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Will's Mailbag: Realistic ways the Bulls can improve in draft and free agency

Will Gottlieb Avatar
June 6, 2022

With the summer months upon us, I’m going to kickstart a mailbag column. I received some great questions this first time around and I’d love to answer more as the offseason rolls on.

Shoot over questions via Twitter any time you like and I’ll do my best to incorporate them into my next mailbag.

This is always the most challenging aspect of team building and you have to admire the front office for not playing dead until a superstar fell into their laps.

Still, the three pathways to acquire a star are the same they have always been: draft, trade, free agency.

After multiple trips to the mid-lottery, drafting a star clearly didn’t work out. Maybe Patrick Williams has something to say about that in year three, but with a mid-level team and two future first-rounders already shipped out, this pathway seems the least likely.

With those picks out the door, the Bulls don’t have a ton in the way of trade capital to move in a trade for a star either. Maybe if they sign-and-trade Zach LaVine for a haul, they could replenish their reserves, but that seems unlikely as well.

That leaves free agency, and despite the Bulls crowded cap table, this pathway is definitely their best bet. Signing DeMar DeRozan was an inflection point for the Bulls. They are a playoff team now in a major market with a rich history who have now proven they can sign marquee free agents.

The question no one wants to address, but everyone wants to know the answer to. It’s a scary proposition, but the Bulls aren’t in the *worst* shape even if LaVine skips town.

Only the Pistons, Spurs and Magic can clear enough cap space to sign LaVine outright. LaVine has done nothing but lose in his career, and it’s hard to imagine him going to a third-tier market to lose some more.

That means the Bulls will have some leverage to get back assets in a sign-and-trade. While the return won’t be massive, matching salary (hopefully in the form of a promising young player) and draft capital will be the most likely return.

Because the Bulls owe two future firsts already, they are committed to their direction and won’t bottom out. They’ll have to try to thread the needle of being good in the DeRozan era while developing young talent for the future.

Nothing from the team or Lonzo Ball’s agency, Klutch Sports. Only LaVar Ball saying he would be ready for next year. Our ears are planted firmly to the ground.

Look, I get the Mark Williams love. He’s an absolutely ENORMOUS rim protector who can rebound, block shots and catch lobs.

I’m not saying he wouldn’t help, but how important is that archetype in the modern NBA. How many pure roll bigs are playing crunch time minutes in key playoff games? Unless he is Rudy Gobert (which he will not be), he is going to pigeon-hole you into a style of play when he’s on the floor, and to be successful in the playoffs, you need to be versatile.

The Bulls need a floor-spacing big to create room for DeRozan and LaVine. They need a pick-and-roll playmaker to connect the offense and move the ball side-to-side. If Williams falls to 18, he would be a great value pick and a solid backup to Nikola Vucevic in his first few seasons, but I don’t think he fundamentally changes the franchise’s contention window.

A nice follow up to the conversation about Mark Williams.

The Bulls allowed the highest percentage of shots at the rim of any team in the league last season but held opponents to the seventh-lowest field goal percentage on rim attempts. It’s a weird combination for sure, but I’m not sure I see rim protection as the biggest weakness the team needs to address.

In part, this is because Vucevic is realistically the best option at center and if you remove him, you’re sacrificing a ton on offense.

With that said, Patrick Williams and Lonzo Ball should really help out the rim protection when they return with full health. Drafting someone like Tari Eason could do wonders as a weak side helper.

The last thing I can think of would be to start switching more. Switching can prevent rim opportunities by virtue of removing them before they happen. With Ball, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, LaVine, Williams and someone like Eason, the Bulls could have a really solid switching defense 1-4.

Another on the topic of refining the big man rotation.

I’ve been a fan of Hartenstein’s for a while now. The 23-year-old is a true 7-footer, who blocks shots and passes at a high level. He’s hyper-efficient and a true analytics darling, averaging a steal rate above two percent, a block rate above five percent, and assist rate above 20 percent and a true shooting percentage above 66.

Nate Duncan recently said on his podcast Dunc’d On that he will be in the $10M mid-level exception range. The Bulls would be wise to look into him, even at that price. Swinging on a young player in a position of need, who has put up huge numbers in a small, but growing sample is a great use of that exception.

Hartenstein would be a really intriguing option as a backup center for the Bulls with starter potential after Vucevic’s contract expires. Rather than a pure pick-and-dive option, he can facilitate in the post, shoot it a bit and still gives you elite rebounding and rim protecting. I’d much rather spend on him in free agency and look to use the draft pick on a shooter and/or wing.

I’m going to sidestep the question and just say the Bulls should steer clear of drafting for need. They’re in a solid spot and definitely have weaknesses, but they need talent more than anything. Both for now and the future.

Don’t draft a rim protector just because you think they need one. Get the best talent available. If he hits, great. If you move him for a piece down the road, great. You’ll always have more options with more talent.

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