Flexibility key for Bulls going forward in their rebuild – The Athletic

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

When the Bulls signed Rajon Rondo to a partially guaranteed deal and Dwyane Wade to a two-year contract last summer, flexibility was the token term used to describe the deals. They were short-term, win-now contracts that would not affect the Bulls’ ability to be competitive in the free agent market in future years.

It wasn’t perfect — those deals hamstrung the Bulls from building in the short-term — but they will have plenty of space going into next summer, and that’s an exciting prospect for the team, if they use it correctly.

“We’ve all seen where last year there was a (salary cap) spike, there was a huge bump and a very active (free agent) market,” Gar Forman told reporters at Las Vegas Summer League. “I think we’re seeing the market suppress some this summer. And I think as we go into next summer as the cap is flattening, the ability to have young players, develop those young players, have flexibility in order to add assets, and then draft picks will get us a step up in trying to go forward.”

Forman was right. He and John Paxson deserve credit for having the foresight to avoid handing out contracts that would prevent the team from future spending. When the salary cap spiked last summer, every team had cap space and it therefore became less valuable. Now, the cap is flattening and space has become an asset for teams that maintained it. The Bulls are primed to be one of the teams that can spend the most.

Realistically, the Bulls are set up to have upwards of $50 million in room in summer 2018. In order to get there, they would need to part with Nikola Mirotic and get off of Robin Lopez’s $14.3 million (though they can get even more if they purge the entire crop of young players).

But let’s say the Bulls re-sign Mirotic at an estimated $13.5 million (halfway between his reported asking price and the team’s offer) and keep Lopez (as well as all of the rookie scale deals on the current roster). They will still have approximately $23.4 million to spend.

In any scenario, the Bulls will have to extend a qualifying offer to LaVine to make him a restricted free agent, with a $9.6 million cap hold. This will allow them to sign a free agent using cap space. Afterwards, they can use LaVine’s bird rights to go over the cap to re-sign him.

Flexibility next summer is valuable, but Forman will have to be extremely careful about whom he goes after. With all that cap money to blow, he could feel pressured to make another win-now splash in free agency, which would be impatient and misguided.

Besides LeBron James, Chris Paul or DeMarcus Cousins, who are fairly unrealistic targets, there aren’t any max-worthy free agents on the market. Players like Brook Lopez, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Derrick Favors will want to cash out on long-term, big-money deals and none of them make sense for the Bulls.


Last summer’s signings of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade were bad decisions, but management had the right idea. (Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports)

But Forman and Paxson have so far committed to the rebuild. Depending on Mirotic and Lopez, they will have at least one max contract to offer, but it is extremely important that they only offer contracts to players that match the timeline.

While it may end up costing the team more and locking down money longer term, I would much rather see the Bulls attack the restricted free agent pool on players like Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood, Gary Harris, Clint Capela or Josh Richardson. Unrestricted free agent Robert Covington would also be a perfectly acceptable target. These players will likely command a high payday (some more than others), but each fits the timeline of the rebuild.

Most importantly, a lower-tier, up-and-coming type of player would give the Bulls a few more years worth of chances at high lottery picks, which is how the Bulls need to find their next franchise player. The front office cannot take shortcuts during this process.

Studying other rebuilding projects around the league, the most notable takeaway is the importance of multiple picks at the top of the draft. Even if you hit on one player, it takes more than just one star to win in today’s NBA. And even if everything falls perfectly into place — LaVine and Lauri Markkanen become above-average starters and Kris Dunn figures it out — the team’s draft history suggests they will need several bites to find a true, franchise player.

Despite a divisive return for Jimmy Butler, the Bulls front office has done well this summer. Finding talent in the margins, not overpaying on their own free agents, utilizing the two-way contracts and moving on from Rajon Rondo were all smart moves. Now, they need to build that by avoiding the previous mistakes of feeble, win-now signings like Wade, Rondo or Pau Gasol.

The Bulls need to show patience and commitment to their process. Adding mid-end talent, even if they are on short-term deals, caps the floor of the team and prevents them from those necessary cracks at a No. 1 pick.

The Bulls have finally chosen a lane. Their challenge will be sticking to it.

(Top photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

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