The BlogABull 2023 Free Agency preview: aw, nuts
Not only inflexible for improvement, but currently with low chance of meaningful success. Solid business.
Free agency officially begins at 5pm central time on Friday June 30th. This is much better than the old ways of midnight eastern and the calendar flipping to July, though it made for a tragicomic memory of Cristiano Felicio signing a monster 4-year deal at 11:01pm in Chicago.
The Nikola Vucevic extension, announced Wednesday, isn’t quite Felicio-bad. But as I said in that reaction post: it is very far from good, whether ‘in a vacuum’ or in…wherever the Bulls are. News broke yesterday on the details of Vuc’s extension, and this is all fully guaranteed: $18.5 million in the first season, with 8% raises to eventually be $21.5 million in 2025-26 when Vuc turns 35 years old. I don’t find this to be a very tradeable contact!
The Bulls also received more certainty in continuity when learning that Andre Drummond picked up his player option for next season. There were rumors earlier that day from Marc Stein that Drummond would go against his previously stated intention and opt-out and join the Dallas Mavericks, but then later said that was contingent on the Mavs moving around some money first (likely JaVale McGee, over $5M each of the next two seasons), and that bit obviously didn’t happen.
Ultimately, this meant Drummond looked to have no market. So consider giving him that player option another feather in Arturas Karnisovas’s cap.
Hey speaking of ‘cap’: Drummond probably provides on-court worth above the minimum, but it’s notable that replacing him with a new veteran minimum signee would’ve saved the Bulls $1.3M under the tax. Sadly, figures that small actually matter here after AK put his win-now-except-the-don’t roster in such a bind.
Here’s where the Bulls stand heading into free agency:
As an over-the-cap team, here are the possible exceptions at their disposal:
Coby White (bird) - I’ve read literally zero other teams being interested in Coby. It’s almost like they weren’t paying attention to his improvement on a going-nowhere team beating up on tankers, huh. White is a restricted free agent, and the Bulls usually tell such players to go find an offer and they’ll match (or not). I know Vucevic was unrestricted, but heck you’d think he would’ve allowed for an informal version of this. Yes…I’m still mad about this Vuc signing. Coby could, if there really are no suitors, take the one-year qualifying offer of $7.74M, which was extended by the Bulls earlier this week to retain matching rights.
Ayo Dosunmu (early bird) - the Bulls are restricted in what is the maximum they can give Ayo in a raise, but he had such a disappointing sophomore season that really isn’t an issue (hooray?). His one-year qualifying offer is $5.2M. That may be higher than what he gets offered, but I think/hope he’d return for less money but more years.
non-taxpayer Mid-Level - set at $12.4M, can start a contract of up to 4 years.
Bi-Annual - $4.5M, up to 2 years
Minimum - $2.0M in the sheets, more (depending on years of service) in the streets. Less if it’s under 2 years of service.
Patrick Beverley, Javonte Green, Derrick Jones: technically can be re-signed over the minimum, but below requiring using a larger exception, but I think for all situations it would mean using one or the other.
As you see, the team is roughly $30M under the tax for 5 or 6 remaining roster spots. And even saying that fact requires some mental gymnastics to try and forget that this is all to keep continuity for a team that finished in 10th place last year.
That’s the bigger problem with this front office. It’s bad they can’t succeed, but worse they don’t even know what success is or how to measure it. AK genuinely thinks last year’s finish meant something! And in his mind, his team doesn’t need significant improvement. Which is convenient for them because this current situation makes significant improvement pretty much impossible. Can they even tread water?
We all heard two possibly-important things from AK in his typically-brutal press conference (embarrassing that KC Johnson described AK as ‘exuding confidence’, lol man it was on video we all saw it!) after the draft.
They’re not waiving and stretching Lonzo Ball’s dead money
They can go into the tax
The first one was a direct response to a (very good) direct question. I take him at his word, because AK is nothing if not telegraphing of his bad thought process. But if you want to dream, hypothetically the team could’ve reduced Lonzo’s cap figure to $8.3M this summer and then filed for a career-ending injury exclusion next year to get it fully removed. I suppose doing that makes more sense to do if you are trying to maximize flexibility and change the team, but they don’t want to do this and would rather pay the 20th-ish best starting center in the league $18.5M because he has an active keycard and those are a bitch to change out.
