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Bulls mailbag: Defining this season and predicting futures for DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

Typing this the day of the Houston Rockets road game, where a victory could nudge the Chicago Bulls back level at .500 following a 5-14 start. It’s by no means cause for a parade. But there is a resilience about this team that will be intriguing to monitor come play-in tournament time. And, yes, the long-term future appears destined for the middle. Several of the following questions focus on that. But it’s time to gauge the severity of your play-in fever over the next few weeks too.

On to your questions.

What are the main areas or skills you believe Ayo Dosunmu can build upon or improve at heading into next season?  There is no doubt his second half of the season has been terrific compared to last year, but what can he do to be much more than just a better version of his current self?  During his overachieving rookie year, I had always thought his potential comparison by year 3 or 4 would be to someone like Immanuel Quickley.  I have bounced around wondering if he is already at that level or close to it. --- Carson O.

Let’s get the answer from the man himself: “A lot of room to grow. Just being more of a scorer off the bounce. Being more of a scorer off the pick-and-roll. Probing a little bit more. Getting to the free-throw line more. I think that’s a great way to create and become a better scorer.”

So there it is. Dosunmu’s 3-point shot looks like it’s here to stay. He’s long been a strong finisher. The above areas are where he thinks he can take his offensive game to another level.

My question is pretty simple: What do you think our front office would view as a “successful” postseason and what do you think they’d view as a “failure”? And if they do “fail,” what does the offseason look like in your best guess? My fear is regardless of any postseason outcome, the offseason looks similar either way---try and trade Zach LaVine and sign DeMar DeRozan to a reasonable contract. Which means as long as they view this team as…..COMPETITIVE… we won’t see any major changes. --- Dan P.

Given the injuries, I’m fully expecting any competitive showing in the play-in tournament to produce an assessment similar to last season’s. If they win the play-in tournament, look out. Even a sweep at the hand of the Celtics may not temper the optimism.

Again, given the injuries, I’m not sure if this would qualify as a failure: But losing a play-in game at home would be a deflating end to a resilient season. Either way, while I expect the roster to look different next season, I think their approach to this offseason will be the same either way. They’ll need to get creative, especially if they can’t trade LaVine.

The development of Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu are legitimate positives from this season. So is the steadiness and consistency from DeRozan. The uncertain futures of LaVine, Williams and Ball, plus the need to balance the roster with more forwards and less guards, are more pressing issues. Any questions about 3-point shooting are likely to be answered with fingers pointed at injuries to LaVine, Williams and Torrey Craig.

If the Bulls choose to go the “continuity” route again (depending on how this season ends) wouldn’t that mean that the team is on track to be in the luxury tax next season? All these scenarios below seem more likely than not to put them close to or into the tax: Resigning DeMar DeRozan will command more than $30M annually. Patrick Williams rejects a qualifying offer and eventually gets $15-20M annually. Lonzo Ball plays next season, which means his salary is not removed from cap and tax figures. And no offseason deal for Zach materializes. --- Kristian B.

You are correct. Which is why this offseason promises to be intriguing. Some caveats: The tax isn’t assessed until season’s end. So in your scenario, the Bulls could enter the season with LaVine on their books and hope an in-season trade in which they take back less salary materializes. Another scenario would be Williams either taking his nearly $13 million qualifying offer or signing at the low end of your projection and/or DeRozan taking less. Both are longshots, though. Ball, obviously, is the wild card. There is growing buzz he’ll at least try to attempt to play next season. None of the current optimism matters much until he can endure contact and 5-on-5 situations. But if he’s on the books, management has a tough needle to thread given the organization’s historic stance on not paying the tax except for a championship contender. Especially if management wants to re-sign DeRozan, which it has said it wants to do. Previously, there was some thought DeRozan may be retained for a pay cut. I no longer see that playing out.

What are the realistic chances Lonzo Ball can return to the NBA and do you think the Bulls will wait to give him one more chance or move in another direction this summer? --- Dan M.

As stated in the last answer, there’s growing buzz from some who talk to Ball that he’ll play next season. Also as stated in the last answer, that optimism needs to be measured against the fact that he hasn’t started taking contact or playing 5-on-5. Everyone associated with the Bulls is rooting for Ball. And the Bulls have to give him one more chance unless they trade him, and there was little interest in his contract when it was included in some preliminary talks leading up to the trade deadline, mostly as part of larger packages. Since Ball is almost guaranteed to pick up his player option, if he can play and the Bulls don’t trade him, he’ll be on the Bulls since their only way out would be to have an independent panel of doctors deem Ball’s injury career-ending.

As a human being, it has been great to watch Lonzo's recovery.  I genuinely hope he’s able to live a pain-free and normal life after his injury.  He seems like a great person, and I really miss his infectious team-first personality on the courts.  From a practical standpoint, however, is it bad that I wish a medical retirement was on the table?  It's the only avenue the Bulls have this summer to really improve the roster with Artūras Karnišovas’ deadset refusal to break this core up.

