Breaking Up The Bulls

Breaking Up The Bulls

The Chicago Bulls were 27-13 on January 14, 2022. The Bulls got crushed by the Golden State Warriors that day, to drop a second game in what would become a four-game losing streak.

From that point forward, Chicago has gone 64-79. That’s a .448 winning percentage. Not bad enough to be in great draft position, and certainly not good enough to be a real playoff contender. That’s squarely in the NBA purgatory that’s so hard to escape.

January 14, 2022 also happens to be the last time Lonzo Ball appeared in a game for the Bulls. Ball is in Year 3 of the four-year, $80 million contract he signed as a part of a sign-and-trade to Chicago ahead of 2021-22 season.

Ball has appeared in 35 of 183 total regular season games while on that contract.

This isn’t to put blame for Chicago’s failures on Ball and the series of knee surgeries he’s had over the past two years. It’s more to point out that there is a clear delineation point of where things went wrong for the Bulls. It’s rare that you can pinpoint where things turned sour, but it’s very clear in Chicago’s case.

Now, here we are. A team that has gone from briefly good to decidedly average to bad in a three-season span. The worst part? The Bulls are currently bad without hope.

Now, it’s fair to note here that the Bulls have very, very rarely bottomed out under Jerry Reinsdorf’s reign as the team’s owner. Even when Chicago got the first overall pick to draft Derrick Rose in 2008, that involved a considerable amount of lottery luck.

Under Reinsdorf, Chicago has preferred to stay competitive, even when everything else screams going in the other direction. For about a 15-year period, John Paxson and Gar Forman had the Bulls in the playoffs every year, even if only one of those seasons saw the team considered a real title contender.

At the end of the “GarPax” run leading the front office, the Bulls were a mess. They didn’t bottom out, as much as years of bad decisions pushed Chicago to the bottom of the standings. Enter Arturas Karnisovas.

After a predictably messy first season, which was spent resetting things, Karnisovas made his big splash in the summer of 2021. Karnisovas added Ball and DeMar DeRozan in a pair of sign-and-trade deals and signed Alex Caruso as a free agent. That threesome alongside Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic propelled Chicago that impressive start in 2021-22.

Almost two years later, all five players are still on the Bulls. And Chicago is no longer that fun team that’s full of potential. Instead, the team stinks, the cap sheet is a mess and they’re mostly devoid of young talent.

It’s time to break up the Bulls.

We’re going to present some sensible trade ideas that could get Chicago turned in the right direction. It’s important to note that we’re going to present trades as if Karnisovas has the buy-in from ownership to tear things down. Mostly, this is what we would do, and what we think the Bulls should do, as opposed to what Chicago will actually do.

Trade Assets

High-value

Alex Caruso: two years, $19,350,000 ($16,350,000 guaranteed)

DeMar DeRozan: one year, $26,800,000

Zach LaVine: four years, $178,063,200

Nikola Vucevic: three years, $60,000,000

Mid-range

Jevon Carter: three years, $19,500,000

Torrey Craig: two years, $5,373,575 (veteran minimum contract)

Ayo Dosunmu: three years, $21,000,000

Andre Drummond: one year, $3,600,000

Coby White: three years, $36,000,000

Patrick Williams: one year, $9,835,881

Minimum-value

Lonzo Ball: two years, $41,860,465

Julian Phillips: four years, $8,119,739

Terry Taylor: two years, $4,216,676 (veteran minimum contract, $700,000 guaranteed)

Dalen Terry: three years, $12,260,358

Draft Pick Situation

The Bulls first-round picks are a bit messy. They own their own pick in 2024. They owe a pick with sliding protections to the San Antonio Spurs (top-10 protected in 2025, top-8 protected in 2026 and 2027). Chicago then owns their own first-round pick from 2028 to 2030. The Bulls are also owed a first-round pick from the Portland Trail Blazers. That pick is lottery-protected from 2024 through 2028.

In the second round, the Bulls have traded their picks from 2024 through 2027, That means the earliest Chicago can have selection would be in 2028, and that’s only if they’ve conveyed a first-round pick to the Spurs by then. They’ll get an additional pick in the second round in 2028 if Portland hasn’t conveyed them a first-rounder by then. The Bulls then own their own second-round picks in 2029 and 2030.

Essentially: Chicago is doing ok on first-round picks, but could use more. They are pretty light on second-round selections.

The Cap and Tax Situation

The Bulls are a tick below the luxury tax for this current season. Given that they’ve paid the tax just twice in franchise history, that’s a marker they’ll be looking to stay under.

