rewatch Thompson’s 14 -3-pointers, it is clear that Chicago was not making adjustments.

Stopping, or at least slowing down Thompson means that the defender does his work before the catch. On Monday night, the Bulls were simply running at Thompson as hard as they can. With the speed of his shooting release, if you have let Thompson catch the ball comfortably in his shooting pocket, you are too late. This is all to say that the Bulls played like they didn’t know their personnel and/or gameplan, and whether this is on the coaching or the inexperience of the players, it is clear Dunn will help when he returns.