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Analysis Bulls

Bulls: Flexibility is Key in New Eastern Conference

The Bulls must remain flexible in unpredictable NBA.

The wicked witch of the east has moved west and the NBA world has been turned on its side. A team led by LeBron James will not represent the Eastern Conference in the finals for the first time since 2010 after his free agent move to the Los Angeles Lakers. There are 11 or 12 Western Conference clubs that could make a legitimate case to be playoff contenders and many owners will be pounding the table for reform to conference alignment and the playoff seeding model if this drastic shift continues. Luckily for those owners, shifts often occur in the National Basketball Association.

LeBron leaving the East will have 14 clubs feeling much better about their chances in the near and long-term future. The Bulls are one of those clubs. It doesn’t impact them much at all for the 2018-2019 season but Goliath is now gone and that leaves everyone hopeful. Some have argued that James’ departure to the West hurts the Bulls because it somehow keeps them further away in the race to the bottom but that’s not the point. The Bulls will likely win more games next year.

While still unlikely, they could even sneak into the playoffs in a moribund conference. While that could be seen as a step back, it’s the long-term outlook that really matters in this case. The giant is gone. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are exceptionally run organizations that should battle for Eastern Conference supremacy in the immediate future. Things can change though; especially in the current landscape.

Bulls Plan

John Paxson has stated on numerous occasions that the organization would stress patience while rebuilding the roster. The executive also has said that while young players remain the priority, he expects the on-court product to be better next year. The Bulls have a stable young core that includes seven recent first round picks and they will be given every opportunity to succeed during the upcoming season. The franchise is also flush with salary cap space with very few free agent questions of their own to answer. Zach LaVine and David Nwaba are the only situations to monitor pertaining to the actual roster and there was a significant chunk of news on one of those fronts on July 3rd.

The market for restricted free agents had been dire in the early going. The Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and Sacramento Kings are the only teams with an abundance of cap space and the true motives of those clubs remained unclear. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski had mentioned Sacramento’s interest in LaVine but how much they’d be willing to spend was still a mystery. If the deal above is truly what the Bulls were offering for the 23-year-old shooter, then it was assumed that LaVine would bet on himself and play the season the qualifying offer.

Something in the ballpark of $15-$17 million per year probably would have looked a bit better to the Bulls but LaVine will be in the fold regardless. Sacramento extended a rich offer sheet and this scenario playing out was always a possibility. There is an injury clause in LaVine’s 4-year $78 million contract.

Hopefully, the front office feels that LaVine is an ascending player capable of transforming his game into more efficiency. Matching a contract of that magnitude strictly off of the premise that last year’s trade has to be won would be a fool’s errand. It’s now up to LaVine to prove that he’s, in fact, worth the money and more than a volume scorer with maddening defensive inadequacies.

David Nwaba is a different story. The former Lakers castoff was “found money” last season. He’s a solid, durable rotation player that is a tough defender on the wing. He should not be a roster priority though. If Nwaba is looking for a salary in the range of the $8 million non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception, the organization should let someone else pay it. Nwaba should have interest from playoff teams but the Bulls need to stay fiscally responsible during this transition period.

There have been rumors about the Bulls’ potential interest in other restricted free agents like Jabari Parker of the Bucks or Marcus Smart of the Celtics but those reports seem agent-driven in a market as futile as this one. Aaron Gordon signed a 4-year deal to remain in Orlando that will pay him $84 million. LaVine signed a 4-year deal in the $80 million range. That definitely takes the Bulls out of the running for other young restricted free agents this summer. It’s imperative for the Bulls to remain flexible and not be tempted by a watered down conference. Staying the course is the smart play and adding draft assets via bad contracts should be the strategy of the front office over the next few months.

Star-Hunting

After the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler in June of 2017, the franchise signaled that they’d be embarking on a rebuild. This entailed using primarily young players, accumulating assets (they haven’t really done this by the way) and drafting supreme talent in the lottery. The young core of the Bulls is not good enough to contend for championships in the modern NBA but they aren’t bad enough to have a bead on the highest draft picks either.

This puts them in a precarious but similar position. They have to hit it big in free agency and capitalize on trades when available. Earlier this summer, 76ers Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Brett Brown said that his team was “star-hunting”. This is exactly what the Bulls’ front office should be doing starting next off-season.

People are ready to hand the Golden State Warriors the 2019 Larry O’Brien Trophy already and rightfully so. Next year’s free agency period could change the entire landscape of the league however. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and Kemba Walker could all switch teams next summer.

The Bulls have enough cap space to land a player of this caliber to put next to budding star Lauri Markkanen and the re-signed LaVine. With a lesser contract for Zach the Bulls had a chance at two max slots next summer but that would take some maneuvering now. John Paxson and Gar Forman with some help from Doug Collins need to prove to the fanbase that Chicago isn’t just Milwaukee with taller buildings.

It’s imperative that the management team at The Advocate Center get it right this time. The Bulls should be chasing stars and doing what’s necessary to land them. There will be lots of talent available soon and if Paxson is being truthful about being focused on building a sustained winner with championship aspirations then they’ll need to wade in these shark-infested waters in the near future.

For now, collecting fungible assets and maintaining cap flexibility is key. You never know when the Anthony Davis‘s and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s of the world decide to pull a Kawhi Leonard and force a change. The large market Chicago Bulls should be waiting at the front of the line once it inevitably happens though.

Follow James on Twitter:@JamesFox917 –Feature Photo Credit: CBS 

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