Huge thanks to Jeff Siegel of earlybirdrights.com. I wanted to make sure my cap sheet was correct, and he walked me through it nearly every step of the way. He is your one-stop shop for all things NBA related, so please follow and support him. Also, if you want more in-depth explanations of the salary cap topics I touch on, go to the Cap Yoda’s (Larry Coon) site, here.
The NBA Draft has just concluded with two of the newest members of the Chicago Bulls, Wendell Carter Jr., and Chandler Hutchison in the fold. All the research on prospects, travel, phone calls, and sleepless nights have come to an end. Although the NBA Draft is the main course, the off-season is filled with plenty of sides dishes, including free agency and future planning.
I completed a cap sheet for this upcoming off-season with the help of Jeff Siegel. Of course, there are a ton of sites that have this very information, such as Jeff’s which I’ve linked above. But I’ve filled them with hypothetical scenarios that are related to the Bulls to determine a realistic cap number (which I’ll flesh out more in this post). Please have the cap sheet open separately as I’ll be referencing my hypothetical scenarios and specific cells throughout this post.
For anybody who has given a hard look at how the NBA salary cap works, you would know it’s not simple. The salary cap is basically a big crock pot of jambalaya. You don’t just add in salaries, you need to add cap holds, Traded Player Exceptions, Bi-Annual, Mid-Level, draft rights, and more to get the recipe right. Sure, the Bulls have cap space, but let’s see how much they realistically have to use.
Bulls Cap Space
The salary cap is equal parts complicated and deceiving. If you look at cell B44, I have the Bulls at $12,437,928 OVER the cap space. This is only possible if the Bulls re-sign everyone + keep all of their Exceptions (and their draft picks, which is a given). Obviously, that isn’t realistic because the Bulls will not be re-signing everyone, and I’ll explain that more in detail below.
We do the inverse of the above process to calculate the Bulls max space (cell B49) to get the Bulls at $36,687,729. But even this figure is deceiving because it doesn’t account for re-signing LaVine, which obviously is going to happen. So you add his cap hold of $9,606,651 (cell B20) and get to the Bulls “realistic” cap space at $27,081,078 (cell B50). But even that $9.6 million is most likely an unrealistic number, so let’s dig in to what a potential next contract for LaVine can be.
LaVine’s New Contract
It makes too much sense that both parties come to a long-term deal for LaVine. For management, LaVine is a big part of the core after Jimmy Butler, so you want to keep him around for the long haul. If I’m LaVine (or his agent), I go for the most money I can get as a 23 year old recovering from a major knee injury, and hope to play well enough to command another big money contract for my third contract.
However, the situation is tricky. Not only was LaVine a shell of his former healthy self last year due to coming off an ACL injury, but the market is working against him. Not many teams have cap space, so the Bulls can match any offer he receives, if he receives an Offer Sheet at all. For those wondering about that Shams report that LaVine may command a max in free agency, LaVine’s max is at $25,250,000 as a player with 0-6 years of service. The Bulls can offer this max amount in the form of the Maximum Qualifying Offer to a Restricted Free Agent, which ironically, the Bulls did with Jimmy Butler in the past. But, as Jeff Siegel explained to me, that max offer is rarely used because it’s specific to the one situation where a team KNOWS it’s Restricted Free Agent will command a max offer on the market. A team would offer a Maximum Qualifying Offer in that situation because it gives the player an offer he will most likely not refuse – an extra year at the maximum salary with 8% annual raises that other teams can’t offer.
LaVine won’t command a max on the market, and the Bulls know this. Now things are always fluid, and it can only take one team that has the space to offer it to LaVine, so it is a possibility. In the slim chance LaVine does get a max Offer Sheet, the Bulls will be able to match it. I don’t think LaVine will get a max from another team, nor will the Bulls extend him a max offer. They just have to come to an agreement that’s more than his $9.6 million cap hold, and less than his near $25 million Maximum Qualifying Offer. This is where the business side of basketball is played, and I’m confident that both sides will come to an agreement.
So Who Else Do the Bulls Keep?
Once LaVine comes to an agreement with the Bulls, then the picture becomes more clear on who else to re-sign. Zipser looks like he’s as good as gone, so I won’t mention him. David Nwaba, Noah Vonleh, and Sean Kilpatrick are the remaining in-house items.
It would seem like Nwaba is at the top of that list. He is exactly the type of player Bulls fan have come to love, a Taj Gibson/Joakim Noah type player putting everything on the floor. He is short for his position which hurts him on both ends even though he tries like hell. Still, he’s shown enough that he’d be valuable to any team if he develops a respectable corner 3. His cap hold is for $1,699,698, and other teams are interested in him. If the Bulls operate as a team over the cap (which I assume they will, as explained in the next heading), they have options in the form of the Bi-Annual Exception and Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to pay him (cells B33 and B34). The Bi-Annual is a contract for two years maximum, whereas the Mid-Level can be up to four years. Just as with LaVine, I think the Bulls do make Nwaba a Restricted Free Agent and extend him his Qualifying Offer, and see how the market plays out for him instead of risk losing him as an Unrestricted Free Agent. The deadline to extend Qualifying Offers is June 30th, so that is a date to watch.
For Vonleh, I don’t think he will be extended his Qualifying Offer.
