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Does Tristan Thompson have anything left to help the Bulls?

Bulls used a cap exception to specifically target Thompson

NBA: Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle broke the news last week that the Bulls would be signing Tristan Thompson after a brief stint in Indiana following his trade from the Kings. The Bulls finally announced the signing over All-Star Weekend, also announcing the release of Alfonzo McKinnie in the process.

While the assumption was Thompson was signed to a prorated minimum deal, Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus reported that the Bulls actually used their bi-annual exception to sign the veteran big man. This gave Thompson an extra $225K or so, and also means the Bulls won’t have that cap exception available this coming offseason when it’s set to be worth about $4 million.

This decision raises some eyebrows given it eliminates a tool for an upgrade in the summer. There’s always reason to be skeptical about the Reinsdorfs actually paying up and going into the luxury tax, so the speculation of a scenario where actually the Bulls wouldn’t be able to use the BAE this summer anyway because payroll will increase so much with a Zach LaVine raise (and other additions) is giving extra benefit of the doubt to ownership.

The more pressing question for this season is will Thompson be actually worth it?

The bar is very low when it comes to being even a marginal upgrade at backup center. Tony Bradley has had his moments of effectiveness thanks to being a behemoth (also, his on-court net rating is shockingly quite good), but he’s a plodding big man with stone hands who possesses little skill or versatility. He’s useful in certain matchups, but I certainly don’t trust him much down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Speaking of trust, apparently the Bulls don’t trust rookie Marko Simonovic to play real minutes at all. Tyler Cook got some run at backup 5 earlier this season, but he’s undersized and a two-way guy. The Bulls can also turn to Derrick Jones Jr. in a pinch (13% of his minutes at the 5), but he’s also undersized and is currently playing hurt. Maybe Patrick Williams gets some time as a small-ball 5, but that’s fraught with issues too given he’ll be coming off a major injury and isn’t much of a rebounder.

So, the bottom line is Thompson doesn’t have to be all that good to be an upgrade on what the Bulls have. The 30-year-old brings championship experience to the table after doing so much dirty work for the Cavs over the years before one season in Boston and then a split between the Kings and Pacers this season. In 34 games total this season (30 Kings, 4 Pacers), he’s averaging 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game while shooting 50.9% from the field.

Thompson isn’t what he used to be in his prime, which was a switchable big man who could wreak havoc on the glass on both ends while offering competence in pick-and-roll situations as a finisher and playmaker. The veteran big man has lost a step defensively and isn’t as effective offensively as he used to be (the passing isn’t really there anymore), but he’s still a strong rebounder. The Bulls have been a terrible defensive rebounding team with Bradley on the court (75.3 DRB% with Bradley off down to 68.6% with him on), and while he has helped them on the offensive glass, where they’re generally weak, Thompson can help there too.

Thompson also actually just had his best offensive game of the season in his final Pacers appearance, going for 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting. He had some nice moments finishing in the pick-and-roll, including on a lob dunk. Here are all his buckets from that game:

Sporting News’ Stephen Noh put together a whole reel of Thompson highlights from this season:

Expecting a lot out of Thompson is a folly at this point (Kevin Ferrigan noted on a recent Cash Considerations that a bunch of his impact metrics are “fine” at best), but if he can even be slightly better than what Chicago had in place, that’s a plus. It’s not like he’s expected to play a major role, and Nikola Vucevic will be playing huge minutes in the playoffs. But it would be nice to feel more comfortable giving Vucevic breathers the rest of the way, so hopefully Thompson will help and make it worth the Bulls’ while for using that bi-annual exception on him.