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The Bulls options with Lonzo Ball after they (should) announce he's not playing this season
it's a tradeoff between flexibility and money, so we know which way the Bulls will go
This was Arturas Karnisovas last month, either lying or admitting incompetence when asked about how he handled Lonzo Ball’s injury prognosis last season:
“I don’t have regrets because I had to wait for clarity. We were going with hopes he was going to play with us and and that didn’t happen and I had to adjust afterwards. That’s how we’re going to look at it. I don’t know his timeline, but we’re going to make adjustments and tweaks to the roster to address that.“
He then further provided only “no comment” when asked explicitly whether the team would look to some kind of salary cap relief when it came to the guaranteed money owed Lonzo over the next two seasons.
The explanation, like many Arturas provided that day, doesn’t hold water. Even if he was delusional about Lonzo’s recovery (and it’d join a long list of things he’s gullible about) there would surely still be “regrets” of not doing more - ya know, just in case - to solidify the PG position last offseason.
So going into next season, Arturas displayed a similar misplaced optimism, but certainly can’t believe it. It’s likely more proper for him to express this publicly, add some yadda yadda Lonzo is a human being first this is a tragedy blah blah blah, but the Bulls don’t have the luxury of waiting for clarity on this.
The Bulls need to operate under the assumption, now and yes without 100% certainty, that Lonzo is not playing next season.
This is not so outlandish if you consider “playing” to mean “playing regular minutes in meaningful games”. While it’s possible that Ball’s latest, extremely rare, surgery, works...it’s not going to work in time for the Bulls to be comfortable adding him to the rotation. There is going to be a ton of ramp-up required to get Lonzo back on an NBA court after two calendar years away, and the Bulls aren’t planning on some developmental year where you can dedicate regular season games to goals outside of winning the game.
This is how the Bulls should’ve acted last season, but there’s even less excuse for the next one. Arturas won’t get clarity from Lonzo’s doctors, but he can generate it himself.
There’s these facts he can operate under this summer:
Lonzo isn’t playing next season.
Lonzo is owed $20.5M next season, a figure that’s currently on the team’s salary cap and luxury tax calculation.
Lonzo has a player option at $21.4M for the following (2024-25) season that he will pick up.
So with those things established, what can the Bulls do?
(all information gleaned from the essential NBA Salary Cap FAQ)
Option 1: keep doing nothing, take the insurance money
Just getting this one out of the way early, as these are the Bulls: not only do they have a history of taking the laziest and cheapest way out of any situation, they suffer no repercussions since the professional coverage of this team is either too small-time, bought, or stupid, and in terms of a national concern the team has gradually slid towards irrelevance.
While Lonzo’s contract is guaranteed, and he gets that salary whether he plays or not, the Bulls are currently receiving 80% reimbursement from the league-wide insurance policy.
So they can just…continue with that. Stay publicly optimistic that a return is happening, cry at how unfair this all is that their cap/tax figures have over $20M tied up in Lonzo, quietly get reimbursed for the payroll expense.
Option 2: apply for a career-ending injury exclusion
This would be drastic, but considering the circumstances of Lonzo’s injury it’s not that far afield. Lonzo’s latest surgery, his third since he last played, is extremely rare for NBA players, and there are few success stories of even a return to action let alone to previous level of play.
So the Bulls have a case to say that Ball’s injury, which occurred over a year ago, is career-ending. That’s not something the team has to convince themselves, it’s determined by an independent entity (jointly selected by the league and the union).
If this was “successful”, Lonzo’s salary is still paid to him (and Bulls would get insurance) but his figure would be completely off the team’s cap sheet and tax calculation.
This course of action does bring a lot of uncertainty of impact. Maybe it pisses off the Ball ‘camp’ (though this means nothing that’d stop Lonzo from continuing to try and come back), maybe the determination takes so much time that the Bulls won’t be able to plan. You’d have to think it’d take long enough to where even they gained cap space, it’d be long after the free agency period ends.
I don’t expect the Bulls to consider this option…until maybe after another season where Lonzo doesn’t play. There’s more chance of outright cap space in the 2024 summer as DeRozan’s contract will also be off the books then.
