Bulls Insider

Bulls face major decisions as NBA Draft, free agency loom

Beyond Zach LaVine trade chatter, management must weigh how to improve roster with limited assets

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The NBA Draft is Thursday, and the Chicago Bulls currently own no picks.

They also project to operate as an over-the-salary-cap team this offseason, meaning that, barring a trade, they'd have to use the midlevel and biannual exceptions in free agency to upgrade the roster.

During his end-of-season media availability session in mid-April, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas cited management's 2021 offseason, in which they landed both Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan via sign-and-trade acquisitions before signing Alex Caruso via the midlevel exception, as an example of how he has creatively improved the roster before.

This week will start to provide some clarity to Karnišovas' vision for this offseason. The rest will come when free agency begins July 1.

Here's a look at some of Thursday's possible scenarios and what they could mean.

The Bulls make no moves

During that mid-April media session, Karnišovas expressed the desire to re-sign Nikola Vucevic, Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu. Even with Wednesday's news that the projected luxury tax threshold could be $165 million instead of $162 million, this could be a tough needle to thread.

But buying into the first round and adding a guaranteed rookie-scale contract without a trade could make that task even tougher. Even using extremely team-friendly and generously low predictions of $19 million for Vucevic and $12 million for White, the Bulls would be up against the luxury tax line by using the midlevel exception and filling out the roster with veteran minimum deals.

And that's not accounting for Dosunmu, although the Bulls picked up some potential wiggle room when The Athletic's Shams Charania reported on Wednesday that Derrick Jones Jr. will decline his $3.3 million player option, a reversal of what he said publicly in mid-April. Andre Drummond's decision awaits, although he, too, has said publicly he plans to pick up his player option.

Ball's $20 million of dead cap space impacts the franchise greatly.

The franchise only has paid the tax once, and Bulls president and chief executive officer Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago in 2022 that he'd do so for a championship contender. The Bulls are coming off a 40-42 season in which they finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and lost to Miami in the play-in tournament.

Dalen Terry, the Bulls' first-round pick in 2022, barely played during his rookie season. If the Bulls don't make a selection on Thursday, even more focus will land on Terry.

The Bulls also would then need to address shooting and perhaps the point-guard position in free agency.

The Bulls make a major move

Most speculation has centered on Zach LaVine, who has four seasons left on the maximum contract he signed just last offseason.

Karnišovas said in mid-April that a full rebuild "is not on our minds." A case can be made that trading LaVine and re-signing Vucevic and perhaps even extending DeMar DeRozan would fall into the "retool" rather than "rebuild" category.

Semantics aside, LaVine represents the Bulls' biggest trade asset. In an offensive-minded league, LaVine remains one of the game's elite and extremely efficient scorers.

If he's dealt, his return absolutely must be maximized, likely with a strong focus on recouping the draft capital spent to acquire DeRozan and Vucevic as well as netting either an established starter or intriguing young talent.

The Bulls keep core intact but acquire a pick

This would suggest the Bulls have identified a draft prospect they believe can address a need more than perhaps a player on a veteran's minimum contact. Remember: If the Bulls don't trade LaVine or DeRozan and re-sign Vucevic, luxury tax concerns come into play if they also use the full midlevel exception.

The Bulls interviewed top prospects like Brandon Miller at the NBA Draft Combine. While there has been no recent linkage to the Bulls trading into the high lottery, including previous speculation centered on LaVine and Portland's third pick, they worked that week like a team going through the normal draft process.

This certainly could merely be due diligence, as well as utilizing the combine to gather intel for the future. But rookie-scale contracts do afford a team cost control, which always has been essential but perhaps even more so in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Bulls own limited trade assets on the margins. Save for Caruso, who is coming off his first All-Defense selection and such an integral piece, their main assets rest in the high-tier contract status, not the mid- to low-tiers. Thus, this is probably Thursday's least likely scenario.

But stay tuned. Karnišovas and his staff have showed the ability to get creative before. Running it back with the same core for a non-playoff team still sounds like the least appealing option.

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