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Three goals for the Bulls this offseason

can we keep Zach? must we keep Vooch?

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Your Chicago Bulls head into an uncertain offseason following a depressing 4-1 flop in the first round of the 2022 playoffs at the hands of the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. After a red-hot start and good vibes, the Bulls were felled by a variety of injuries and illnesses... as well as a lack of reliable reinforcements.

Bulls EVP Arturas Karnisovas alluded to some of the big elements Chicago certainly appeared to be lacking down the stretch in his after-exit-interviews presser.

“We’ll figure out what additions we need...Is that shooting? Is that defense? Is that size? Athleticism? So we’re going to sit down and figure it out with the group.’’

During his own media availability session, head coach Billy Donovan was fairly cagey when asked about offseason personnel decisions, though he indicated that he would be part of the decision making process alongside Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley. Donovan did seem to suggest a desire to add more shooting.

“At times this year we shot the ball really really well. And then, you know, this series we didn’t shoot the ball well.”

He’s right, that’s one big need. There are a couple more clear things to do this offseason as well:

More (High-Volume) Shooters

The Bulls finished the 2021-22 NBA regular season at the very bottom of the league in three-point shot attempts per game (28.8, nearly two tries below the 29th-ranked Wizards, and a whopping 12.5 fewer attempts than the top-ranked Timberwolves). Part of that can be explained by injury. Lonzo Ball had more than twice as many triple looks (7.4 a night on 42.3% shooting) as he did two-point attempts (3.5), missed 47 games this year. Coby White also missed 21 games this year (5.8 attempts per game at 38.5%), while Zach LaVine missed 15 (7.1 attempts, 38.9%).

The real problem is that isn’t enough. Patrick Williams was sidelined for 65 games, and has shown promise as a long-range shooter (51.7% this year), but only took 1.7 threes a night this season when healthy. Alex Caruso is a career 36.6% three-point shooter, though his success rate dipped a bit this season (33.3% on 3.1 attempts) and it’s ultimately modest volume. Ayo Dosunmu shot 37.6% from deep on 2.4 tries. As much as it seems logical to ship Coby White out this offseason and replace him with Ayo, those 3 point attempts by Coby won’t be so easily distributed.

Likely cheap free agent guards include unrestricted veterans Malik Monk, Gary Harris and Patty Mills (has a player option with Nets), plus restricted free agents like Kings shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo and Hornets wing Cody Martin.

There are actually some 3-and-D wings to be had potentially as well. Clippers forwards Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum, Warriors shooting guard Gary Payton II a.k.a. “The Mitten,” Nets wing Bruce Brown (he’s basically a better, even-smaller Derrick Jones Jr. with a three-point shot), Bucks wing Pat Connaughton (he has a $5.7 million player option), and Heat wing Caleb Martin (like his twin brother, a restricted free agent) would all be solid fits.

Frontcourt Overhaul

It was pretty clear that size mattered a whole heck of a lot for Chicago against Milwaukee in the playoffs. The Bucks’ top three bigs — starters Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, plus nobody’s favorite former Bull Bobby Portis getting the start in the last couple games — totally outclassed Chicago’s frontcourt rotation.

Billy Donovan desperately used a variety of reserve options behind starters Vucevic and Williams: the small ball duo of Javonte Green at power forward and DJJ at center, or the totally washed Tristan Thompson.

Even if the team truly wants to retain Vucevic and Williams next year, it should still look at replacements for everyone beyond that. Javonte is under team control on a great deal at the minimum next season, and though he might be a fun fit as an 11th man, we shouldn’t need to ever rely on him in the playoffs again. Marko Simonovic is also signed through next season at a very low price, but he looked unplayable. Tony Bradley cracked the rotation early in the season, and will probably (hopefully) elect free agency: he has a player option, but it’s for less than what he can get as a free agent minimum contract elsewhere. The Bulls can always choose to waive any or all of them, the only penalty being their low salary still on the cap.

