In a summer filled with revelations, the Chicago Bulls’ display of restraint came out of nowhere as one of the NBA’s most frustrating franchises made a subtle turn back towards relevance. They filled a position of need in the draft with point guard Coby White and spent free agency doling out reasonable contracts to useful veterans like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky who can help on the court and inside an impressionable locker room.
For the first time in a long time, the Bulls showed foresight. Their best window to capitalize in free agency before their own young talent starts to eat that cap space is the summer of 2021. The Bulls appear to be embracing a concept they’ve willfully ignored for the past 20 years: pragmatism.
Before an organizational sea change occurs it must be mentioned that recent history elicits extreme skepticism from every Bulls’ fan alive. After Michael Jordan’s second retirement, dysfunction, controversy, and multiple false starts became the club’s calling card. Since 1999, they own the NBA’s eighth-lowest regular-season winning percentage, and have only won five playoff series.
Unforeseen obstacles — like Derrick Rose’s body breaking down — caused suffering. Yet the deepest wounds were self-inflicted by a belief system that’s long prioritized marginal financial gain over team success. John Paxson and Gar Forman don’t strike out every time they step to the plate, but heading into this summer the duo was synonymous with bizarre moves that delayed progress indefinitely.
They turned Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris into Doug McDermott on draft night in 2014, and flipped McDermott (along with the second-round pick that became Knicks’ center Mitchell Robinson) for Cameron Payne. They deemed combining headstrong vets like Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler with neophyte coach Fred Hoiberg a good idea. It’s been one stubborn decision after the next that eventually stripped the organization of all the deference it took generations to establish.
So long as they don’t get in their own way, the Bulls can afford to be (cautiously) optimistic about the future. Combine this summer’s signings with a gifted young roster, future cap flexibility, and the everlasting truism that large NBA markets lead a less complicated life than small ones, and what you have is a sleeping giant.
If last year was rock bottom -- the Bulls had their fifth-worst winning percentage in franchise history, and won their fewest games since 2002 -- then organization-wide progress will be judged by the development of their core: Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, and Chandler Hutchison.
The best-case scenario will yield a franchise point guard, center, and power forward, with an athletic wing on the side. There’s upside in that group and Markkanen, who averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season, should crack several All-Star games.
Factor in some offensive punch provided by 24-year-old Zach LaVine and 26-year-old Otto Porter Jr., and the Bulls can market themselves as the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing Team of Tomorrow. Particularly if someone else hits beside Markkanen. (The Atlanta Hawks will have something to say about that, but it’s a debate worth having.)
Reasonable top-to-bottom infrastructure matters — along with head coach Jim Boylen’s ability to enforce a culture everyone can get behind — but genuine talent is the NBA’s most powerful ingredient. It can alter a franchise’s entire reputation if harnessed the right way.
Assuming everyone is able to get on the same page and stay healthy, Chicago is feisty enough to scrap at the bottom of the playoff picture in 2020. That’s mostly thanks to internal improvement, but also a few key signings from earlier this month.
Young, who is as savvy and perceptive as any defender in the league, climbed aboard on a three-year, $41 million deal. He may not start, but his versatility and experience will open doors to different lineup combinations that were previously unavailable.
In-game mentorship when sharing a frontcourt with Markkanen or Carter Jr. will pay dividends for each down the line. Young is a basketball monk who won’t look for shots or worry about padding his own stats. That brand of altruism is worth every penny
He and Satoransky — who signed his own three-year deal for an affordable $30 million — will raise Chicago’s collective IQ and function as reliable role players. The fact that neither was given a fourth year on their contract is as crucial as anything.
We don’t know what the exact salary cap will be in two years, but assuming they don’t re-sign Porter Jr. and thanks to non-guaranteed third years on Young and Satoransky’s contracts, a conservative estimate will still let the Bulls sign at least one max free agent that summer. Move on from LaVine (whose contract will be entering its final year) and two max stars might be possible, with Markkanen, White, Carter Jr., and Hutchison still in the fold.
In July 2021, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James, Bradley Beal, Blake Griffin, CJ McCollum, Jrue Holiday, Victor Oladipo, and several more franchise-altering figures can become unrestricted free agents. In other words, the Bulls have two seasons to mold themselves into a desirable destination.
Certain advantages (i.e. Chicago is a big city with a humongous fanbase and historical NBA relevance) are already caked in as a draw. The path to becoming a desirable destination exists.
A tremendous amount of luck is required for any team to succeed in free agency. So long as the Bulls don’t sacrifice their financial flexibility for the sake of something relatively insignificant, like a fruitless push for the No. 8 seed, they might be able to end their rebuild overnight. Much like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers just did. The similarities are there, and a case can be made that Chicago is in an even more advantageous spot than those two clubs were.
The Bulls have more work to do before they can permanently shake their reputation, but the opportunity for change is real. All they need is a little more patience.