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Bulls free agency rumors: Who will be Chicago’s frontcourt upgrade?

there are a lot of names out there

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Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Chicago Bulls need some help in the frontcourt. While some Rudy Gobert rumors continue to be out there, K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago dumped cold water on them Thursday morning in his latest batch of intel. Jakob Poeltl is another potential trade target after he was a rumored option ahead of the deadline, but Johnson says that interest right now is “unknown.”

Johnson also reported Andre Drummond as a veteran’s minimum target. Drummond is somehow still only 28 and productive in the box score, but he doesn’t offer upside and has seen his impact wane in recent years.

Danilo Gallinari isn’t a center, but he too is getting Bulls buzz, with Johnson reporting a potential deal of two years worth $7-8 million annually.

There is a variety of young talent on the free agent market. The Orlando Magic are not expected to extend a qualifying offer to big man Mo Bamba, thus making him an unrestricted free agent, though Johnson also dumped the cold water bucket on that by saying a potential partnership is “on life support.” Chicago has also been linked to free agent Los Angeles Clippers reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein, a fit that Jay and Ricky applauded in the latest episode of Cash Considerations. However, the Magic seem to be a major threat there, and Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer said the Bulls might not be willing to use enough of the full mid-level to get him. This could very well be for luxury tax reasons, and that Gallo/Drummond report would seem to echo this.

A more potentially cost-effective option (emphasis on potentially) could be Brooklyn Nets reserve center Nic Claxton, a restricted free agent packing plenty of promise. Claxton was stuck first behind eventual Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Jarrett Allen and then behind some win-now veterans for Brooklyn, including Drummond, but produced effectively this past season in limited minutes. He is the exact kind of young player Chicago should try to get!

Sad that Javonte Green’s role as a 6’4” reserve power forward with Slam Dunk Contest hops is almost certainly doomed this season? Have no fear, Claxton can jump out of the gym, too, even without much of a running start:

Kevin Durant is all of us in that clip.

Selected with the No. 31 pick from the University of Georgia in 2019, the 23-year-old center possesses tantalizing physical tools: he stands at 6’11” while boasting a 7′2.5” wingspan and a 9′ 2” standing reach, as measured at the 2019 pre-draft combine.

In 47 contests with the Nets last year (including 19 starts), Claxton averaged 8.7 points on 67.4% shooting, 5.6 boards, and 1.1 blocks a night across 20.7 minutes. Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash did start to use Claxton more as the 2022 season progressed, which is an encouraging sign.

His per-36 numbers during the 2021-22 season are pretty exciting: 15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks a game. One of the better defensive players on Brooklyn this season, Claxton saw his development cut short by injury issues. He also evolved into a thunderous lob finisher:

Claxton is the kind of aggressive presence who will help generate additional possessions with his activity in the low post. 1.9 of his 5.6 rebounds are secured on the offensive end. Starting Bulls center (for now) Nikola Vucevic can also clean the glass well, making for a terrifying tandem should Chicago head coach Billy Donovan ever opt to play this theoretical duo together.

Should the 2021-22 opening night starting five in Chicago survive the offseason, they will most likely remain the starters, with hopefully a promising young big (Bamba, Hartenstein, Claxton) the first frontcourt sub off the bench:

The big man’s athletic skills allow him to effectively combat smaller players on switches. Check out the way Claxton seals Portland Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard off a switch from a Jusuf Nurkic screen that took Claxton’s then-teammate James Harden out of the play:

On the downside, Claxton remains fairly one-dimensional offensively. He is a serious threat near the rim, as his hops give him every advantage for nailing cool lobs and put-backs. And that’s about it.

For one thing, he is a patchy free-throw shooter, with a career conversion percentage of 53.9%. Although his charity stripe average this year was a career-beast 58.1%, Claxton’s uptick was also littered with gruesome nights like this:

Georgia head coach Tom Crean occasionally employed Claxton as an oversized point guard due to his abilities as a ball handler (seriously). At the pro level, Claxton has been on Brooklyn Nets teams loaded with ball-hogging All-Stars, so his passing skills have to develop through his first three league seasons.

Beyond his unidimensional scoring, another issue for Claxton has been health. Injuries ranging from lower-body issues to a shoulder ailment that required a surgery have limited him to appearing in just 94 of a possible 236 regular-season contests. At 215 pounds, he is a bit too wiry to bang in the paint for extended periods against some of the behemoths of the Eastern Conference.

All that said, the Nets have the right to match any offer tendered to the 2022 RFA when free agency opens at 5 p.m. CT on Thursday. Brian Windhorst of ESPN indicated on his Hoop Collective podcast Tuesday that “a couple of executives” told him Brooklyn and Claxton have come to an “understanding.” Given Brooklyn’s recent issues with player retention, it’s worth taking this with a grain of salt. Should Chicago swoop in and severely overpay for Claxton, one assumes that the aforementioned “understanding” would get nullified in a hurry.

At most, Brooklyn could have offered Claxton a four-year, $55 million contract earlier this week, but opted not to, setting up his impending free agency. Consulting executives told Sean Deveney of Heavy.com that he could get a shorter-team deal, maximally $35 million. We’ll see how much the Bulls are willing to offer a player like Claxton, or any of these other frontcourt options.