We’ve come to the point in 2022 free agency that takes hold sometime after every NBA transaction period begins: the Bulls not doing much of anything, and the delusional rationalizing that they’re just saving up for some big move.
The new-ish AKME regime has surprised us in the past. There was the 2021 trade deadline, and then the 2021 offseason, where the Bulls both struck decisively fast and also were creative late in the process.
But after the Lauri Markkanen trade, which was another use of creativity but also the first ominous signal that they are operating in a stay-under-the-tax payroll budget, it’s been this dynamic where we are expecting similar creativity, holding out hope that something is being worked on, but ultimately very little comes up. The 2022 trade deadline was nearly complete inactivity, which not only harmed that team’s playoff chances (and that was only made worse by their only activity in signing Tristan Thompson) but they did not acquire players where they had future rights on them to retain flexibility.
(and that ‘flexibility’ term isn’t the giant joke it was in the GarPax days because AKME had set that expectation that they could make additions through many ways)
And even worse, what little they’ve done has only added more obstructions for no substantial benefit. They paid Thompson a little extra using their Bi-Annual Exception meaning they can’t use it this offseason. They paid Andre Drummond $600K more than the minimum which required use of another exception, the Non-Taxpayer Mid Level. I don’t understand the reason for this, what happens if Drummond turns down the minimum? Oh noes....uh, they could just move on to another washed 7-footer.
And all that is on top of the ownership limitation of wanting to stay under the tax so they can 1) not pay it and 2) collect the payout from the big market teams
I know, we want to believe there’s something more here because AKME has surprised us before. And I was genuinely surprised that they didn’t dick around with Zach LaVine’s re-signing. But all the reporting, and entire history of Reinsdorfian rule, suggests not that the Bulls are laying in wait because they’re going to do something big, it’s the obvious answer of keeping expenses low and revenues high.
So there was no shocking Rudy Gobert move, which was logical given Gobert’s contract but after seeing the asset cost Minnesota paid not something the Bulls could match anyway.
And the reported interest on Danillo Gallinari was informative even in the losing effort. They were not outbid financially, but the Bulls still refused to go higher in their first-year contract offer than what would take them into the tax. (reminder, the tax isn’t actually assessed until the end of the regular season).
And it looks like there wasn’t much of a backup plan after losing to the Celtics on Gallo. They re-signed Derrick Jones Jr. pretty soon after.
While that signing is actually smart from a flexibility standpoint (as Jones could be signed using bird rights instead of a cap exception), we immediately get the informed speculation that while the Bulls technically have mechanisms to add players, they are self-limited by the tax line:
Updated cap numbers for the Bulls.— Mark K (@mkhoops) July 1, 2022
• 14 players under contract, one spot open
• $3.6m under the tax
• $7.2m left on the MLE to use
• $5m left on the Theis TPE (expires soon) pic.twitter.com/usALbYLy5V
UPDATE 7/3 4:48pm: The Bulls have made a signing, 36 year old Goran Dragic. This was for the veteran minimum so it does not impact the balance of MLE remaining.
I’m not sure there is a player ‘worth’ a $7.2M multi-year deal that fits their most pressing needs (none of which have been addressed this offseason yet), but the point is you have to use these mechanisms to give yourself more flexibility later. Even if Jones wasn’t much of a fit, he can be traded midseason. They could waive guys during training camp even if (gasp) they have guaranteed contracts.
There will be opportunities in the days to come. I am not deluding myself to think the Bulls will be legitimately pursuing Kevin Durant (and he doesn’t appear to have the Bulls on his radar...wonder why?), but part of that fallout could mean other players being available. Utah could tear down more of their team after dealing Gobert. Do a trade that actually saves the other team money for once, and your benefit is getting better players (!).
But what we have been conditioned to expect, even with the brief reprieve that AKME provided last offseason, is something like a flier on TJ Warren to regain a foot or Carmelo Anthony to regain 7 years of age. And being told that Lonzo Ball’s orthopedic surgeon is kind of like a free agent acquisition, if you think about it.
Unlike how the Reinsdorfs measure success, the team is indeed in competition with the rest of the conference. Many are changing things up and improving on paper. The Celtics won the conference and apparently eschewed ‘continuity’ to trade for Malcolm Brogdon in addition to signing Gallo. This inactivity isn’t because of faith in the roster (though adding Warren will be another salvo in the ‘if only X was healthy!’ excuse arsenal) but a lack of faith in ownership’s full commitment to improving it.