After leaning into a full-scale rebuild with the trade of Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, the Chicago Bulls did what rebuilding teams do: take on other teams’ bad money into their cap space or exceptions in addition to assets. Last season, Chicago moved for New Orleans’ Omer Asik, taking him on along with the 22nd pick in the 2018 draft in exchange for unhappy power forward Nikola Mirotic. Later, they used part of the trade exception generated in the Mirotic deal to take on Noah Vonleh from the Trail Blazers, helping Portland get under the tax for 2017-18 and raking in some of Paul Allen’s cash for their trouble. In 2018-19, the Bulls could look to do similarly, as they could have significant space depending on what happens to their incumbent free agents. Then again, there’s another path for Chicago in which they operate over the cap, much like they did last year.
Chicago opens their summer with just $61.6 million in total salary, which opens the door for the team to have nearly $40 million in cap space, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Having acquired the Pelicans’ first-round pick in 2018 in addition to their own, there’s another $6.4 million in salary coming onto their books for the rookie-scale amounts on those draft picks. The biggest impact on their 2018 cap space will be their free agents, namely Noah Vonleh and Zach LaVine, who will both finish their rookie-scale contracts and generate cap holds totaling more than $20 million combined. Free agent cap holds cut into a team’s cap space until they’re renounced, which may happen in Vonleh’s case but certainly won’t in LaVine’s. Both players can be restricted free agents, but tendering those qualifying offers adds their cap holds to the Bulls’ books—without doing so, Chicago would lose their match rights. Adding in cap holds for the Mirotic TPE ($10.0 million) and their over-the-cap exceptions ($11.9 million) and, all of a sudden, Chicago’s cap space entirely disappears.
It’s not imperative that the Bulls work themselves as an over-the-cap team, but once they decide to renounce their exceptions and cap holds, they’re stuck under the cap, whereas if they begin the summer over the cap, they can always renounce holds or pull qualifying offers to duck back under. Vonleh is the only kink in this plan, as he may accept his $4.3 million qualifying offer before they’re able to pull it, but neither LaVine nor minimum restricted free agent David Nwaba pose any risk of signing their respective qualifying offers, as both are looking for bigger deals than what those amounts would provide them. We saw this last year from the Bulls, who essentially operated for most of the summer both under and over the cap, signing deals that would work in their mid-level exception but also fit in the cap space they could possibly have if they decided to renounce TPEs to get under the cap. As it turned out, they never needed to get under the cap, and were able to retain that flexibility throughout the season. It’s not often that teams are able to do this, but it’s almost always to their advantage to toe the line between over and under the cap until they’re forced in one direction or the other.
Whichever direction they go, LaVine is their main concern this summer, as he’s rumored to be looking for a massive deal worth at least $20 million a year this summer. The biggest part of the package Chicago received in the Jimmy Butler trade last summer, LaVine and the Bulls weren’t able to come to an extension agreement before the season, as he was still working on his return from an ACL injury suffered in February 2017. If Chicago does go the cap space route, then using his $9.6 million cap hold as a placeholder before giving him a deal in the $80 million range over four years will give them a big more flexibility, but the more important question regards whether LaVine is even worth a contract of that magnitude at this point. Still a poor defender and not a high-level creator for himself or others, a near-max contract would be more speculative than anything, with Chicago hoping that he develops his way into earning that deal. While LaVine is rumored to be seeking that kind of contract, there’s very little about the Bulls’ history that indicates they’ll be the team who comes forward with that offer—they’re far more likely to let him get the best offer he can on the market and use their match rights to bring him back when he does so. Where he finds a $20 million per year contract on the market, when his incumbent team is one of the few that could possibly have that kind of cap space, is not clear.
Further down the line, they’ll have rookie-scale extension negotiations with Cameron Payne, Jerian Grant, and Bobby Portis, though none of those guys are likely to inspire the team to commit to them long-term ahead of their fourth years in the NBA. Portis is the only player on that list who has a semblance of positive value, though Grant had a better year in 2017-18 than in previous years. It’s more probable that one of these players is traded before the season starts than any of them are extended before the October deadline.
Whatever happens for Chicago in free agency, it’s improbable that they’ll be incredibly active—they’ll begin the summer with at least 12 players already under contract, with two more non-guaranteed contracts in Sean Kilpatrick and Paul Zipser. Bringing back LaVine or Nwaba would take them to 15 and cap out their regular season roster, so unless they have plans to move one of their players already under contract. With eight players on their rookie-scale contracts (including their two draft picks) going into next season, the Bulls have an incredibly inexpensive roster as they continue to rebuild in the post-Butler era, which should suit ownership and management just fine.