Adding more veterans will be the key to Bulls getting better
At the halfway point of Bulls season, there is cause for celebration.
They're almost .500 and almost in playoff position at the all-star break. Actually, if the season ended today, they'd be part of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, a new invention by the NBA designed to help consistent losers like the Bulls sniff the actual playoffs. So progress has arrived in Year 4 of the rebuild.
Now how do they take the next step?
There are plenty of legitimate questions facing the Bulls right now. Should they count on first-time all-star Zach LaVine as a franchise player? Can Coby White be a lead guard? Is Lauri Markkanen worth keeping? Is Wendell Carter Jr. the long-term answer at center?
But there's only one question that really matters: How can they fit veterans into the lineup moving forward?
Don't get carried away fawning about first-year coach Billy Donovan, the new front office or LaVine's rise to stardom. Those are all great developments, but the Bulls would never start winning without the veterans. Thad Young is thriving in a new role and became a fringe Sixth Man of the Year candidate, while Garrett Temple has brought a steadying influence the Bulls needed.
Temple has actually plateaued a little bit after a fast start, but it's no surprise Young and Temple rank 1-2 on the team in plus-minus. They've also played roughly 100 percent of the crunchtime minutes this season.
Young is under contract for next year and there's very little chance the Bulls move him. The next challenge is to come up with a player or two who can step into Temple's role and push the team into the higher end of playoff contention.
They'll have cap space this summer when the hefty contracts of Otto Porter and Cristiano Felicio expire, while Markkanen will be a restricted free agent. So the Bulls can sign free agents or absorb a higher salary if they decide to trade one of the young players.
So let's examine the 2021 free-agent class. The best players available aren't joining the Bulls. That would be Kawhi Leonard, who has a player option and joined the Clippers to be closer to home; and Phoenix guard Chris Paul, who isn't likely to change teams for the third team in a row.
A couple guys who might be open to changing teams are Houston's Victor Oladipo and San Antonio's DeMar DeRozan. Oladipo 28, blossomed into an all-star a few years ago with Indiana, but has had injuries issues since then and chances are, the Rockets intend to re-sign him after getting him in the James Harden trade.
DeRozan, 31, is a four-time all-star. He's averaged at least 20 points for eight straight seasons and is at a career-high 7.2 assists this year. Maybe he'll keep rolling with the Spurs, but the Bulls might be able to convince him a better playoff future exists with the young nucleus in Chicago -- in theory, anyway. DeRozan would be expensive, he makes $27 million this season, but the Bulls should have enough cap space to make an offer.
Toronto's Kyle Lowry could bring championship experience, which would be nice, but he'll turn 35 later this month, which is not an ideal fit with the Bulls' young group.
They could correct a past mistake by chasing Brooklyn's Spencer Dinwiddie. The Bulls' biggest blunder of the past five years was probably missing out on Dinwiddie's rise, since all they had to do was not cut him in 2016. The 6-foot-5 combo guard turns 28 next month and is sidelined by knee surgery at the moment.
Some other players who could be on the market this summer are Golden State's Kelly Oubre (the Warriors' payroll is astronomical, so there's a good chance he'll change teams), Orlando's Evan Fournier, the Lakers' Dennis Schroder, Utah's Mike Conley, Denver's Will Barton, Miami's Goran Dragic, along with Dallas' Josh Richardson and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Of the players listed above, DeRozan or Dinwiddie would probably be best-case scenario. Here are a couple of guys who may not qualify as big splashes, but might be more realistic additions: Toronto's Norman Powell and Sacramento's Richaun Holmes.
Powell, 27, was a teammate of LaVine at UCLA. A 6-3 shooting guard, he's been a great glue guy coming off the bench in Toronto, but he's also averaged 22.2 points and shot 46 percent from 3-point range in 23 games as a starter this season.
Holmes, 27, has been starting for Sacramento, but the Lockport native could be an affordable candidate to pair with Carter at center. The Kings are one of the league's worst defensive teams, so that's a concern, but Holmes does have one of the better defensive ratings on that roster. The Kings' other center, Hassan Whiteside, will also be a free agent.
The number of veterans needed to push along a group of young players varies based on the team. Some guys, like Dallas' Luka Doncic, need less help than others, but the Bulls have a bunch of college one-and-dones who have never experienced winning in the NBA. So they're on the high end of help-needed.
As for the other Bulls questions, the answers are pretty simple: All-stars are hard to find, so plan on keeping LaVine. If White can become a more consistent outside shooter than his current 35 percent from 3-point range shows, most problems will be solved.
Markkanen's 19.1 ppg say yes, he's a keeper. His injury history and lack of defensive success say don't break the bank. It won't be a shock if he ends up playing for the one-year qualifying offer next season, since interest around the league may be tepid. The jury is out on Carter, with another year left on his rookie deal, but he could probably benefit from having a veteran mentor.
And all the Bulls could use some playoff experience, even if it's a first-round sweep. A nucleus of LaVine, White, Patrick Williams, Carter and maybe Markkanen could develop into a good team, but getting the right veterans is what matters most.