Edit: It should be noted Vonleh and LaVine’s cap hold is the figure I have in the excel sheet, because that’s what counted on the books. Their Qualifying Offer are the same at about $4.3 million, but that figure doesn’t really change the rest of my analysis. I cleared this up with Jeff Siegel and the cap hold (the figure I have) is what stays on the books until he Qualifying Offer is accepted. I wrongly put the words “qualifying offer” instead “cap hold” for Vonleh below and I can edit it out, but I just want to own up to the mistake because it doesn’t really change any of my opinions in this post because I still don’t think the Bulls offer Vonleh his qualifying offer for the reasons mentioned below. I may have these jumbled up throughout this post but it’s 2:00 am.
A Qualifying Offer for Restricted Free Agents is GUARANTEED salary for one year, and Vonleh’s QO is at $10,515,699. Although he played well in spurts last year, he is not worth that number. He also may be caught in a number’s game now where Markannen and Portis have a hold on the 4 position, and Wendell Carter Jr. is the future at the 5. Beating out Felicio for the future backup 5 position is not likely either, as the Bulls have too much invested in Felicio’s $32,000,000 contract.
Kilpatrick’s contract is a little tricky because although the Bulls signed him to a 3-year deal, the last two years of his contract are non-guaranteed. I can’t seem to find a deadline for when his option would be guaranteed, but his contract is a little north of $2,000,000 for the upcoming season, so his number won’t be a burden if the Bulls decide to retain him.
Operating Over the Cap
Going back to the jambalaya, Traded Player Exceptions and the Bi-Annual and Mid-Level Exceptions are part of the recipe added to the salary cap. The Bulls have a total of $10,424,585 in Traded Player Exceptions, and a total of $11,921,000 for their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual (cells B30 and B35). The Bulls can renounce these Exceptions – which would remove them from the recipe and put that money into cap space.
However, teams generally like to use these figures to stay over the cap because these Exceptions: Bi-Anuual, Mid-Level, and Mini Mid-Level, can only be used if a team is operating over the cap. Additionally, the Bulls like to keep their Traded Player Exceptions, as evidenced by them keeping the one they received from trading Jimmy Butler last year. It was very useful as it allowed the Bulls to absorb Asik’s salary in the Nikola Mirotic trade. It was also useful because many teams were in danger of going into the luxury tax, and this put the Bulls in a prime position to be buyers at the trade deadline for teams who were looking to get rid of salary (this is how the Bulls got Vonleh from the Trailblazers). Although there are less teams over the cap next summer, I would expect the Bulls to again keep their Traded Player Exceptions to be buyers at the trade deadline once again, and use Robin Lopez or Justin Holiday’s expiring contracts as additional bargaining chips.
Signing Free Agents
From how I see it, there are two ways the Bulls can sign free agents. For the first scenario, I have the Bulls hypothetically keeping all of their Exceptions, and they re-sign LaVine to a $20 million annual contract (just a complete guess for LaVine will sign for), which puts them $5,657,856 over the cap (cell B56). Once the Bulls are over the cap, they are limited to use their Bi-Annual and Mid-Level Exceptions to sign who they please (on their own free agents, or free agents on the market). This means the maximum offer they can give any one free agent would be their Mid-Level at $8,568,000 (cell B33), which obviously limits the caliber of free agent the Bulls can get. They also can split that Mid-Level amount and use it on multiple free agents.
The second scenario would be to renounce all off their Exceptions (Traded Player, Bi-Annual, and Mid-Level) to use cap space to sign free agents. For simplicity, I did this in cell B57 and kept the hypothetical figure for LaVine re-signing at the same at $20 million, which puts the Bulls at $16,687,729 in cap space. There are intriguing options on the market, such as Will Barton who is also a Restricted Free Agent, but I just don’t think the Bulls go with this scenario.
The first scenario makes more sense because of the stage the Bulls are in and their cap moving forward. Time and time again, regardless of sport or market, the formula for long-term success is drafting and developing your own players. Of course the NBA is different in that one superstar on a team can change the course of the future, so there is always that exception to deal with. But it’s just too early to know what the Bulls have in Markkanen, LaVine, and Dunn with how few minutes they’ve all played together. This is why Bulls management constantly talks about flexibility because they are trying to have their young guys play, while still being able to capitalize in free agency. This upcoming season is so important as there will be plenty of minutes for the young guys to play, and the Bulls have a huge amount of cap space going forward. If you look on Jeff’s page, the Bulls are in a great position to capitalize during free agency NEXT off-season, with roughly $76 million in max space available. The free agent list next off-season includes a bevy of stars, including one Khris Middleton, who I’d put as a top priority. Of course that $76 million is the extreme maximum end of space the Bulls can have, and a realistic figure will be lower than that. But even if we account for re-signing Portis, picking up Markkanen and Dunn’s options, and whatever the Bulls decide to do in-house next off-season; it’s clear the move to go all in on free agency is not now, but in the not so distant future.
What Lies Ahead
For this upcoming season, I don’t think the Bulls will be a drastically different team than last year. The major off-season move will be for how much LaVine re-signs for, and then everything flows from there. I would expect next season to very much be an audition season for players such as Jerian Grant, Cameron Payne, and Cristiano Felicio. I would lump in Denzel Valentine to that category, but the Bulls seem to love him. I would also expect this season to be the last Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday as a Chicago Bull, and the Bulls look to move one or both at the trade deadline as they’re both on expiring contacts. The Bulls do have the ability to spend and entice free agents next year, but that all depends on how well the Bulls core plays. Let’s see how Year 2 of the rebuild shakes out.