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The Bulls actually had a pretty good free agency

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The Bulls signed two good players in free agency.

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The famous Chicago philosopher Kanye West once said “you’ve got to crawl before you ball”. The Bulls have applied that thinking to the start of free agency with two value signings that should mercifully elevate the team from the NBA’s cellar.

In Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls spent their $23 million in cap space on a pair of high-IQ veterans who bring more substance than style. This is a welcome change of approach after seeing the front office sign empty calorie players like Dwyane Wade, Jabari Parker, and Pau Gasol in free agency in recent years. Young and Satoransky may not be flashy names, but they will help the Bulls win games while aiding in the development of their young core.

What are Bulls getting in Tomas Satoransky?

Satoransky will take over as the Bulls’ starting point guard. The 28-year-old has tremendous size at 6’7 and a heady game that should make life easier for Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., and Zach LaVine.

Satoransky emerged as a quality player for the Wizards over the last two seasons. He’s an efficient scorer who has posted a true shooting percentage around 60 percent the last two years. He’s quality playmaker who has averaged better than six assists per-36 minutes while also finishing top-20 in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He’s a capable catch-and-shoot threat who made 39.5 percent of his three-pointers on two attempts per game last year. He’s also a competent defender with enough size to hold his own against three positions.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about Satoransky is that he knows who he is as a player. This is something that distinguishes him from Kris Dunn, who was never comfortable being the fifth option on offense. Sato will have no problem with that role. He posted only a 14.1 percent usage rate last season, showing a high-IQ game built on making the right play over looking for his own numbers. His skill as a facilitator and his catch-and-shoot ability should give the Bulls a player who can enhance the games of those around him without taking much off the table.

Here’s how Dunn and Satoransky stacked up last season:

Sato vs. Dunn 2018-19

Player Usage rate True shooting percentage Assist-to-turnover 3-point rate 3-point percentage Win shares
Player Usage rate True shooting percentage Assist-to-turnover 3-point rate 3-point percentage Win shares
Satoranky 14.1 59.1 3.3 30.6 39.5 4.7
Dunn 20.1 48.4 2.7 19 35.4 0.6

Dunn is a superior defender who could get hot as a scorer, but his offensive binges often felt like they were coming at the expense of the team. Satoransky will make better decisions with the ball, provide more outside shooting, and help his teammates become better versions of themselves. He’s also more durable, playing 80 games last season compared to 46 for Dunn.

At three years, $30 million with “protection” on the final season, the Bulls found a quality young veteran who provides stability at point guard.

What are Bulls getting in Thad Young?

Young will be the Bulls’ third big man and inherits the role of veteran leader from the departed Robin Lopez. He’s a long-and-strong forward at 6’8, 225 pounds who should be able to play with both Carter and Markkanen thanks to a well-rounded skill set built on doing the little things that help teams win.

Young is an ace defender with rare ability to turn defense into offense. As Dan Devine noted at The Ringer, Young is one of the league’s best at getting deflections and steals in the front court. He’s a smart positional defender with a nose for the ball and the strength to hold his own against taller offensive players in the paint. The Pacers finished with the third best defense in the NBA last year in large part because of Young’s ability. He should provide a huge boost for a Bulls defense that finished only No. 25 last year.

Don’t take my word for it; ask Giannis. The MVP credited credited Thad as being one of the toughest defenders he’s faced. He’ll allow the Bulls to give Markkanen more minutes at center in lineups where Carter is getting a breather.

Offensively, Young does a little bit of everything. He’s a powerful interior scorer who can bully opponents with his strength and the soft touch in his left hand. He’ll provide some of the post scoring the Bulls lost with Lopez while also offering more ability to stretch the floor. After being a non-shooter for his first six seasons in the league, Young has increased his volume and his accuracy from distance later in his career. He hit 35 percent of his threes last season on nearly two attempts per game. The Bulls should give him the green light to shoot, especially in lineups where he’s playing power forward next to Carter.

Young is also an unselfish and talented passer, averaging three assists per-36 minutes. He’ll unlock a high-low game when playing with Carter and should look to get Markkanen threes when sharing the court with him.

Young just turned 31 years old and will be making more than $13 million per season across his three-year deal, though his contract also reportedly comes with “protection” on the final year like Satoransky’s. On the surface, it seems strange for the Bulls to invest in an aging third big man, but his two-way competence and durability (Young played 81 games each of the last two seasons) should only help Carter and Markkanen.

Can the Bulls actually make the playoffs?

That’s the goal. In adding Young and Satoransky, the Bulls acquired two good players who increase the team’s lineup versatility and do all the little things to have a direct impact on winning.

Last season, the Magic got the No. 7 seed at 42-40 and the Pistons grabbed the No. 8 seed at 41-41. After winning only 22 games last year, it would be a remarkable improvement if the Bulls could fight to get to .500. It will require durability, internal improvement from young pillars like Markkanen and Carter, and for Jim Boylen not to be a trainwreck as head coach. All of that is far from guaranteed, but the fact that we can even consider it means the Bulls finally made some good free agent signings.

What the Bulls are still really lacking is a perimeter superstar to drive the offense. Signing Young and Sato likely takes them out of finding one at the top of the draft, though it’s worth noting that lottery reform has made tanking less desirable than it was before. The Bulls may now have a better chance to land that star in free agency. They can also cash in some of their young prospects in a trade. Obviously, Bulls fans should be jaded and cynical when it comes to acquiring star talent via trade or signing because the franchise has consistently failed to do it for decades. The team they have right now could make a big leap up the standings, but it doesn’t have a particularly high ceiling. That’s a problem for the Bulls to tackle moving forward.

Young and Sato are major additions for the depth and quality of the Bulls’ roster. The end of the rotation has been such a disaster the last two years that having two good players should make a noticeable difference. I would have preferred the Bulls to move salary and make a run at Jimmy Butler. Instead of making bold moves like many of the NBA’s other prestige franchises in major markets, the Bulls too often appear happy to be like the Pacers: a mid-market franchise that punches above its weight for respectability while still not spending too much money. The Bulls should be better than that. They need to either develop or acquire a star-level player or this rebuild will always be fatally flawed.

It’s possible we’re grading the Bulls on a curve here because they’ve been so bad in free agency for so long. Young and Sato don’t make them a contender for anything more than one of the final playoff spots in the East. Even rising that high would mark significant improvement for now.

The Bulls have gone from terrible to possibly respectable. They deserve some measured praise for that. Of course, they could have built a respectable team by keeping Butler, too. In many ways, getting to respectability should have been the easy part. Before John Paxson gets too much credit, let’s see where he can take the roster from here. There is still a lot of work to be done.