I will believe that Lonzo can be a rotational NBA player again when I see it. It seems highly unlikely for anyone to come back from a 2.5-year absence after a rare ligament transplant surgery and then contribute at a high level again.  With his salary on the books, and no market/realistic mechanism to move Zach, management is going to be unable to bring back DeMar and Pat or make any real investment in fixing any of the other wing or center depth concerns.  I know AK has touted his ability to "get creative.” But creativity only takes you so far when you're dealing with Jerry Reinsdorf and the luxury tax. DeMar and Pat are getting raises on their current salary, and the team is up against the tax now with several other roster spots to fill. The math is simply a disaster for the Bulls, which is why AK ducked the question at his post-trade deadline conference.

I wish I didn't have to think like this, but that's life with this inflexible, stubborn front office. I'm already getting pumped for some play-in drama and a four-game sweep, er, competitive series, against Boston. --- Nick P.

I have little to add to this other than emphasizing that, like you, I focused on Karnišovas’ comment on creativity from that post-trade deadline news conference as well. He and his staff showed that exact ability in 2021. They will need to do so again.

If you were management, how much money would you spend to re-sign DeMar? My hope is the Bulls bring him back. Coby (White), Ayo, Julian Phillips and Dalen Terry are all on good trajectories. In the meantime, DeMar has starpower. --- Michael K.

I’d agree Terry has shown some flashes, but I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s on a good trajectory until he can fix his shot.

As for DeRozan, he knows he has outplayed his contract. He’s big on respect. And I was told recently that he will have a market this offseason, so the Bulls would probably be best served by not letting him hit free agency.

I think the most likely outcome is a shorter-term deal at a significant annual figure---maybe two years at $70-74 million with a team option for a third year? Just guessing there. He’s eligible to sign a three-year, $130 million deal before unrestricted free agency begins on July 1.

Artūras Karnišovas came here from Denver. And while he's not credited with finding Nikola Jokić, one Bulls beat reporter had this to say at the time: "Karnišovas played a role in scouting and then helping the Serbian big man assimilate as he rose from unheralded second-round selection to dominant force."

So here are, well into Karnišovas’ tenure and we've seen little to no scouting and/or development of European players. Not expecting another Jokić but did expect something. What's up with that? --- Dan S.

RIP to the Marko Simonović pieces during the pandemic, when us homebound beat writers also drew the shared connections between second-round status and Serbian club team. That didn’t play out so well.

Karnišovas, like all league executives, takes European scouting trips. Just because he has drafted American-based players besides Simonović doesn’t mean he’s not looking. All teams scout the entire world these days.

As for Simonović, he’s still playing overseas but it was pretty clear in his limited minutes that he wasn’t an NBA-caliber player.

Why have the Bulls decided against having a traditional power forward on the team the last couple of seasons? --- Darrel A.

Why did we sign Terry Taylor for him to ride the bench/play garbage time? It has felt strange all season to specifically bring a guy onto the roster and then not use him. No shade to Terry. Just curious what the logic was/if Billy has talked about this. And why didn’t we just re-sign Javonte Green? I miss him and his energy) --- Mike D.

Answering these together, especially since, as you’ll see below, my man Mike D. fired off about a bazillion questions.

While I’m not sure what constitutes a “traditional power forward” anymore, the guard-heavy roster has been written and asked about multiple times. That said, power forward looked set with Patrick Williams and Torrey Craig. To Darrell’s point, though, the Bulls do lack size up front, particularly when injuries happen---as they did to both Williams and Craig.

Terry has shown flashes in limited minutes. But his situation represents a larger point about back-end roster management under this regime. Too often, including in the case of Simonović, the 14th and 15th players haven’t looked always ready for the part.

The injuries to Williams and Craig forced Billy Donovan to go small too often this season. Alex Caruso followed Green’s example by logging minutes at power forward. As for Green, he’s still slugging it out in the G League and stopped by the Bulls’ locker room in San Francisco following the Golden State game. He underwent knee surgery late last season, which helped nudge the Bulls in another direction.

Assuming the Bulls are consistent through the end of the year, we likely finish ninth in the east and go to the play-in and make an early exit. At what point does AK start to feel some heat? Continuity in pursuit of ninth place feels bad. Sure, you get some grace for the injuries. But it gets harder to swallow when you look at the lack of movement at the trade deadline. --- Mike D.

Mike submitted five questions, including a lighthearted one on what Billy Donovan’s gum choice is, speculating he’s a green mint guy. And while I won’t answer all five, including that one, I’ll dive into the one already answered and this one.

I’ve said this on podcasts and written it too and can’t emphasize it enough: Jerry Krause worked for 18 seasons. John Paxson worked for 17. Managerial regime changes don’t happen often under this ownership group. Plus, management recently received extensions. Management has ownership’s full support to take this any direction it wants, including a full rebuild. Ownership’s message to management has largely centered on acknowledging the injuries but also emphasizing that fixes are in store. Given the uncertain futures of LaVine, Ball, DeRozan and Williams, I’d expect activity this offseason.

Thanks for all your questions.

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