As for potential replacements: My personal favorite backup center, JaVale McGee (no, seriously), will be a free agent coming off quite possibly his fourth NBA title this summer. He remains incredibly effective at what he does, and would be exactly what we need out of a reserve five. Portis (ugh, seriously) has a $4.6 million player option that he could probably double annually were he to hit free agency this summer, thanks to his excellent rebounding and three-point shooting. Oft-injured, Patrick Williams-hurting Knicks center Mitchell Robinson is an unrestricted free agent. Montrezl Harrell is available, but his limitations on defense are always pretty glaring come playoff time and I’d avoid him. Even more undersized (but much better defender) P.J. Tucker has a player option but may want to beat it in free agency at age 36. Thad Young could return to his ‘Thadgic’ role here. Then some potentially cheaper names include Chris Boucher, Isaiah Hartenstein, and, yes, even Hassan Whiteside. He’d still be a massive upgrade over Tristan Thompson.

Two restricted free agent backup centers remain plenty intriguing. Rim-rolling Magic center Mo Bamba quietly enjoyed an impressive age-23 3rd season with 10.6 points on 48% field goal shooting (over 38% from deep), 8.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks a game. The Magic committed to former Bull Wendell Carter, so Bamba could potentially be had. Similarly, the Nets may feel the financial crunch and not retain athletic 23-year-old center Nic Claxton.

Now, we should know by now that AKME doesn’t necessarily box themselves in with who is under contract, having outright cap space, or locking in starters. If there’s a summer scenario where they offload Vucevic or Paw, there are some slightly bigger game. Jusuf Nurkic could in theory be a slightly-cheaper, younger, more defense-oriented Vucevic replacement. Though Nurkic can’t shoot threes, he’s a pretty good passer (he averaged 2.8 assists last year!) and midrange shooter.

If taking a more massive swing, the two most intriguing players would be in restricted free agency, with breakout Hornets power forward Miles Bridges and Suns center DeAndre Ayton. Both had public negotiations for an early extension with their teams end without a new deal, and though unlikely the Bulls would position themselves for an offer sheet there is always acquisition via sign-and-trade.

Embattled Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a perennial DPOY contender, could be available this summer in a possible Utah fire sale. But the assets and salary required to trade for the Stifle Tower’s $38.2 million salary next season, as a player still yet to overcome his known limitations in the postseason, has me skeptical of it being a good idea.

Retain Zach LaVine

The Bulls’ top priority this season, of course, will be re-signing 27-year-old All-Star shooting guard Zach LaVine. LaVine will be an unrestricted free agent, but Chicago can offer $50M+ and an additional year more than any competitor. Though as we’ve seen in the last decade or so of free agency, those factors don’t always hold the ultimately sway in a player’s decision-making.

Recently switching agencies to now be a Klutch client, and probably the most appealing free agent out there this summer, Zach has to be thinking he will be getting the max somewhere. Even if it’s not a team currently with max cap space.

And, at least publicly, he is treating the Bulls as just another option and not any leader in the clubhouse:

“Obviously I’m going to take my time and look into everything, talk with my agent [Rich Paul]. I’m going into everything open-minded, but understand that my time here has been great. We’ll see what the future holds...I plan to enjoy free agency with what it is as a whole. I think you’re going to have to experience A-Z without making any fast decisions.”

Perhaps not quite the language Bulls fans probably wanted to hear, but maybe still short of guaranteeing his own Hamptons weekend.

Arturas Karnisovas, meanwhile, expressed a desire to keep LaVine around “for a long time”:

“He knows exactly what to expect here, and, you know, we have a really good relationship with him... The last two years have been the best years of his career, so we’ll see what happens.’’

There’s of course the factor of long-term health. LaVine is currently dealing with a troublesome left knee that hampered his output for much of the season plus his playoff debut. He is set to consult with a specialist about his options for the knee for the second time this year, and it appears surgery is a distinct possibility. The same knee already went under the knife for his ACL repair in 2017. That could be a reason the Bulls don’t aggressively offer Zach all they can and get him locked up ASAP this summer. But as we’ve seen from what AKME did last year, the players go for the teams that pursue them regardless of cap space, and it may not be wise to slow-play things with your star.