Going into the 2024 offseason, Chicago projects to be roughly $37 million under the tax. That sounds good, but that’s with four open roster spots and without new contracts for DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Torrey Craig and Andre Drummond.

Re-signing simply the first two players, and then filling out the roster with minimums, would put the Bulls at or over the tax line.

In the summer of 2025, pending moves between now and then, the Bulls could be a cap space team. Lonzo Ball’s contract will have expired by then, and that’s a major stumbling block for Chicago having some cap flexibility.

The Trades

We’re getting to the good stuff now! Remember, the idea here is to reset things for the Bulls in a major way. Is this team going to be bad the rest of this season? They sure are! But they are probably going to be bad anyway. Our goal here is to give Chicago some hope for the future. We’re hoping to achieve that by adding some additional draft capital, young talent and resetting the cap sheet.

Trade 1

Chicago Bulls receive:

Ivica Zubac (two years, $22,676,543), Russell Westbrook (two years, $7,863,263), Amir Coffey (two years, $7,604,938)

LA Clippers receive:

Nikola Vucevic (three years, $60,000,000), Terry Taylor (two years, $4,216,676 – veteran minimum)

Rationale:

This trade is about clearing out the short- and long-term money owed to Nikola Vucevic. The Bulls save about $2 million this season, but they end up saving roughly $21.8 million over the next three seasons. And Ivica Zubac’s, Amir Coffey’s and Russell Westbrook’s deals all expire after the 2024-25 season. That gets Chicago out of the final year of Vucevic’s deal.

The assumption is that Chicago would either straight waive Westbrook or would buy him out. Because he makes far less than the Non-Taxpayer MLE, Westbrook would be free to join any team that needs a point guard for the stretch run.

On the Clippers side, they add Vucevic, who gives them a better offensive fit alongside their star trio of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden. The Clippers also clear out a bit of backcourt logjam this way, without having to waive Westbrook.

Trade 2

Chicago Bulls receive:

Bennedict Mathurin (three years, $23,349,373 – rookie scale), Jordan Nwora (one year, $3,000,000), Jalen Smith (two years, $10,461,159), Marcus Morris (one year, $17,116,279), first-round pick from Indiana, first-round pick from Philadelphia

Indiana Pacers receive:

Zach LaVine (four years, $178,063,200), Torrey Craig (two years, $5,373,575 – veteran minimum), Mo Bamba (one year, $2,009,706 – veteran minimum)

Philadelphia 76ers receive:

Buddy Hield (one-year, $19,279,841), Andre Drummond (one-year, $3,360,000)

Rationale:

Chicago isn’t likely to turn Zach LaVine into a better package than this. He’s good, but not great. In this deal, the Bulls get a young wing with upside in Bennedict Mathurin and two first-round picks. Jordan Nwora and Jalen Smith are both flyers. Maybe they pop, maybe they don’t. The assumption is that Morris would either be waived, take a buyout or the Bulls would bench him until his contract expires.

As for the picks, Indiana owns all of their owns picks. Chicago could negotiate for something more immediate or something down the line. Philadelphia is now armed with the ability to trade a pick, likely one of the ones they got in the James Harden deal.

As for finances, the Bulls achieve massive savings here. They send out roughly $46 million in salary for this season. They bring back about $32 million. That’s nearly $14 million in savings for this season. The long-term savings are even greater, as they clear out nearly $138 million owed to Zach LaVine beyond this season, while adding only $22 million.

For the Pacers, this is how they can add an All-Star-level player. Indiana isn’t attracting stars in free agency, so they have to trade for or develop them. Buddy Hield doesn’t seem long for the Pacers, so the real give-ups here are Mathurin and the first-round pick. LaVine would be an upgrade alongside Haliburton and would make the Pacers offense even more unstoppable than it already is.

Torrey Craig would also be a nice defensive-minded addition for the wing rotation. And Mo Bamba becomes the third center, behind Myles Turner and Isaiah Jackson.

As for the Sixers, they get the shooter they need. The real cost for acquiring Hield is the first-round pick. Marcus Morris and Mo Bamba are end-of-the-bench guys at this point. Hield and Andre Drummond are major upgrades over both players. And, as an added bonus, Philadelphia doesn’t take on any salary beyond this season. They still have all the same cap flexibility that they previously had.

