In the 22 years since the tragic dismantling of Michael Jordan Bulls Jerry Crumbs Krause, the team has missed the playoffs 11 times and reached the Eastern Conference finals just once. An organization that was once the gold standard of the NBA was quickly defined by incompetent management, which then led to an inferior product on the court. The mighty have not only fallen, they have crashed to the ground in a cataclysm of fire.

Things started looking good in 2008 when, despite the worst odds of getting the first pick, the Bulls miraculously got a ping-pong ball and seized their chance to select Derrick Rose, a hometown hero destined to become a superstar. In retrospect, Bulls fans should have realized that while Rose caused numerous sensations with his exceptional athletic ability and restored respect for the organization, his tenure ultimately only meant more heartache.

Now we can be optimistic again. In 2020, the little dynamic duo known as GarPax finally broke up after years of failed drafts and free-agent mistakes. In their place are Arturas Karnisovas (Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations) and Mark Eversley (General Manager). Karnisovas became famous for his role in rebounding for the Denver Nuggets, and Eversley, the first man of color to be a GM with the Bulls, comes from the lineage of Brian Colangelo.

So far, Karnisovas and Eversley had done a good job cleaning up the mess left by their predecessors. Their first pick came in June when they selected Patrick Williams with the fourth pick. At 19, Williams was and is the youngest player in the league, and although he was considered raw by many recruiting experts, Karnisovas and Eversley were able to look past that and see his untapped potential. Williams has been compared to Kawhi Leonard lately, both in terms of play and attitude. If his late game is any indication, it’s not that far off.

Two months later, the Bulls fired head coach Jim Boylen and hired Billy Donovan to replace him. Recruiting Donovan, who is known for his ability to develop young players, was a big step in the right direction for an organization looking for long-term sustainable success. The difference between Boylen and Donovan was like night and day. The players are more demanding of themselves now and the Bulls want to win. The team’s maturation process may not be complete yet (Wednesday night is proof of that), but the arrow is finally pointing up.

Which brings us to how Karnisovas and Eversley could make the Bulls contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The good news is that the team has plenty of room when the contracts of Temple Garrett, Denzel Valentine, Luke Corne, Cristiano Feliciano and Otto Porter Jr. expire. The bad news: The free agent pool for 2021 is extremely thin, especially if you are in the market for a major player (see charts below). Just because you have money doesn’t mean you have to spend it.

If you’re looking for a star attacker in 2021, you’re in trouble.
via Spotrac

The same applies if your team needs a star center.
via Spotrac

What do you do when you have the financial means to improve, but don’t see the point in spending money on free agents?

First: You’re magnifying your stars. Internally, the most important decision will be Lauri Markkanen, who will be a restricted free agent this season. Markkanen is very athletic for his size and has very unique skills as a 7-footer. His ability to play away from the basket and stretch the defense makes him a nightmare most nights. This year he is averaging 19 points per game and shooting 51% from the field and 42% from downtown. The problem is not what he can do on the field, but his inability to stay on the field. To date, due to injury, Markkanen has only played in 189 of 267 games since being drafted in 2017. The question arises: Why would a very talented but often injured player go on the market?

If you look at player contracts with similar products, you can assume four years and $130 million. Given his age and skill set, it’s safe to say that other teams will be interested in Markkanen, who is now becoming a crucial X-factor in the Bulls’ long-term plans. Assuming the team does the right thing with Zach LaVine (which we’ll talk about later), if the Bulls decide to re-sign Markkanen, they’d be dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold, leaving them with no chance of making a move into the extremely deep 2022 free agent pool. But if they don’t re-contract him and enter free agency, they let a promising young talent go without getting anything in return.

The best thing for Markkanen would be to let him become a restricted free agent and wait and see what other teams are willing to pay. The Bulls could then take him up on his offer and, if they’re confident they can contract a big name in 2022, make a groundbreaking deal in exchange for draft picks. That way, the team can cover themselves and rule out the possibility of coming up empty-handed. It would be painful for many to see Markkanen leave, but this organization has been known in the past primarily for its penchant for playing it safe. And another benefit for the Bulls, who said goodbye to Markkanen: By making way for PF in the starting line-up, Williams’ development can continue unhindered.

And then, as mentioned earlier, there’s Zach LaVine, who becomes a free agent in 2022. Sure, the Bulls could have waited until the end of his contract to make a decision, but he’s playing at a top level and has earned the right to an extension now. Financially, there’s nothing to think about here. The maximum the Bulls can offer LaVine is four years and $152 million, and it would be foolish to give him less. Fortunately, we have seen no evidence to the contrary. In fact, Karnisovas would have consulted with LaVine from June 2020 before making his decision. It seems the Bulls plan to keep him in Chicago for the foreseeable future.

Lauri Markkanen and Zach Lavin

But as important as it is for the team to reward the face of its franchise, the front office can’t stop there. Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, the modern NBA is a Big Three league – for better or worse. Right now, the Bulls have one of the three pieces needed to win the title: LaVine. Williams could develop into a mainstay, but he’s still a teenager and that takes time. So if 2021 Free Agency doesn’t deliver what the team needs, they’ll have to look outside the organization to make a deal.

