A first-round exit is not what the Chicago Bulls envisioned back in January.
The Bulls were 27-13 and held the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but injuries and a difficult second-half schedule led to Chicago quickly being forced to compete to stay out of the play-in tournament. While they were able to do that, they quickly found themselves overmatched against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The downward spiral in the standings coincided with Lonzo Ball injuring his right knee in mid-January. With Ball out of the lineup, Chicago went 19-23 and saw a steep decline on the defensive end.
The Bulls now enter the offseason with the focus on getting Ball healthy, re-signing All-Star Zach LaVine and adding via the draft.
State of the team
Roster status: Playoffs, but dependent on a healthy Lonzo Ball
When the season ended last May, Bulls head of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas made a short but definitive statement on what to expect in the future.
“We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnisovas told the media.
That statement held true for the first 60 games this season as Chicago went 19 games above .500.
The Bulls also had a defensive identity centered around Ball and Caruso.
“As we built out our roster, we turned the focus to defense too. Alex Caruso has been instrumental. Lonzo Ball has been a great addition, pushing the pace for us,” Bulls president and COO Michael Reinsdorf told ESPN in mid-January.
Prior to Jan. 15, the Bulls ranked sixth in points per game off turnovers and No. 1 in transition field goal percentage. Ball, per ESPN Stats & Information research, ranked in the top 10 in transition assists. However, Ball had arthroscopic left knee surgery on Jan. 20 and missed the remainder of the season. Caruso broke his left wrist on Jan. 21 and missed 22 games.
With that duo out, the strong defense that helped Chicago generate that great transition offense eventually came to a screeching halt. The Bulls slid to 26th in defensive efficiency with both players sidelined and fell to the bottom (26th) in points per game off turnovers.
Per Second Spectrum tracking, Chicago ranked 28th in points per possessions allowed in transition and 23rd in points per possessions allowed on half courts.
The Bulls never recovered with Ball out of the lineup, and a roster that had championship aspirations unfairly turned back to mediocre.
Now entering the offseason, Chicago will return all five starters — assuming LaVine re-ups with the Bulls — but the health of Ball is paramount on how far this Bulls team can go.
Last offseason LaVine made it clear that he outplayed the four-year, $80 million offer sheet he signed with Sacramento that was originally matched by the Bulls back in 2018.
The guard was coming off his third consecutive season averaging at least 20 points, but his $19.5 million salary this year ranked 58th of all players and 11th among shooting guards.
“I outplayed my contract. I’ve been very loyal to Chicago. I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If that’s now or later, it’s something we’ve got to work out internally,” he told Brian Windhorst before the Olympics.
LaVine was correct that his salary was below market for a player of his caliber and he should be rewarded with a more lucrative contract. However, the issue of why a new contract was not feasible stemmed from that same team friendly contract he signed in 2018.
Because of how the collective bargaining agreement is set up, LaVine was eligible for only a 120% raise off his $19.5 million salary for 2021-22. The total new money would have come to $104.8 million, $108 million less than what he is now eligible to receive this summer.
He was eligible to have his salary this past season renegotiated (meaning Chicago would have used cap space to increase it to $34.5 million) but doing that would have prevented the Bulls from acquiring Ball and DeRozan in separate sign-and-trades.
Now LaVine is eligible to sign a five-year, $212 million max contract.
2022-23: $36.6 million
2023-24: $39.5 million
2024-25: $42.5 million
2025-26: $45.4 million
2026-27: $48.3 million
LaVine, who just turned 27 last month, is worthy of receiving a substantial pay increase — at least in the first three seasons of a new deal.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, over the past two seasons, LaVine is one of four players to average 25 points and shoot 40% on 3-pointers, along with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He also ranked in the top 10 in clutch time field goal percentage among 65 players with at least 40 shots this season (as did DeRozan)
The red flag with a lengthy contract is from a durability issue.
LaVine has played more than 70 games just twice in his career and not since 2015-16, when he played all 82 (he did play 60 of Chicago’s 65 games during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season). He missed 11 games this year with left knee soreness, the same knee that he had surgically repaired in 2017.
In his current contract, there was an Exhibit 3 Prior Injury Exclusion that protected the team if he suffered a catastrophic injury to that same knee. The Bulls will likely not get that injury insurance again with his next contract.
They could negotiate a games clause that would leave the $48.3 million in the last year non-guaranteed. For example, if LaVine appears in at least 60 games in three out of the first four years of the new deal, the contract in the last year is fully protected.
Considering that the financial windfall is expected for LaVine, would anything short of a fully guaranteed $212 million contract be seen as an insult?