Trade 3

Chicago Bulls receive:

Brandon Clarke (four years, $50,000,000), Luke Kennard (two years, $29,527,272 – second-year team option), first-round pick from Memphis

Memphis Grizzlies receive:

DeMar DeRozan (one year, $28,600,000), Jevon Carter (three years, $19,500,000)

Rationale:

This is about doing right by DeRozan and sending him to a team he can help. Yes, the Grizzlies are currently worse than the Bulls, but they have some hope of righting the ship when they get Ja Morant back and some others return from injury.

Clarke is owed a decent chunk of change, so Chicago is actually adding some long-term salary in this deal. But Clarke could be a starting big when he returns in 2024-25. At $12.5 million per season, that’s a value deal. Kennard will likely play out the season providing some shooting to a roster that is somewhat light on it. Then, the Bulls can either decline his option, or pick it up and look to trade him in a deal next summer. And, like in the previous trades, getting an additional first-round pick is huge for the rebuilding Bulls.

Memphis gets the scoring punch they desperately need in DeRozan. And Carter gives them some continued insurance at point guard. For a first-round pick, of which the Grizzlies own all of their picks, you can’t ask for more than this return.

Trade 4

Chicago Bulls receive:

Dyson Daniels (three years, $19,551,349 – rookie scale), Kira Lewis Jr. (one year, $5,722,116), first-round pick from Milwaukee (via New Orleans)

New Orleans Pelicans receive:

Alex Caruso (two years, $19,350,000 – second season $3 million guaranteed)

Rationale:

The Bulls get yet another first-round pick, plus they get a young guard/wing with some upside in Dyson Daniels. He fits in nicely in the new rebuilding group of young players Chicago has. The Bulls can also take a look at Kira Lewis Jr. before making a decision on his free agency in the summer.

Financially, the Bulls take on some money, but it’s in the form of Daniels’ rookie scale deal. That’s a win.

The Pelicans add a veteran guard/wing to the rotation. Alex Caruso is a top-tier defender and a combination of him and Herb Jones would be very hard to score on. Caruso can also play alongside any of the Pelicans stars, as he’s a good off-ball player. For Daniels and an extra pick, New Orleans can’t do much better. Bonus: this deal has them within one minor salary-dump of getting out of the luxury tax.

Trade 5

Chicago Bulls receive:

Isaac Okoro (one year, $8,920,795)

Cleveland Cavaliers receive:

Ayo Dosunmu (three years, $21,000,000), Dalen Terry (three years, $12,260,358 – rookie scale)

Rationale:

This one is about the Bulls getting out of the long-term money owed to Ayo Dosunmu and Dalen Terry. After this series of deals, Chicago has better options at lead guard, making Dosunmu a luxury. Isaac Okoro is a guy who could still pop with increased playing time, and then the Bulls can make a decision on his free agency this summer.

The Cavaliers could use another guard behind Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Dosunmu can give them some solid backup play at either spot. Okoro had fallen out of the rotation, as Cleveland added some additional wing depth this past summer. Terry is a flyer for a Cavs team that is going to be around the luxury tax line. If he develops, they’ll have a cost-controlled player as the roster gets expensive.

Overall

Making five trades, especially ones of this scale is highly unlikely for any team. For the notably change-resistant Chicago Bulls, it’s almost unfathomable. But these are the kinds of moves the Bulls should consider making. It would constitute a nearly full teardown. Only Lonzo Ball would remain of the players owed significant money, and he becomes an expiring contract in the 2024-25 season.

We won’t attempt to make the claim that this end-result Bulls would be good. They’d likely be among the worst teams in the NBA. But that’s not exactly a bad result.

Chicago could have a great pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. They’d have a bunch of interesting young players, and some vets on tradable contracts. And they’d have picked up four additional first-round picks as they rebuild.

The cap sheet would also be incredibly clean. For 2024-25, the Bulls could be looking at north of $75 million in cap space. If they kept their powder dry and slow-played things for one more season, they could easily have more than $100 million in cap space in the summer of 2025.

Blowing up a team is never easy. At best, it’s a signal of moving away from some great years (see: Boston Celtics in 2013). At worst, it’s an admission of failure. Much like a summer abroad, the Bulls had a great couple of months. It’s time to move on and let them be fun memories to return to on a dreary Chicago day.

The way forward isn’t to keep chasing after that short window of being really good team. That’s over. It’s not happening for this group. The best path now is one that involves taking things down to the very foundation and starting to build back up again. These trades, or ones like them, could put the Bulls on a path to being something better than the middling-to-bad team they are now.