With free agency approaching, could Bulls-eye be on Ball?


With Lonzo Ball and the Pelicans likely on the path to a breakup, the polarizing player certainly feels gettable. The question is: At what cost?

That’s not just a monetary question for Artūras Karnišovas, Marc Eversley and Chicago Bulls management.

To be significant players in the salary-cap game, the Bulls would have to renounce salary-cap holds on all their own free agents, plus waive or try to trade one or more of Al-Farouq Aminu, Tomáš Satoranský or Thad Young.

Doable? Yes. Palatable? Only Karnišovas can answer that.

With the NBA Draft set for Thursday and free agency talks to continue — er, begin above board — on Aug. 2, some clarity will be coming soon. This is the week where teams start showing their hands, trade talks get more serious and initial moves are made in advance of potentially larger ones.

The Bulls themselves face a Sunday deadline for decisions on Ryan Arcidiacono’s $3 million team option and qualifying offers for Lauri Markkanen and Javonte Green. Monday is the date the contracts of Satoranský and Young become fully guaranteed at their full value if they’re not waived or traded.

So how aggressive Karnišovas plans to be will be known shortly. The 38th pick in Thursday’s draft could feel almost anti-climactic.

The Bulls and Ball have been linked since legitimate trade talks centered on Markkanen occurred in March. The Pelicans asked for draft capital to even consider Markkanen, who isn’t the cleanest fit in New Orleans, and Karnišovas used draft capital to acquire Nikola Vučević instead.

Trading two first-round picks shouldn’t be forgotten as Karnišovas approaches the coming weeks. It’s hard to envision the previous managerial regime considering that path.

Why is this difference pertinent? The old regime didn’t like swallowing dead money on the cap, which is what would happen if any or all of Aminu, Satoranský and Young wind up waived. And though the Bulls did sign J.J. Redick to an offer sheet that the Magic matched in 2010, the previous regime also didn’t often opt to tie up money in restricted free agency.

That’s another point to consider when it comes to Ball, particularly in an offseason where so many free-agent guard possibilities exist. Can the Bulls risk tying up money in an offer sheet that, ultimately, the Pelicans could match as the free-agency game of musical chairs continues?

News of the Pelicans trading Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and draft capital to the Grizzlies for Jonas Valančiūnas Monday afternoon clouds that question further. Unloading Adams and Blesdoe's combined $35 million in 2021-22 salary in exchange for Valančiūnas' $14 million opens significant flexibility for New Orleans to either match a lucrative offer sheet for Ball, or, as Adrian Wojnarowski noted, chase a bigger-name free agent like Kyle Lowry.

Bulls fans that want their team to land Ball should, of course, be rooting for the latter outcome.

Such uncertainty is why secondary targets such as Derrick Rose can’t be ruled out. In fact, internal conversations on the viability and fit of the former Bull and former most valuable player have occurred, just as they have with all candidates.

The Bulls also have been linked to Dennis Schröder, although that feels like less of a fit after he reportedly turned down an extension at $21 million per year. Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson, who would have to be traded for, is another name to watch.

As for Ball, the cleanest path to his acquisition is reviving the trade talks centered on Markkanen. It’s why management’s decision on his qualifying offer will be telling. Extending one will maintain the team’s ability to match any offer sheet Markkanen may sign elsewhere, mitigating the risk of losing him for nothing.

There’s going to be plenty of turnover on the Bulls’ roster regardless of whether or not management gets aggressive in clearing cap space.

Marko Simonović, last year’s second-round pick, has been at the Advocate Center and is expected to be on next season’s roster. As of now, league wide chatter has Daniel Theis seeking a big payday, so he could be on the move.

Beyond the biggest expected splash of a guard acquisition, wing and big-man depth will be needed. The back end of the roster also could look different (though even if management declines Arcidiacono’s team option, he could return on a cheaper deal).

Ball won’t come cheaply. Ownership has provided Karnišovas free reign since his hire, including the hiring of an expensive coach in Billy Donovan while Jim Boylen remains on the books.

Now the executive vice president has to determine if Ball is the right fit at the right price.

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