The big name in this year’s rumored bullpen is Nikola Vucevic. The Orlando Magic are currently 13-26 with the fourth best record in the league and could try to reverse that trend. Vucevic would instantly make LaVine the most talented teammate he’s had since coming to Chicago, but since he’s still under contract through 2023, the Magic will likely put a significant price tag on their star striker. However, it is not known how much it would cost to acquire Vucevic, as there are no negotiations at this time, at least none that have been made public. So here’s my offer to Orlando:

C – Nikola Vucevic C for Wendell Carter Jr.
PG – Markel Fultz (contract expires) PG – Kobe White
SG – Evan Fournier (contract expires) SF – Thaddeus Young
C – Khem Bereza (contract expires) SF – Otto Porter Jr. (contract expires)
C – Cristiano Feliciano (contract expires)
Bulls first round pick in 2021

One of the biggest hurdles in any trade is making sure both teams can handle the money coming in. In this case, the Bulls and the Magic are almost equal (see chart below). Moreover, contracts that expire on both sides have tremendous value. The Magic save $36,018,259 if Porter Jr. and Felicio retire, while the Bulls save $32,378,597 if they let Fournier, Fultz and Bereza go to the free agent market. If you let Temple, Valentine and Cornett go, you save another $11,659,800, for a total of $44,038,397.

On the staff side, Orlando has two young players in Wendell Carter Jr. and Kobe White who have yet to reach their full potential. They also get veteran Thaddeus Young, who is not only playing perhaps the best season of his 14-year career, but is also an invaluable leader and proverbial locker room guy. Aaron Gordon is not happy at the Magic and would be open to a change of scenery. Perhaps Young’s presence could ease tensions between Gordon and Orlando. In addition, the Magic now have two first-round picks that are considered much better than last year’s.

With Vucevic, the Bulls get a true superstar and one of the best clubs in the game. After this exchange, they are suddenly one disc away from their own Big Three. Fournier has played very well this year (18.5/3.8/3.1) and can play at the SG and SF positions. Fultz has yet to deliver on the promise that led Philadelphia to move him higher in the draft, but he has produced a respectable 12.9/3.1/5.4 line for the Magic this year. He will join the bench of Thomas Santoransky, who will replace White in Orlando. Birch is just a player who plays like Daniel Gafford; not offensive, but a great rebounder and defender. And by trading Markkanen, as discussed earlier, the team could potentially get back the draft pick they just gave to Orlando.

Courtesy of ESPN

If the deal goes through, this is what the Bulls’ schedule would look like for the rest of the season:

Thomas Satoranski Zach LaVine. Pat Williams. Lauri Markkanen Nikola Vucevic
Markel Fultz. Evan Fournier. Denzel Valentin Pat Williams. Daniel Gafford.
Archie Arquidiacano. Garrett Temple Evan Fournier. Luke Cornet. Khem Birch

This brings us to the final piece of our championship puzzle – the inclusion of a key free agent from the crowded 2022 class (see table below). One name that stands out, especially considering his age, is Bradley Beal. But it won’t be cheap. Beal is eligible for a max contract equal to 35% of the 2022 cap hit ($112 million), meaning he will manage $161.96 million over four years. Assuming the Bulls decide to let Markkanen go, they have the room to take over Bel’s contract and form a solid Big Three with Lavin and Vucevic. It’s important to note that Beal is a pick-and-roll player, and he may choose to stay in Washington, but he’s made it clear he wants to win, and it doesn’t look like the Wizards are anywhere near that. Playing with LaVine and Vucevic would have given Beal the opportunity he was asking for.

In 2022, there will be no shortage of cops with star power.
via Spotrac

After all this, believe it or not, the team will still be in good shape financially. The salaries of Lavin, Belle, Vucivek and Williams total $110,912,000 in 2022, leaving the Bulls with $25,688,000 to replenish their roster, which won’t be difficult, as free agents will be lining up for a chance at a ring in Chicago. With the remaining funds, the Bulls can easily strengthen their bench and, just as importantly, plan for the future. Because let’s not forget that if Williams continues to develop like this, he will almost certainly be the most expensive player in 2025 if he becomes a free agent. The Bulls have some big decisions to make at this point, as Beal and LaVine have one year left on their contracts. The latter turns 29 and, barring injury, is getting his second consecutive max contract, while Beal turns 33 and is hoping for a final long-term contract.

If the Bulls decide to extend Vucevic’s current contract, which expires in 2023, the terms would certainly be higher than the four-year, $100 million deal he currently has. This is another element to be taken into account in future budgets. Is there anything working in the Bulls’ favor? The salary cap and luxury tax threshold will be raised incrementally between 2021 and 2024, a plan by the union to offset losses due to the pandemic. These numbers are expected to rise again in 2025 and 2026, when bulls will again have a lot of money to spend. Here’s what the league has planned for the next three years:

2021-2022 : 112 million cap, $136.6 million luxury tax limit
2022-2023: 115.7 million cap, $140 million luxury tax limit
2023-2024: $119.2 million luxury tax limit, $144.9 million

Bradley Beale
Photo: Kevin K. Cox/Getty Images

As you can see, the way is clear for the Bulls to go from a team they call upstart to a league they truly fear over the next two years. Is this going to happen? If you’re someone who tries their best, you probably aren’t. I’ll be the first to admit that. And if so, the players coming and going could be very different from those mentioned above. Is this really possible? Absolutely. It’s not an easy process, and it won’t be easy, but as Bulls fans we can take comfort in the fact that the front office finally has the right people for the job. It’s time to see what they’re made of.


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