NBA Free Agency starts today, thankfully not at midnight eastern (who can forget the opening-minute Cristiano Felicio extension) but a more palatable 5pm central time.
The Bulls are in a spot that you could call ‘flexible’ but is also somewhat constricting and reliant on outside factors to get what they want. I had previously thought that the deadline to fully guarantee Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky’s contracts had passed yesterday, but it apparently goes right up to the free agency period.
This matters because those contracts when fully guaranteed ($14M for Young, $10M for Sato) functionally takes the Bulls out of being a team with useable cap space this offseason. They could waive either or both and only pay their partial guarantees (and for further savings, stretch those guarantees over 3 cap seasons), or pick them up with a trade in the works to a team with cap space (or a Traded Player Exception) and shed the salaries that way.
As we know, while the free agency negotiating period technically starts this afternoon, it’s been going on behind the scenes for weeks. Teams will probably know whether they have a shot at an unrestricted free agency and need their space, or will instead immediately pivot to the backup plan and take on a player the caliber of Young or Sato in a trade instead.
The preceding was all about the mechanisms to which the Bulls can reshape their roster, what about the actual player talent they want to require?
All rumormongers out there are saying it’s Lonzo Ball, who’s a restricted free agent with his incumbent team which means the New Orleans Pelicans can match any offer sheet.
To illustrate how these dominoes can fall (and crush the Bulls?), take the early Sunday rumor that the Pelicans were going to let Ball go because they were going to use a cap space route to pursue unrestricted free agent Kyle Lowry. Then later in the day it has been all but confirmed that actually Lowry is going to be signed-and-traded to the Miami Heat (a franchise that seemingly gets whoever they want regardless of cap space). There are other free agents the Pels can go after if they miss out on Lowry (Spencer Dinwiddie?), but they could be finding out that nobody wants their money and will just keep Lonzo Ball as a fallback.
Or, as a poor (and perhaps poorly-run) franchise, the Pelicans simply don’t want to pay Ball regardless and if they can get some fungible veteran players in return for them signing-and-trading Ball, they’d do it. Perhaps to your very own Chicago Bulls, as reported by John Hollinger at The Athletic:
The team widely expected to drop that offer sheet is Chicago, which can generate enough room to sign Ball to a four-year, $80 million deal by waiving and stretching the final year of Al-Farouq Aminu’s contract ($10 million). Here’s the rub: Would Chicago still go through the trouble of doing this if it knew the Pelicans are likely to match? Or is this strategy only contingent on New Orleans adding Lowry?
However, one late, hot item I’ve heard is that a double sign-and-trade may be in the works that sends Ball out (possibly to Chicago, NOT to Charlotte as I had earlier been led to believe) and Devonte’ Graham back to New Orleans. It could end up a very complex transaction.
It’s advantageous to the Bulls to not generate the cap space required to sign Ball outright. They wouldn’t have dead money like Aminu, or renounce the bird rights to Daniel Theis or qualifying offer to Lauri Markkanen, they’d gain use of the full mid-level exception. But the team needs to have both a stick and a carrot I suppose: the threat to sign Ball and force New Orleans to match, or the option to work out a sign-and trade with an asset going to the Pelicans. After the trade deadline there was speculation of a double sign-and-trade with Markkanen, or they would actually like Satoransky for one year instead. Or as suggested above, the sweetener comes from a third team.
This is a risky game the Bulls are playing, because they are not in control. Neither is Ball, and while there’s been some reporting that he wants to come to the Bulls, it hasn’t risen to the level where it’s his preferred option.
So here’s hoping that Karnisovas and crew also have a backup plan. And I hope it’s not a Derrick Rose reunion, a move I would consider cynical and unnecessarily distracting. AKME have gotten a reputation for being secretive, and they did swing the Vucevic deal out of nowhere, so maybe there’s something bigger and better even if the Ball pursuit doesn’t work out.