Unlike the last time when LaVine was a free agent and the Bulls had the ability to match on an offer sheet, LaVine is free to sign with any team that has a $36.6 million max slot — a list that currently only includes Detroit, Indiana, Orlando, San Antonio and Portland.
The Vucevic trade last March signaled that Chicago was going to build their roster with established players and not draft picks.
“Right from the beginning from the time we got here, we said that we’re trying to get back to relevancy,” Karnisovas said last March. “We’re serious here about winning. We’re serious about the culture of being very competitive, and any opportunity we get to make this team better we will.”
And although the Bulls missed the playoffs last year, acquiring the former All-Star was the first puzzle piece in putting together a playoff team.
“This trade wasn’t just made for this year,” Vučević said last May. “I think that it was made for the future of the franchise.”
Vucevic played a role in the Bulls reaching the playoffs this season, but now the front office has a decision on whether to extend the center past next season.
He is eligible for a four year, $118 million extension — a steep price for a player who took a step back this season.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Vucevic recorded an effective field goal percentage of 44.7%, fifth worst among 68 players to attempt 500 jumpers. Last year his effective field goal percentage was 52.6%. His 9% drop in 3-point shooting (from 40% to 31%) was the seventh-largest drop in the past two seasons. Only Cade Cunningham and Russell Westbrook shot worse from three this season.
Despite the offensive regression this year, Vucevic still averaged 17.1 points and 11.1 rebounds, his ninth time in 11 seasons averaging a double-double.
A two-year $40 million extension is comparable to the contract that Clint Capela signed last offseason with the Atlanta Hawks and gives the Bulls financial flexibility starting in 2025-26 when only LaVine (if he returns) would be under contract.
Offseason cap breakdown and depth chart
A healthy Lonzo Ball
Zach LaVine signed
Resources to build the roster
The draft: First-round pick
Own free agents
Exceptions: $10.3M midlevel and $4.1M biannual
Cash: $6.3M to send or receive in a trade
Dates to watch
June 29: Tony Bradley has a $2 million player option. The backup center averaged 10 minutes, 2.9 points and 3.4 rebounds. He started 10 games, averaging 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. If Bradley declined the option, the veterans minimum in 2022-23 is $100K more than his player option.
June 29: Two-way players Malcolm Hill and Tyler Cook will become restricted free agents if Chicago tenders either player a $50K qualifying offer.
July 7: The last day to use the $5 million trade exception that was created in the Daniel Theis sign-and-trade.
The Bulls are allowed to trade their 2022 first, but only the night of the draft. Chicago cannot trade a future first because they owe first-round picks to Orlando and San Antonio. They are allowed to trade the 2023 Trail Blazers top-14 protected first.
The Bulls have until Oct. 17 to sign Coby White to a rookie extension. White started 54 games in 2020-21 but was moved to a reserve role with the signing of Lonzo Ball. He averaged 12.6 points, 2.9 assists and shot 38.5% from 3. In the 17 starts this year, he averaged 16.5 points, 4.2 assists on 43.7% from 3.
The Bulls owe future first-round picks to both Orlando and San Antonio. The pick going to Orlando is top-4 protected in both 2023 and 2024, and will convert to second-round picks in 2026 and 2027 if not conveyed in either year.
The clock to send San Antonio a first starts once Orlando receives a first from the Bulls. For example, if the Bulls send Orlando their 2023 first, the Spurs will potentially get a first-round pick in 2025. However, that pick is top-10 protected in 2025, then top-eight protected each following year through 2028.
If Chicago sends Orlando their 2024 first, the earliest San Antonio would get the pick is 2026.
The Bulls are also owed a first-round pick from Portland, which is lottery-protected each of the next six years. If the pick is not conveyed, the Bulls will get a 2028 second from the Trail Blazers.
Here’s how ESPN’s Mike Schmitz has Chicago selecting in June:
No. 18: Tari Eason | PF | LSU
The Bulls ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency in the regular season, and they could without question use another versatile wing defender like Eason, one of the most productive and efficient all-around players in the NCAA as a 20-year-old junior.
While likely more of a 4/3 at the NBA level (a spot currently occupied by Patrick Williams), Eason played a fair amount of small-ball 5 in college and could give the Bulls a different look with his length and foot speed, as they’re used to playing in deep drop coverage with Nikola Vucevic at the 5. Eason isn’t the most polished ball handler or decision-maker and had his fair share of no-show games at LSU.
But the fact that he can add value as a transition finisher, rebounder, cutter, occasional spot shooter and defender at 6-8 with a 7-1 wingspan alongside a perimeter creator like DeMar DeRozan makes him an intriguing fit in Chicago.