Bulls Mailbag

Bulls mailbag: On depth chart, luxury tax, Patrick Williams

Offseason edition analyzes management's moves and how Billy Donovan may use rotation

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

It’s late July, which means there shouldn’t be questions as the NBA prepares for its brief hiatus. But there’s that unresolved Damian Lillard story, James Harden’s consistent wanderlust and the nutty---compliment intended---Bulls fan’s never-ending worry. So here’s a mailbag.

Do you think the Bulls, who are a massively profitable organization and typically lead the NBA in attendance, will pay the luxury tax this season? --- James R.

Nothing like coming out of the chute hot.

I think the Bulls will begin the season under the luxury tax and possibly enter it during the season if the season is going well. By my educated estimate, they sit roughly $2.4 million under the $165,294,000 luxury tax threshold with two roster spots available. This is assuming they waive Carlik Jones’ non-guaranteed salary.

I suppose there’s a small chance Jones is retained. But given that his $1.9 million salary is roughly the same as a veteran minimum exception, I’d expect a frontcourt player to be signed. Perhaps they sign two players to veteran minimum exceptions and go over the tax slightly to begin the season. But given the organization’s history of only paying the tax once, I’d be surprised.

I see the more likely scenario as entering the season with a 14-player roster and then possibly entering the tax during the season if things are going well and the right opportunity presents. The Bulls still have roughly half of the $12.4 million non-taxpayer mid-level, the $4.5 biannual and the $10.2 million disabled player exception for Lonzo Ball at their disposal.

Artūras Karnišovas said on draft night that he’d be comfortable presenting to ownership a case to enter the luxury tax for a contender. Bulls president and CEO Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago in February 2022 that he “absolutely” would pay the tax for a title-contending team. But he also added his usual context at the time.

“All you have to do is go back and look at the last number of championship teams, how many of them were in the luxury tax? With the nature of the NBA and having a soft cap, if you want to compete for championships, you have to be willing to spend into the tax,” Michael Reinsdorf said in an appearance on the Bulls Talk podcast. “I think most people will tell you, ‘I don’t want to spend into the tax if we’re not competing for championships, if we’re not good enough. I don’t want to be the 8th seed or out of the playoffs and go into the luxury tax.’”

And the Bulls were the 10th seed last season and received the league distribution for non-tax teams of roughly $15.1 million.

What do you think the depth chart is? --- Frank K.

I see Billy Donovan and his staff using a 10-player rotation of Jevon Carter, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Torrey Craig, Nikola Vucevic, Alex Caruso, Coby White, Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Drummond. Perhaps if Derrick Jones Jr. returns or Rudy Gay or somebody is added, he cracks the rotation at times over Drummond based on matchups. Regardless, Donovan has serious depth, which is why I also think they’d be comfortable entering the season with 14 players and staying under the tax for now.

Who starts at point guard and power forward are the biggest questions. You could make a strong case that following the blueprint of last season, in which Patrick Beverley and Alex Caruso started down the stretch, would be prudent. In that scenario, Torrey Craig would start at power forward and either Caruso or Jevon Carter would start at point guard, keeping Coby White and Patrick Williams together with that second unit. But I think this is Williams’ season to flourish. I see him in the starting lineup.

So my guess is: Carter, Dosunmu, Caruso at point guard; LaVine, White at shooting guard; DeRozan, Craig, Caruso at small forward, Williams, Caruso, Craig at power forward and Vucevic, Drummond at center.

It's the Bulls fan from Anguilla, checking in. I'm actually excited about the direction of the Bulls' offseason, and I'd love to get your thoughts on what has transpired. We signed the first two players whom you presented to the fans as options in your column, and that is awesome. I was already a fan of Carter and Craig. I feel like we're finally building a team that fits the NBA in 2023, and we can't understate the significance of signing two players who made real contributions to championship-level teams. The experience and toughness they will bring is invaluable. How do you feel about this current Bulls roster on paper? Are we better? --- Lennox B.

The consistent use of “we” makes me wonder if this was ghost-written by Artūras. But I digress.

As I said in the previous answer, Bulls have solid and deep 10-player rotation. Craig and Carter are fantastic signings in my opinion, even without factoring in their manageable contracts. Both are tough, defensive-minded players who can shoot. Plus, both are good and quick decision-makers offensively. They will make the offense run smoothly.

The only quibble may be that they’re the kind of additions title-contending teams make to put them over the top. They definitely make the Bulls better, but the ultimate success will still come down to DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic impacting winning more. All three of those players had very good individual seasons and the Bulls still missed the playoffs. But Craig and Carter also are the type of frontline role players who make stars better.

I’d like to see the Bulls add some more size with their final signing.

What are realistic expectations for Patrick Williams? I look at players like Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen, who I think the organization gave up on too quickly, and wonder if people are writing him off too early? He has all the physical tools to be a very good player in this league. --- Scott D.

Does he have the mental tools? That’s what the organization has worked with him on---to develop a more aggressive mindset. Williams is very introspective and openly talked about his difficulty playing alongside players who need the ball like DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic. But you can still be aggressive in those situations---cutting with purpose, sprinting in transition, attacking the offensive boards at the right time, setting good screens, making quick and proper decisions on attacking closeouts.

I thought Donovan made a great move bringing him off the bench. Now, the trick is to keep that mentality but exhibit it more consistently with the starters, even if the shots aren’t as numerous. But I agree with your overall point: He turns 22 in August. It’s way too early to fully judge him. Players develop at different speeds.

One quick correction on Markkanen: He wanted out and requested a trade. Now perhaps that’s semantical because the organization didn’t value or use him properly in his mind, leading to his request. But the Bulls would’ve been fine bringing him back the season they traded him to Cleveland, just at their price, not his.

I think the Bulls made a huge mistake not keeping Jevon Freeman-Liberty. Here’s a homegrown product who clearly displayed his shooting and leadership ability in summer league after playing well for the Windy City Bulls and they couldn’t even find a two-way contract for him? --- Steve K.

We covered this topic in the latest edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, although I erroneously listed the guard as 6 feet, 2 inches when he’s actually 6-4. My apologies. You can listen to the podcast at the link below.

But his legit size only underscores the point I made on the podcast. I think Freeman-Liberty displayed NBA skill. And I hope he has a long career ahead of him. But notice that the Toronto Raptors didn’t sign him to an NBA deal, either. Let’s see how he and Onuralp Bitim play this season before making final judgements. As has been stated ad nauseum, the Bulls are loaded with guard. Bitim has a little more size and also displayed the ability to shoot it during overseas professional play.

There always seems to be a latest flavor of the day. I remember hearing that the Bulls should start Carlik Jones at point guard last year before they signed Patrick Beverley. Now, Jones apparently is forgotten while Freeman-Liberty is the focus. The Bulls absolutely may have erred by letting JFL walk; I’m just not ready to say they have until I see how he and Bitim handle their new opportunities.

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