Offseason Preview: Central Division
Over the next several days, I’m going to go division-by-division through the league and lay out what decisions need to be made and what’s at stake for each NBA team this offseason. We started yesterday with the Atlantic Division, continue today with the Central, then move to the Southeast, Pacific, Northwest, and Southwest.
Without further ado…
Key Potential FA: Nikola Vucevic, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Patrick Beverley
Big Decisions: Vuc contract, Zach LaVine trades, Lonzo Ball’s knees, Patrick Williams extension talks, Where are we going?
The Bulls, as ever, are likely going to try to be competitive while also trying not to spend all that much money. That is the M.O. of the team under Jerry Reinsdorf for the last two-plus decades, and there’s no real reason to expect that will change. How they’re going to accomplish that, though, remains to be seen.
Re-signing Nikola Vucevic seems like it should be a priority, but then again, why? Losing him for nothing would hurt, but what does bringing him back really accomplish? The roster is probably play-in quality at best, and is also down several significant rotation players as they head into free agency. The Bulls are at around $112 million in guaranteed salary to Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams, and Dalen Terry. The cap is expected to be at around $134 million and the tax line at around $162 million. Can they fill out the rest of the roster for less than $50 million in 2023-24 salary? (We know Reinsdorf does not want to pay the tax.) That seems very tough if they want to re-sign both Vuc and White (the latter is less likely than the former), and especially if Beverley wants a real contract and not just a minimum deal.
The outgoing pieces of the Vucevic trade are finally all out the door after this year’s draft. In the end, it was Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., Franz Wagner, and Jett Howard for Vuc and Al-Farouq Aminu, who was later sent to San Antonio as part of the DeRozan sign-and-trade. The Bulls are now merely owed a protected first-round pick by the Blazers (lottery protected from 2024 through 2028, at which point it becomes a 2028 second-rounder) while also owing their own protected pick (top 10 protected in 2025 and then top 8 protected in 2026 and 2027, at which point it becomes a 2028 second-rounder) to the Spurs.
There’s an opportunity to pivot and shake things up… but to what end? There don’t appear to be many (if any) young building blocks on the team at the moment. Neither White nor Dosunmu necessarily looks like a core player, and White could be gone this summer anyway. Williams has not lived up to the billing of a No. 4 pick. Terry barely played as a rookie. Their only pick in this year’s draft was second-rounder Julian Phillips.
Dealing away LaVine and/or DeRozan could help restock the cupboard, but LaVine's contract and knee issues would likely lead to a less-than-ideal return for his services, and DeRozan is headed into the final year of his contract and about to turn 34 years old. He's still really good and the $28.6 million number for him next season is extremely affordable, but how much is anyone giving up for him in that situation? Maybe there’s something to be gained from a Vuc or White sign-and-trade, but it’s probably not much.
This is a team that probably peaked early in the 2021-22 season, and the future is extremely uncertain. Some of that has to do with the tragedy of Lonzo’s knees, but some of it is also missed opportunities in the draft and a miscalculation regarding how much Vucevic would raise their short-to-medium-term ceiling before he needed to be re-signed.