On Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine and more

Bulls mailbag: On Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine and more originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

Even with less than two weeks until training camp, the Zach LaVine rumors won’t die. On to your questions.

Are the Bulls in the Damian Lillard sweepstakes? — Brian H.

In July, the teams at least engaged in preliminary conversations, which is detailed in this piece. And the sentiment of that piece regarding Zach LaVine still applies. Essentially, there always seems to be internal hurdles for LaVine to clear to be widely accepted as the lead option on a championship contending team. And thus, he consistently lands in trade rumors.

Or, as LaVine himself put it in a July interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Monte Poole before he played in the American Century Championship golf tournament: “When there’s smoke, there’s fire. Every once in awhile, you see a little bit too much smoke. I’ve been with the Bulls for seven years. I’ve had my name in trade talks. You don’t love it, but you understand the business. I’ve been traded before.”

PHLY_Sports’ Kyle Neubeck upped the ante late Wednesday by saying on his outlet’s podcast that the Bulls “might be trying to move LaVine as part of a multi-team deal just to see if they can get into the Lillard sweepstakes.” Multiple league sources indicated throughout the offseason that the Trail Blazers showed little interest in acquiring LaVine directly, mostly because he doesn’t match their rebuilding path and commitment to a young backcourt of Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons.

With the quiet weeks of August and early September in the rearview mirror and training camp fast approaching, the Lillard situation is intensifying. And the Trial Blazers are under no obligation to trade Lillard to his preferred destination of Miami. If the Bulls were to trade for Lillard, a contract extension for DeMar DeRozan, who shares Lillard’s agent, would certainly follow. (It may happen anyway, obviously.)

That would mean the Bulls would be tied to roughly $115 million for three players in Lillard, DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic once Lillard’s two-year, $121.8 million extension kicks in for the 2025-26 season. Trading LaVine to clear the decks for Lillard might also cost at least another asset in the form of a young player like Patrick Williams or Coby White or first-round picks. So you’d have to be all in on the idea of that Big Three, particularly since the Bulls still owe the Spurs a first-round pick from the DeRozan acquisition.

The next two weeks will be telling regarding how much the Bulls value LaVine.

With the overall depressing Chicago sports landscape these days and on a gloomy rainy day, I figured why not buy some stock in Team #Continuity and try to cheer up Bulls nation. There are plenty of reasons for optimism toward this team. They addressed their biggest weaknesses this summer with good value free agency signings and continued to work the early part of the second round for potential diamonds in the rough.  For the first time since Ball went down, the Bulls have depth at PG (if not an elite option), on the wing and at center.  Maybe this is the season that Donovan and Co. finally put together an above average offense and defense at the same time with the Big 3, and maybe the team can maintain its stellar health from last year. Maybe Pat, Coby, or Ayo make the jump this season; heck, maybe all of them do! If all of the stars align completely, is it totally impossible to see them improve by 10 games? 50-32 seems like a lofty goal and, sure, a more modest improvement (if any) is much more likely. But at the dawn of the 10th season since we last won a second-round playoff game, why not raise our collective hopes to insanely high levels? — Nick P.

I’ve made this point on our Bulls Talk Podcast. I feel like the 2021-22 Bulls won some wild “clutch” games—defined as within five points or less with 5 minutes to play—and the 2022-23 Bulls lost some wild clutch games. So I’m firmly in the camp of this team falling somewhere between those 46 and 40 victories. Since I’m generally an optimist, I’m going with 44-38. That’s assuming good health.

The Eastern Conference is filled with parity. The division got tougher, too. (I love what Indiana is building, and they have one of the most overlooked elite coaches in the game IMO.) I do agree with you that, on paper, the Bulls possess a ton of depth. Donovan and his staff possess myriad lineup options and combinations.

Which player are you most intrigued by early in the season and why? — Matt A.

Coby White. I think he’s poised to have an extremely solid season, and I’m intrigued to see his continued growth as a two-way player. By most all accounts, he had his best season last season despite posting his lowest-scoring average. He put in his offseason work. And between the organization making re-signing him a priority and his off-court personality blossoming last season, him taking another jump wouldn’t surprise.

What are the odds of Billy Donovan involving more movement in his offensive schemes? — Jason

High. How many times did you hear Donovan talk about less isolation during training camp last season? The word he opted for at the time, and later refined, was “randomness.”

All coaches seek ball and player movement. And Donovan loves playing up-tempo, too, which is why he sometimes opts for small ball. You’ll hear a lot about playing with pace during training camp this season. But also: Players resort to their strengths. And when the Bulls really need a hoop, DeRozan prefers to play slower, get to his spots and score in the midrage. So there has to be a balance.

