If the Bulls 2019-20 season is over, it will have been one filled with disappointment, injuries, and organizational disarray. Zach LaVine had a phenomenal offensive season while most of the Bulls starters missed most of the season with injuries. Lost seasons for Otto Porter, Lauri Markkenen, and Wendell Carter led to more minutes to younger players, with rookie guard Coby White being the only one to flourish with the opportunity. The Bulls must solidify their front office, stay healthy, and make strides in player development if they want to make the playoffs in 2020-21.
CURRENT 2020-21 PAYROLL
The Bulls currently have $106 million dedicated to 12 players. This would have them slightly over the currently projected $115 million salary cap which is not enough to operate as an under-the-cap team. If Porter opts out of his $28.5 million player option and leaves, the Bulls could generate over $30 million in cap space assuming they get the seventh-overall pick and renounce all free agent cap holds. Assuming Porter opts-in, the Bulls will operate over the salary cap, giving them access to non-taxpayer mid-level exception as their biggest means for improving the roster.
The first thing the Bulls must address is their front office. The Bulls have become stagnant under the long-time partnership of Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman. Players such as Markkanen have expressed frustration over the team’s organizational direction and would ideally want a new head of basketball operations if they want to stay in Chicago long-term. Bulls Chief Operations Officer Michael Reinsdorf has been looking to restructure the front office for a while now and has a short-list of candidates to be the next general manager. Utah’s general manager Justin Zanik and Denver’s general manager Arturas Karnisovas are the most likely targets right now.
LAURI MARKKANEN EXTENSION
Markkanen will become extension-eligible starting this offseason through the beginning of the 2020-21 season. After a strong rookie season, Markkanen has both struggled under head coach Jim Boylen and to stay healthy. He had a very strong performance in the second half of last season, at which point discussions started getting raised on if he may be a rising All-Star. Prior to this season, he was looking at a slightly below-maximum starting point in extension negotiations. Now he may be looking at around $12-15 million annually in an extension, which would make him a bargain if extended.
Markkanen’s performance this season could be an outlier in the grand scheme of his career arc. He played well under Boylen in 2018-19, but terribly this year. He didn’t decline but perhaps was misused by Boylen this season. Injuries can also be attributed, as his pelvic injury was a stress-related one, meaning he may have been playing hurt for most of the season. Markkanen likely doesn’t project as a maximum player, but he can be a really good starter on a great team. He can probably still garner slightly below maximum offer sheets in the summer of 2021, making it unlikely that he accepts anything below that in extension negotiations.
OTTO PORTER’S FUTURE
The Bulls gave up very little for Porter in 2019. The 6 foot 8 forward immediately put up career highs in scoring and efficiency for the Bulls in 15 games before getting shut down with an injury. Porter essentially had a lost season in 2019-20 where he missed all but 14 games due to a foot injury. Fortunately for him, he has a $28.5 million player option for 2020-21. Chances are due to his injury, and the lack of cap space in 2020, he will opt-in next season.
Even at his peak in 2018-19, Porter never played at the level of his annual salary. Many below All-Star-level wings got maximum or close to maximum salaries in the 2016 and 2017 offseasons. He is likely looking at a decrease in salary on his next contract, but it could be a minor decrease. Harrison Barnes re-signed with the Kings in 2019 on a deal that started at around the same amount he earned the previous season and decreased by 8 percent each season. Perhaps Porter can agree to a similar type of contract structure through an extension.
ZACH LAVINE’S TRADE VALUE
LaVine has carried the load for the Bulls as most of their starters missed significant time with injuries. There have been plenty of instances on the court and through the media that indicates that LaVine has issues with the organization, particularly with Boylen. Despite the individual success, there are plenty of debates doubting LaVine’s ability to be the first option on a contender. The Bulls are unlikely to get anyone significantly better than him right now, so if he truly is unhappy, now might be a great time to trade him.
LaVine’s trade value is at an all-time high, garnering All-Star consideration after averaging career highs in scoring, three-pointers, and steals. The Bulls originally acquired LaVine as part of a larger return for Jimmy Butler. Perhaps the Bulls can reload again and acquire another group of former lottery-picks and a strong future first-round pick. There should be plenty of suitors and strong offers for LaVine should he become available.
KRIS DUNN’S QUALIFYING OFFER
The fourth-year point guard lost playing time at the position to the newly signed Tomas Satoransky and rookie Coby White. It also didn’t help that the Bulls had an additional surplus of point guards fighting for minutes such as Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison. When Porter, Hutchinson, and Valentine all went down with injuries, Dunn saw rebirth as the team’s starting small forward. His lack of offense was more than made up by his elite defense. Dunn was second in the league in steals per game (2.0) and the Bulls were second in defensive rating in the month of December upon being inserted to the starting lineup. He is a candidate for making one of the All-Defense teams.
As of now Dunn’s qualifying offer is worth $4.6 million and was six starts away to reaching starter criteria which would’ve increased it to $7.1 million. Dunn was ruled out for the rest of the season, but if the regular season is canceled or shortened, it is possible that the league and players could agree to prorate the number of starts needed to reach starters criteria. His age and uncertain role in the league makes him a strong candidate to accept his qualifying offer if he doesn’t get any long-term offers.
Assuming the Bulls operate over the salary cap as expected, the Bulls need to address their wing depth. After LaVine and Porter, the Bulls have very little production from Chandler Hutchinson and Denzel Valentine. When all those players missed time, the Bulls relied on playing much smaller, giving their point guards a lot of time. The Bulls need to get a veteran wing player that can relieve the starters, much like how Thaddeus Young helped solidify their frontcourt. Players such as Jae Crowder, Joe Harris, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kent Bazemore, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could fit in nicely for the mid-level.
If the season is over, they’d finish with a 22-43 record, which would give them the seventh-overall pick in the 2020 draft. They’re also projected to have the 47th pick via the Grizzlies.