As refreshing as it was for the Chicago Bulls to receive their first sip of playoff basketball in five years, the organization cannot be satisfied. Not yet.
Downed in five games – including three non-competitive routs – a clash against the defending champions revealed just how far the Bulls remain from genuine contenders. The good news is that re-signing Zach LaVine should give the franchise a core to be excited about. We watched a core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic play high-level basketball for about half the season, probably giving the front office enough encouraging insight to invest more in that unit.
That said, to kick this band up a notch, Arturas Karnisovas and Co. will have to add to this list. Finding better solutions around the margins to open the 3 points and protect the rim will be a must over the next few months. But how can the Bulls do just that? Do they have the necessary assets?
First of all, we can’t rule out anything in today’s NBA. If Russell Westbrook and his showy contract can bounce back in the league, almost anything is possible with enough creativity. The Bulls’ front office has also only blinded fans since joining in 2020. Whether it’s snatching Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline or acquiring DeMar DeRozan as part of a signing and from a discussion, they showed the different – and surprising – ways a team can add talent.
Yet there is no doubt that this summer will pose a greater challenge than in years past. Adding the plays we watched on the floor this season removed a handful of assets, especially when it came to draft picks. Chicago sent its 2021 and 2023 first-round picks to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Vucevic. Meanwhile, the team’s 2025 first-round selection now belongs to the San Antonio Spurs thanks to the signing and trade of DeRozan. So the Bulls will be without easy trade bait, but that still doesn’t mean they’re running on empty.
Given that the NBA prohibits teams from trading back-to-back first-round picks, the Bulls will hold the No. 18 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. talents to this list. Of course, expectations should always be tempered for a rookie’s immediate impact, but we’ve seen how useful the right pick can be this season with Ayo Dosunmu.
Also, while the Bulls can’t trade that pick until the draft (they can still trade the player selected that night), they have another first-rounder they can sell this offseason. When the organization traded Lauri Markkanen to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal with the Portland Trail Blazers last summer, the team received a lottery-protected first-round pick from Portland (alongside by Derrick Jones Jr.).
The pick didn’t pass this season due to Portland fighting their way into the last 14. However, the pick has until the 2028 season to land in the Bulls’ lap, and the Trail Blazers look set to target the playoffs going forward as they continue to build around Damian Lillard. That being the case, there should still be plenty of legitimate interest in the league for the pick. The bigger question is whether or not Karnisovas tries to send him alone or wrap him up as part of a bigger deal?
Speaking of trades, the Bulls have an unused trade pending of $5.0 million that expires on July 7 (h/t Alex Kennedy of Basketball News dot com). A trade exception allows teams to absorb a player into this amount without affecting the cap or luxury tax. The organization added that to its arsenal last offseason when it signed and traded with the Houston Rockets for big man Daniel Theis. But, again, he will disappear in free agency if the team can’t find a way to use him.
Arguably the most essential resource they will have is the Mid-Level Exception. Assuming LaVine is re-signed to a max deal, the Bulls will likely be in the luxury tax and deal with the MLE taxpayer, who should be approximately $6.3 million (the non-taxpaying MLE is worth about $10.0 million). Is that a lot of buying power in free agency? No, but it’s enough for a smart front office to use in a way that can help build that team’s depth. And, all things considered, the focus is expected to be on improving that bench.
A major disappointment is that the Bulls won’t be able to tap into another resource due to a rather disappointing move they made mid-season. The semi-annual exception is expected to be worth around $3.9 million more this summer (h/t HoopsRumors), but Karnisovas used some of that money to give big man Tristan Thompson a deal on the veteran minimum for the rest of the year. Since one bite has been taken from that apple in this league year, Karnisovas cannot take another bite until the next out of season.
So yeah, that’s basically where things are. I know that might not sound like a lot – and it isn’t – but we have to point out that this is why having a savvy front office is so crucial. Karnisovas didn’t seem stressed about having to use the assets he has this summer, nor should we worry until we see exactly what he does.
“Obviously a lot of capital went into building this team,” Karnisovas told reporters during his end-of-season press conference. “But there have been a ton of great things and positive things this year. To bring players, that’s what you have to do. But we will be flexible.
Many teams in big markets run into offseasons where the stock is thin, and it’s up to the leadership to use all the resources they have to the best of their abilities. In the end, Karnisovas is right, the Bulls had to do what they did to return to relevance. Now it’s up to him to keep them there.