Why not trade DeMar DeRozan and see what Patrick Williams can do with a bigger role? He will never develop as the fourth option on a team. I know DeMar provides value in a lot of ways, but his game is outdated. He’s a midrange shooter in a 3-point shooting league and he plays no defense. We need to see what Patrick can do before we give up on him too early and watch him flourish like Lauri Markkanen is now doing in Utah. Your thoughts? — Emir M.

I’m not a believer that these scenarios fall in the either/or department. Some do. I don’t.

I thought Williams developed quite a bit last season, which, essentially, was his second season given the significant injury which clouded his second season. He can develop with DeRozan on the roster. And, in fact, DeRozan helps with his development by taking him under his wing for offseason workouts and the like.

Now, whether to trade DeRozan or not is a separate discussion to me. And if the Bulls are faltering at the February 2024 deadline, I have to believe this iteration of the roster will finally be tweaked.

Do you think it’s better for Patrick Williams’ development if he plays mostly with the second unit where he has more offensive freedom? I see Torrey Craig being a perfect fit with the first unit and he knows how to navigate not being the main option and playing his role.  I believe Patrick’s preferred play style his him on ball more. — Victor D.

This, to me, is one of the biggest storylines of training camp. I thought Billy Donovan and his staff expertly managed Williams’ move to the second unit last season, and I think it benefitted Williams and the team.

I agree with you that Craig is one of those “seamless fit” players who would serve as a wonderful complementary piece with the first unit. But he also will be solid no matter what role he fills.

Is it important for Williams’ confidence and growth to have the prestige of starting? This is a question I’m sure the coaching staff has asked and answered in advance of camp. One possible scenario would be to start Williams but stagger his minutes so that he’s also playing a solid portion of his minutes with the second unit and against opposing second units. Stay tuned.

Can the Bulls trade Lonzo Ball this season? Will they even consider it? — Dan G.

Before answering this intriguing question, let’s make sure to acknowledge the obligatory fact that everybody is pulling for Ball to make a comeback. Injuries are the worst.

With that out of the way, from a business perspective, let’s say that Ball is unfortunately unable to return. He has a $21.4 million player option for 2024-25 that he surely will exercise. But if his injury is declared career-ending, the Bulls can apply to have that salary wiped from their salary cap and luxury tax sheets. Do they utilize this to their advantage or look to use his soon-to-be-expired contract as an asset in a trade, almost like salary cap relief? My sense is nothing happens this season because Ball is working hard to try to return.

The Bulls still don’t have a true point guard and we know the significance of Lonzo Ball for this team when he was healthy. They were one of the top teams in the league. I love Coby White and think he’s going to have a breakout year. I also like the Jevon Carter signing. But they aren’t true point guards. Do you think the Bulls would consider using the $10 million exception they have available from Lonzo’s injury on Kyle Lowly should he become available once Miami trades for Damian Lillard? Does that $10 million count against the cap? I feel like Lowry would be a great fit playing 25 minutes a game on this team that is guard-heavy but light on point guards. — Muly S.

Lowry is due $29.7 million this season. So several steps, including a buyout, would have to happen for this scenario even to be considered.

Separately, that the $10 million indeed counts against the salary cap isn’t the issue because it’s called a disabled player exception for a reason. You can use exceptions to surpass the cap, which the Bulls have. But the salary of whatever player is potentially added counts for luxury tax purposes, and therein lies the rub. The Bulls, by virtue of using a portion of their midlevel exception to sign Carter, are hard capped at $172.3 million. Currently, they have roughly $165.5 million of committed salary. So as currently constructed, they only can use a shade under $7 million of the disabled player exception, which is just above the remaining portion of the midlevel exception they possess.

What is Billy Donovan’s biggest challenge, maintaining good defensive performance or improving attacking production? — Bulls Nation Brasil

I think it’s the latter. The Bulls finished fifth in defensive rating last season and added tough-minded defenders in Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig. They finished 24th in offensive rating, which shouldn’t happen for a team with such gifted offensive players. Carter and Craig, on paper, add shooting and smart, quick decision-making offensively. But it obviously doesn’t fall on just them. The offense needs to score off defense and not become so predictable in the halfcourt setting.

What are the “stakes” of this season? What outcomes would be considered a success and what would be considered a failure—both in your eyes and the organization’s? — Steve P.

I dislike disappointing you, but my stakes are centered on mundane things like flights running on time and the like. But obviously you mean from a team performance standpoint, so here goes.

In my eyes, a successful season would be a top-six playoff seed and winning a playoff series. This isn’t a championship team. So while that may seem like modest expectations, they represent this team reaching its full potential to me. A failure would be another non-playoff season.

I look forward to hearing what the organization’s goals are on Media Day. Last season, management said it expected improvement over the previous season. That didn’t happen. So how does management frame this season? We’ll find out soon enough.

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