AK was more vague when affirming they’d look at filing for a Disabled Player Exception for Ball, though that’s typically not done this early in the offseason: based on recent examples it would be granted around the start of the regular season, a $10.2M exception to sign or trade for a player on the final year of their contract.
That exception, like the others, allows the Bulls to spend over the cap to acquire talent. But there’s no relief in staying under that tax line. So to that second statement: AK said, sorta (certainly not ‘exuding confidence’) that he can go into the tax.
But I interpreted it as a response given like it was an already-known thing, the reiteration of ownership’s prior easily-spun claims that they’ll go in to the tax for ‘a contender’. AK broadened that to ‘top-4, top-6 in the East’ but even that is above where the Bulls are now, and there was no commitment that ownership would authorize going into the tax to merely speculatively get to that level.
This was far from saying they’d be an actual big-market team now, or that they could spend their way out of prior mistakes. It came across to me very tepid, where hypothetically they’d “go for it” at the trade deadline if they’re looking like a contender. Or they’d barely go over now, but with the easy ability to go under midseason (the tax isn’t assessed until end of the regular season) if the team is trending below that threshold.
What’s certainly a spending limit is the first apron, which is $7M over the tax line. The Bulls are literally hard-capped at that number if they use the non-taxpayer MLE, or take in a player in a sign-and-trade, and a couple other things we probably don’t have to worry about.
With all those factors in mind, it’s pretty much impossible that the Bulls will use everything at their disposal to improve the team this offseason. In my ideal scenario - well, beyond firing AK, not re-signing Vuc at this ridiculous salary, looking for an improvement over LaVine+DeRozan, etc. - that would mean something like this?
But as you see, even after being conservative with Coby and Ayo (and we know AK gets worked on the margins, so that’s a poor assumption) it blows them out over the tax, to where they literally cannot use that DPE as they’d be hard-capped at the Apron.
(this is what I mean when saying re-signing Vuc and not stretching Lonzo DID restrict their avenues of improvement)
So choices have to be made, something like the below instead?
Do we really think the Bulls would authorize going into the tax, risking that sweet sweet payout from the actual big-market franchises next summer, for a player signable for the BAE? That is easily spun as the type of player who isn’t a difference maker. And heck, the minimum guys, even if targeted well at filling the shooting void, probably won’t be significant contributors to make the rotation since the top 8 are returning from last season. Yes, it’d be ultimately an improvement to replace Derrick Jones and Javonte Green with better shooters in, say, Georges Niang and Yuta Watanabe, but how significant can the deep bench be?
Bench: White, Caruso, [a shooter to be named later], [a second shooter let’s dream]
Deep Bench: Dosunmu, Drummond, Terry
The Bulls have one gaping hole, point guard, and one attempt at an 8-figure salaried player. And I don’t think they can thread that needle of finding one good enough willing to go to the capped-out Bulls.
Now of course, there are potential trades. They can happen, though we’ve been constantly told over the past 2 years they’re too hard to pull off. And the Bulls have very few draft picks available to trade (out two more second rounders after the last draft). Maybe AK really does have that aggressive creativity (which turned out to be kinda reckless, but still) to somehow complete a good DeRozan or LaVine trade that redistributes the salary slots and somehow keeps the team competitive with more upside? A sign-and-trade with Coby or Ayo? Sell high with the 1st-team-all-defense-yet-can’t-reliably-be-in-the-starting-lineup Alex Caruso? Get some team to take Lonzo Ball’s contract and get actually-playable players in return? Quadruple-down and try and add using remaining first-rounders and Patrick Williams?
That’d be well-received, but it’s tough to envision. Some others read into AK’s latest press conference as him being smugly secretive, as if surely he has something up his sleeve. I’m instead with Ricky in the latest Cash Considerations pod: the Bulls head exec came off like kind of a dunce. And AK’s actions, most recently the Vucevic extension, is another example of bad process. It’s not that AK knows something we don’t, he thinks something that’s proven to be false: that this group is already good, and that continuity is the way to improvement.
And thus, we should have extremely low expectations heading into July while the rest of “THIS LEAGUE” goes on a fun shopping spree.