Option 3: apply for a Disabled Player Exception
This was succinctly put by my pal Ricky on Cash Considerations: the Bulls should apply for a Disabled Player Exception because they have a disabled player.
They should’ve done this last season. Instead - and again, this was successfully kept quiet - they let the January 15th deadline to apply pass, knowing within reason that Lonzo was not coming back but not confirming it until after the trade deadline.
Now why…would…they do that?
Because like any exception, a Disabled Player Exception is a mechanism to spend over the cap, but it still does add to the luxury tax calculation. If the Bulls were granted an exception last season (this is also determined independently), and used the ~$10M (half of Lonzo’s salary) to acquire a player, that would’ve put them over the luxury tax line.
And this is a team that didn’t even use their Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level
Exception! If you’re the Bulls, why try to get another one…that sounds like just paperwork. And fans might notice that you didn’t use it.
This offseason they have similar self-imposed constraints. Lonzo’s $20M is on their books, and they have a ~$11M MLE, and they could potentially have another $10M DPE, but if you add it all together with the team’s committed contracts and desire to sign your own free agents, the Bulls if (gasp) using everything to try and improve, would almost certainly go over the tax line.
Ownership should rationalize that while the Lonzo injury sucks, and perhaps it’s even a bit unfair that they’d be taxed for replacing a disabled player, why make AK’s job even harder with this spending constraint?
But we already know they aren’t going into the tax, even for this extremely logical and advantage-seizing reason. And unfortunately it’ll be reported in a way like “tee-hee it’s the Bulls guys we already know!” and not “hey, this is total bullshit!”.
Option 4: trade the contract to another team
This is may be the option that allows the most future flexibility and chance at improvement, but costs the most money.
The Bulls could be realistic and say they’re not in a position to just hope Lonzo recovers, yet don’t want to pull the lever of getting him off the books. Or maybe it’s determined that it’s possible Lonzo will play basketball this season, but the Bulls know that functionally he’s not going to help them even if he salvages his career.
So make that some other team’s concern, trade Lonzo Ball.
Any NBA trade involves finances, but it’s particularly important here because of the low likelihood Lonzo will play under his current contract. If a team were to trade for Lonzo, that team cannot apply for a DPE or career-ending injury exclusion. That said, the new team would be getting the insurance reimbursement.
And while there are not a lot of contracts out there where you are getting zero productivity like an injured Lonzo, there are some that either go longer or are for players who aren’t disabled but might as well be.
Trades are more flexible than exceptions. The Bulls can take back 125% incoming salary. They can aggregate Ball with another salary or asset.
So it’s tough, but possible, to see a team trading for Lonzo even if they don’t expect him to play either, just as a way to lower payroll expenses. The Miami Heat have several bad contracts (including $9.5M to another disabled player in Victor Oladipo). The Mavericks have Davis Bertans and JaVale McGee, who are technically able to play but don’t. The Warriors could lower their astronomical tax bill by getting out from Jordan Poole’s extension. Maybe Ben Simmons is truly the worst contract in the league and the Nets would swap problems.
All those mentioned options are not fully-baked ideas and present issues. The most obvious problem is that if a team is willing to trade a player for someone who likely can’t play at all, that player must be quite bad. Lonzo’s contract is a negative asset, so if it’s used to actually get a good player, they’d have to include a positive asset like a first round pick or Patrick Williams or something. They are not hopelessly out of these assets, but they are at a deficit, so it’d be very risky to include another if it’s just to save money.
But that brings to mind another reason a Lonzo trade is tough to see happening, the same ‘problem’ as applying for an exception: while the Bulls are getting more productivity on the court (than literally nothing), it’ll cost money. You “lose” the insurance payout, don’t lose a chance to get an exclusion, and you likely go into the tax.
To sum up the options, I’ve provided the above.
But no matter the course of action, the Bulls need to first go into this offseason by declaring Lonzo isn’t playing. Unless they stick with option 1, a.k.a. The Karnisovas Method.