Chicago Bulls

Bulls management must get creative, aggressive this offseason

Blowout loss to Celtics painfully reveals gap between being competitive and championship-caliber

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

On Thursday night at the United Center, the Boston Celtics emphatically underscored the difference between a team with championship aspirations and one with competitive ones.

Granted, the Chicago Bulls are currently extremely shorthanded due to injuries. But even if the Bulls maintain their play-in standing and, unlike last season, prevail to earn a playoff seed, it likely will be the eighth seed and a first-round matchup against those same high-powered Celtics.

Barring a stunner, this will mean the Bulls will conclude a three-year window with no playoff series victories and either one or two first-round exits, depending on how this season concludes.

While the Bulls’ current 4-1/2 game cushion to maintain their play-in standing appears safe, they do still face the Celtics one more time, the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road, the Los Angeles Clippers twice and the New York Knicks three times. And they’re extremely shorthanded without Zach LaVine for the rest of the season, Torrey Craig for at least two to four more weeks and Patrick Williams indefinitely.

That’s the short-term stuff. The big-picture outlook is the roster that management so dramatically overhauled during 2021 has reached its expiration date. And whether a trade of LaVine, a cost-saving plan for Lonzo Ball or---more surprising---a sign-and-trade with DeMar DeRozan is coming, this offseason will be crucial.

“What we did in 2021 when we turned our roster around that summer, I think we showed we can be aggressive,” Artūras Karnišovas said earlier this month, following a third straight inactive trade deadline.

Citing the control of their 2024 first-round pick and a “positive” mindset about free agency, Karnišovas and his staff again will have to show aggressiveness and creativity this offseason.

That 2021 offseason began with attention focused on the partial guarantees for the contracts of Thad Young and Tomáš Satoranský and whether the Bulls would operate as an under- or over-the-salary cap team. It concluded with creative sign-and-trade acquisitions of DeRozan and Ball, plus the signing of Alex Caruso with the midlevel exception.

Such bold strokes will be needed again if the Bulls want to begin finding an off ramp for the current cycle of mediocrity they appear to be on---competitive enough to remain in the play-in race, not competitive enough to challenge the elite teams in the postseason.

Don’t forget: The Bulls also face an offseason decision on Patrick Williams, who is headed to restricted free agency. And Andre Drummond, whom management highly valued at the deadline, can become an unrestricted free agent like DeRozan unless an extension is signed by June 30.

The value contracts of Caruso, Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu should be noted. All three players project to be on the 2023-24 Bulls, playing crucial roles without cumbersome cap figures.

But something has to give, particularly with the franchise’s history of avoiding the luxury tax.

“The cap, we call it gymnastics, we can talk about it after the season,” Karnišovas said on trade deadline day.

But planning has to have been top of mind for awhile. It’s management’s job to balance short- and long-term thinking.

Currently, the short-term view has a ceiling. For the Bulls to open up a long-term with the potential of, say, a championship-caliber team like the Celtics, a creative and aggressive offseason will be needed.

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