Free Agency begins Thursday at 5pm CT and I cannot wait to see who the Bulls sign. I’m expecting they learned their lesson from last season’s tampering penalty. I wouldn’t expect anything as the buzzer rings, but the Bulls are primed to make some moves.
Even if/when the Bulls offer Zach LaVine the maximum 5-year, $212 million contract, they will have the $10.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE) to sign a free agent. The MLE can be split between multiple players or used in its entirety on one. They’ll also be able to utilize a $5 million traded player exception (TPE) they created in the Daniel Theis sign-and-trade last summer.
They will not, however, be able to use the $4.1 million bi-annual exception (BAE) because they used a portion of it to sign Tristan Thompson on the buyout market. Shout out.
If the Bulls do decide to go into the luxury tax for just the second time in franchise history, they’ll have some wiggle room to add a few pieces to improve their depth and roster around the fringes. Though it’s important to note that using the full MLE would trigger the hard cap, preventing the Bulls from exceeding the tax apron, which is set at $6 million above the $149 million luxury tax line.
The Bulls big man situation is clearly the most fraught among the fanbase. Nikola Vucevic stinks! The Bulls shouldn’t trade for Rudy Gobert, he’s on the worst contract in the league! Tony Bradley can’t catch the ball!
To me, the rim protection issue is extremely overblown. Vucevic is not swatting shots into the third row, but that isn’t a requirement of a good defense. Vucevic had to make up for every mistake the Bulls perimeter defenders made last season, and without Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso in the lineup for large stretches, that was a difficult job to do.
In fact, spending the full MLE on a 12 minute per game big is an easy way to get yourself into cap trouble. I’d much rather go all in on a superstar rim protector you know will give you elite rim protection than spend $35 million between to guys that aren’t giving you what you want, and then having to extend Vucevic because you’ve lost all other options.
By far, the area of most importance is 3-and-D wings with size. The Bulls were exposed in the playoffs shooting 52/184 (28.2 percent) on threes. The Bucks dared the Bulls to make shots. They couldn’t. It shrunk the court and prevented DeMar DeRozan from being able to dominate in the mid-range.
The Bulls are full of 6’5″ guards who have done an admirable job trying to defend bigger wings. But they need to get bigger if they want to have the shooting and versatility they’ll need to become a second-round playoff team.
As a result, my list is heavily biased towards wings, with bigs being pushed way down. I understand the general sentiment that the Bulls need help down low, and they do, but they would be much wiser to spend their dollars on the perimeter.
Without further ado, here are my top 15 full MLE targets the Bulls should consider.
- PJ Tucker: Far and away the number one target on my list is likely to get a 3-yr/$32 million full MLE from some contender. That could be a scary proposition as Tucker is already 37-years old. That said, Tucker would solve a ton of problems with his ability to switch, play small-ball 5, guard 4s and 5s and hit corner threes at an elite rate. Oh yeah, and he’s got that #dawg mentality.
- TJ Warren: Warren was a very productive player before dealing with injuries for the last two seasons. He’s got great size, scoring and shooting ability and would be a perfect compliment to DeRozan and LaVine while being able to run some offense if either or both are on the bench. If not for the health concerns, Warren would be going for way more than the MLE. It would be wise for him to sign a shorter term prove-it deal and then try to cash in after that.
- Isaiah Hartenstein: A per-minute monster, Hartenstein is just 24 years old and has the ability to protect the rim and facilitate at a high level. Big men are significantly lower on my list, but he’s the exception. His steal rate, assist rate, block rate and efficiency are all incredibly tantalizing. He projects as a defensive anchor who can operate as an offensive hub if things click. He deserves the chance to step into a bigger role and could take over as the starting center after the Vucevic era.
- Nicolas Batum: Size, intelligence, shooting and playmaking are top priorities for the Bulls and Batum gives you all of the above. He’s a bit older but the Clippers are less likely to retain him after signing John Wall.
