Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery didn’t bring luck for the Chicago Bulls, who stayed at No. 11 and ceded their first-round pick to the Orlando Magic as final payment on the Nikola Vucevic trade.
Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas consistently cites the three ways to improve a team---draft, free agency and trades. Currently also without a second-round pick, the Bulls as of now will be sitting out the June 22 NBA Draft.
So, now what? How will the Bulls improve?
There’s a chance they still can get in the game for the June draft. The Portland Trail Blazers still owe the Bulls a lottery-protected first-round pick as part of the three-team deal centered on Lauri Markkanen moving to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Derrick Jones Jr. coming to the Bulls.
The Trail Blazers jumped from fifth to third at Tuesday’s draft lottery. Does that make them more amenable to giving the Bulls the first-round pick they acquired from the New York Knicks in the Josh Hart trade? That’s the 23rd pick, which is probably about what the franchise had in mind it would be surrendering when it made the original deal.
On the flip side, the Trail Blazers may aggressively shop the third pick, paired with a player, to land a bigger splash in a trade to appease Damian Lillard. So they may want to hang on to that No. 23 pick, although, at some point, they likely will negotiate with the Bulls on the current protections.
Beyond the draft, the Bulls will canvas and monitor the trade market during what is expected to potentially be a volatile offseason in terms of big-name player movement.
Karnišovas framed the Bulls as buyers at the February trade deadline. League sources at that time indicated that Karnišovas gave indications to teams that he planned to keep his core together. In fact, overtures from the Golden State Warriors centered on Alex Caruso were rebuffed.
Given that Caruso just earned his first honor on first-team All-Defense and remains on a team-friendly contract, he’s a safe bet to stay.
Nikola Vucevic’s future is where things get interesting. He will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 unless an extension is reached before then during the Bulls’ exclusive negotiating period. Brief talks during the season on terms for Vucevic’s next contract didn’t advance.
The teams currently with salary cap space---Rockets, Pacers, Spurs, Magic, Pistons---don’t immediately project as a fit for Vucevic, who is coming off a strong season in which he played all 82 games and finished third in the NBA in double-doubles.
Thus, the Bulls may feel they’re in the driver’s seat in negotiations, with a sign-and-trade looming as an outside possibility.
Trading Zach LaVine after the first of his five-year maximum contract would be a surprise. While LaVine’s decision-making causes internal organizational angst at times, he remains a supremely gifted scorer and modern NBA player in this era of offensive firepower. He also is the best 3-point threat on a team lacking them.
DeRozan is extension-eligible. And given that he has authored two straight All-Star seasons since arriving in Chicago, asking for a maximum, four-year, $179 million deal would surprise no one.
Of course, the Bulls wouldn’t have to sign him to one and could enter the new fiscal year that begins July 1 believing his expiring deal is a trade asset. It’s also possible that DeRozan, who long has talked about playing in his hometown of Los Angeles, would want to be an unrestricted free agent after next season.
So it’s most likely the Bulls make their biggest changes via free agency. They’ll have all the salary-cap exceptions available to them---midlevel, biannual and veteran’s minimum.
This is where they’ll have to aggressively address their publicly stated needs of adding shooting and also address the point guard situation. Karnišovas said the team wants to re-sign restricted free agents Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu. The former, while more expensive, has to be a priority.
If White isn’t considered a starting point guard, the Bulls will have to add one given that Lonzo Ball’s return can’t be expected. Even if Ball does play at some point next season, he can’t be counted on to be the same player after missing so much time and undergoing a cartilage transplant, which is rare for a high-level athlete to return from effectively.
As for shooters on the open market, Seth Curry, Max Strus, Yuta Watanabe and Torrey Craig are potential options, although Miami has insisted it wants to re-sign Strus. The Pistons have a team option on Alec Burks. Donte DiVincenzo has a player option with the Warriors.
The Bulls, who, historically, have avoided the luxury tax, have a tough needle to thread this offseason. They must improve the team and, as of now, aren’t adding a cost-controlled, rookie-scale contract.
It’s time for Karnišovas and company to get creative. The executive seemed to acknowledge as much on the Feb. 9 night of the trade deadline.
“We’ve done deals that in the summertime that a lot of people said we couldn’t do," Karnišovas said that night from New York before a game against the Brooklyn Nets. "I think there are ways to improve it."
At the onset of the 2021 offseason, analysis centered on whether or not the Bulls would operate as an over- or under-the-cap team, parsing the possibilities of partial guarantees on the contracts of Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky. Instead, the Bulls surprised everybody with their sign-and-trade acquisitions of DeRozan and Ball, although they had pursued the latter at the 2021 trade deadline.
So this management regime has shown the ability to surprise and get creative before. Will they do so again?