The Chicago Bulls got what they wanted from the draft when Coby White was the last player of the top seven to be picked. After a few years without a true point guard of the future, White fills a particular need for Chicago while also being the best player available on the board when he was picked at No. 7. Barring something unforeseen, he’ll step right into their starting lineup next to Zach LaVine in the backcourt and provide the team with three-point shooting and playmaking to complement LaVine’s individual scoring acumen. White’s strengths and weaknesses match up nicely with LaVine’s, particularly on the offensive end, as White is a terror in transition and can space the floor, while LaVine has a tighter handle and is generally better in the halfcourt when things get bogged down.
White and LaVine should join Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter in the Bulls’ primary group, which isn’t a perfect starting lineup, as Markkanen is playing mostly out of position as a 4 next to Carter, but it gets their best five guys on the floor and they have precious few other options. They have no pure 4s on the roster and while Porter can slide up to play that spot, they also don’t have very many high-quality wings to fill the gap Porter would leave at the 3. As such, Wings and Forwards are the Bulls’ two most important needs going into free agency; they need the depth at those spots in order to play different lineups and get Markkanen the reps he needs at the 5 without hemorrhaging points when they do so.
Chicago will walk into July with between $18.8 million and $23.9 million in cap space, with the difference being made up by a pair of potential restricted free agents and a pair of non-guaranteed contracts. Ryan Arcidiacono and Wayne Selden can both be on the Bulls’ books for $1.8 million apiece if the team tenders a qualifying offer in that amount to each player. Both players were on the fringes of the NBA a year ago, but the Bulls played both consistently in 2018-19, with Arcidiacono playing 81 games throughout the year and Selden featuring in all 43 game for which he was available after being acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies in a mid-season trade. From that perspective, those guys are well worth a qualifying offer that’s just $200,000 above the minimum.
On the other hand, it’s worth examining just why those guys played so much for the Bulls. Chicago was desperate for any useful point guard play last season and found a bit of it in Arcidiacono, but with White in the fold and Kris Dunn pushed into a better-fitting bench role, there may not be as much room for Arcidiacono going forward. He’s worth keeping around as a third point guard in case of emergency, but they also have the non-guaranteed contracts of Shaquille Harrison and Walt Lemon, who could be kept to play the same role for ever-so-slightly cheaper.
Selden’s elevation into the rotation came due to injuries to Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison ahead of him. Valentine missed the entire 2018-19 campaign with an ankle injury that just never quite improved after the initial incident in a preseason practice. He’s been in and out of the training room throughout his career, with just 134 games played to his name in three years with the Bulls. Hutchison suffered an injury to his right foot in a January game against the Atlanta Hawks, then played 41 minutes two nights later before the injury was fully discovered and he was shut down for the rest of the year. Selden was firmly in the rotation after Hutchison went down for good, averaging nearly 25 minutes per game in the team’s remaining 33 games.
Chicago will have the ability to tender those guys qualifying offers and keep Harrison and Lemon on their books into July if they so choose, then either pull the qualifying offers before July 13 or cut the non-guaranteed contracts at any time if they find they need the extra bit of space. For where the Bulls are in the team-building cycle, the cap space they have should be sufficient to make three key upgrades to their team: sign a backup 3, sign a backup 4, and use the remaining space to take on bad money for additional future draft picks.
Mirroring the draft in a coincidental way, there aren’t many high-end wings and forwards for Chicago to sign, but they’re not necessarily looking to overhaul their starting lineup with those kinds of players, at least not for the cap space they have available to them. At the 3, signing a player like Jeremy Lamb, Glenn Robinson, Reggie Bullock, Furkan Korkmaz, James Ennis, Dorian Finney-Smith (RFA), or David Nwaba (RFA) would give them a solid backup to Porter off the bench who could also step into the starting lineup at the 3 when head coach Jim Boylen wants to move Porter up to the 4 and play either Markkanen or Carter at the 5 in a more offensive group.
The 4 is a more pressing need for the Bulls, who have precisely zero pure power forwards on the roster. Markkanen starts at that spot next to Carter as a way to get their best five guys on the floor together, but they have no real backup to Markkanen at that spot, with reserve big men Cristiano Felicio and the recently-drafted Daniel Gafford also filling roles as pure centers. Primary targets Mike Scott, Trey Lyles, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jeff Green, Jordan Bell (that’d be kinda fun, right?), Jared Dudley, and Mike Muscala make a lot of sense for Chicago to fill out the biggest hole in their rotation. If they end up with only room for either a 3 or 4, then a 4 is the more important signing to make. They’ll also retain the Room Exception to bring another player in, which can be used to sign whichever sort of player they don’t get with their cap space.
Between those two lists, the players Chicago should be targeting won’t put them out nearly as much as the $18-23 million in cap space they’ll have to spend this summer. The last part of the Bulls’ plan is to consolidate as much of that space as needed in order to acquire future picks and take on unwanted salary from other teams. There will be teams looking to capitalize on cap space or duck the tax after the dust settles on the first few days of free agency, which is where Chicago can find the best deal to pick up an extra first-rounder for their willingness to take on future money.
For teams looking to cut salary, Felicio’s $8.2 million contract is the perfect ballast for Chicago to send out and take on a much larger salary (using their additional cap space) in addition to a first-round pick. If Charlotte is looking to get out of the tax, as Mitch Kupchak told reporters in a post-draft press conference, then sending Bismack Biyombo for Chicago for Felicio’s contract may net the Bulls a protected first-rounder for their trouble. Under normal circumstances, Felicio’s contract wouldn’t be rich enough to match the larger money Biyombo makes, but Chicago can send Felicio out and take Biyombo into cap space, as long as they withhold enough from their other summer business to get the trade done. Gorgui Dieng in Minnesota, Timofey Mozgov in Orlando, and Ian Mahinmi in Washington are other targets that make sense for the Bulls to pursue if those teams are looking to cut salary.
Felicio does have an extra year on his contract at $7.5 million for 2020-21, which pushes down any value Chicago will receive in a potential trade, but there will be teams looking to open up that last bit of cap space or dodge the tax this summer. Those teams may be willing to use the short-term gain of moving on from some bad salary in exchange for more long-term money committed to Felicio.
Moving on from Felicio wouldn’t be altogether difficult on the court for the Bulls, as they just drafted Gafford near the top of the second round and have two young building blocks in Markkanen and Carter who both play the 5 as their primary position. A three-man center rotation of Carter, Markkanen, and Gafford, with Markkanen also playing a lot of 4 in their starting and closing lineups, makes a lot of sense, leaving Felicio on the outside looking in and able to be moved for another team’s bad salary.
It’s not a particularly complex plan for the Bulls this offseason and it certainly isn’t a sexy one, but signing a backup 3, a backup 4, and making a Felicio trade to pick up future draft assets will complete a summer that really started with the Otto Porter acquisition in February. In those terms, he was their big offseason acquisition, even though he came a few months early.
Chicago is still building with Markkanen, Carter, and now White as the young foundation, with Porter and LaVine serving as the highly-paid veteran crew to give the young guys the support they need to reach their potential. If Chicago hits on White and another pick or two over the next few years, they could really create something special and get back into consistent contention at the top of the Eastern Conference. For now, though, there’s no reason for them to try to get ahead of themselves or tie themselves to long-term money more than they already have – play the part of a lowly, non-competitive team while developing their young core, then plan to put it all together in another two or three years.