- Caleb Martin and/or
- Cody Martin: The Martin twins are restricted FAs, but quietly put together great seasons for the Heat and Hornets respectively. 6’5″ defensive wings who can shoot threes at a near 40 percent clip. Caleb had a higher steal, block and three-point rate than Cody, but Cody is a much better facilitator. Maybe the Bulls can sign both and let them split the full MLE a la the Morris twins with the Suns back in the day.
- Amir Coffey: Coffey’s production significantly outweighs his popularity. The RFA is a 6’7″ wing from the Clippers who is a 38 percent career three-point shooter. He’ll likely have to find a new home after the Clippers signed John Wall.
- Gary Harris: Former Bulls draft pick Gary Harris has disappeared after being shipped to Orlando in the Aaron Gordon-to-Nuggets trade. But was once-upon-a-time a productive 3-and-D wing. He’s a bit smaller at 6’4″ but can guard most wings and shot 38.4 percent on threes last year. He’s only 27.
- Otto Porter Jr.: Ok take the name out of it. Imagine a 6’8″ forward who shoots 37 percent on threes and defends well in a team setting. Sign me up! Porter Jr. did not work out for the Bulls due to injuries, but had a fantastic year en route to becoming an NBA champion with the Warriors. He’s an elite shooter with size and has proven he’s still able to impact the game at a high level. A reunion on a much cheaper contract would be great for the Bulls.
- Mitchell Robinson: All signs point towards Robinson re-signing with the Knicks. But if the Bulls are looking for rim protection, look no further. Robinson is one of the best in the league, even if he’s a bit trigger happy. He’s limited offensively, but a lob threat would be a new look.
- Mo Bamba: Like Robinson, Bamba is another limited big man who would play roughly 12-18 minutes per game and not be on the court in closing minutes. Bamba is a fine player who put up some numbers in Orlando. If the Bulls are desperate for a standstill shooter who can protect the rim a bit, sure. But I think the Bulls would be better off spending their MLE on wing shooters.
- Nicholas Claxton: Another rim-roller, rim-protector type, Claxton found success in the Nets ecosystem over the course of his first few seasons. Reports indicate he could return to Brooklyn, but could provide some great interior defense as a backup to Vucevic.
- Bobby Portis: NBA Champion Bobby Portis has really figured it out. He’s still a poor defender, but he’s extremely active and is never afraid of the moment. His shooting puts him on the list — he has knocked down 40 percent on threes since leaving the Bulls.
- Kyle Anderson: Slo-Mo finds a way. He’s a better player than a few guys I have ahead of him, but less of a fit in Chicago. Anderson is fairly ball dominant and not a great spot-up shooter. That pushes him down my list. But he’d bring great size and take pressure off of DeRozan and LaVine to create everything on offense.
- Joe Ingles: Ingles will be 35 at the start of the season and likely won’t play most of the year after undergoing ACL surgery in late February. But he is a total badass. He shoots corner threes at an elite rate, runs pick-and-roll at a high level and talks a ton of trash. If not for the injury, he might be in my top-ten.
Other, less realistic targets include Bruce Brown, Victor Oladipo, Chris Boucher, Thomas Bryant, Collin Sexton, Tyus Jones, Delon Wright and Ricky Rubio.
Traded Player Exception
The Bulls created a $5 million traded player exception when they sign-and-traded Daniel Theis to the Houston Rockets last summer. This means they’ll be able to absorb up to $5 million in salary via trade. It will be difficult to use both the MLE and TPE without going into the tax, but here are some players to consider.
The Bulls would only have a shot at these players if they sent back an asset, or helped the other team create space to sign a free agent.
- Cavaliers F Dean Wade
- Nuggets F Jeff Green
- Clippers F Terrence Mann
- Pacers C Goga Bitadze
- Pacers C Jalen Smith
- Thunder F Darius Bazley
- Thunder C Mike Muscala
- Magic F Chuma Okeke
- 76ers F Furkan Korkmaz
- 76ers F Matisse Thybulle
The Bulls have an interesting road ahead in free agency. I hope to see them dip into the luxury tax to add as much talent as they can. They’re beyond the point of being able to bank on full health. Adding wing depth, shooting and rim protection needs to be a real priority.
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