How should the Bulls handle Kris Dunn’s free agency?

At a time when the world is still grappling with the true affects of COVID-19, inequity and social justice issues that continue to divide America, an upcoming election that will only make matters worse and, among many other calamities, the changing climate of our planet, it feels somewhat trivial to even consider using any lasting brain cells on the Chicago Bulls.

That’s all true. As is this: 2020 has been a fucking cesspool of a year.

So, forgive me, but any news pertaining to our Bulls, no matter how minor or insignificant, is a welcome reprieve from reality.

The start of a new week offers up such an opportunity, as for the first time in over six months, the Bulls are back. Well, sort of. Commencing this week, players and coaches (sans the bald guy) have been granted permission by the NBA and NBPA to reconvene in a controlled, bubble-esque group training program.

It remains to be seen what can be achieved by these workouts given the team is still without a coach, though this vacancy won’t be the only noticeable absence.

As reported by K.C. Johnson of NBCS Chicago, Kris Dunn will not be taking part in these voluntary workouts, citing his upcoming free agency as the primary reason for sitting out.

For Dunn, this decision was obvious as it were logical. Plagued with untimely injuries throughout his four-year career, the last thing Dunn needs is a random injury in meaningless scrimmages that could ultimately cost him millions.

Rightly so, Dunn is protecting himself and has his contract situation front of mind. Undoubtedly, so do the Bulls.

A quiet offseason ahead?

We don’t know when the next NBA season will commence. We don’t know the full impact of COVID-19 on the teams’ salary cap.

There are many uncertainties moving forward. For the Bulls, though, the immediate path forward is clear.

While their will undoubtedly be some changes, the current roster is largely filled with players who have already signed guaranteed contracts. Dunn is one of the rare few Bulls who will be due a new deal. For this reason, a resolution on his contract status will likely be the biggest roster decision Arturas Karnisovas will have to make this offseason.

Before even considering the merits of retaining Dunn, Karnisovas will need to decide what rights the Bulls wish to place upon their free agent. Initially, he has two choices:

  • Extend the qualifying offer and force Dunn into restricted free agency or;
  • Waive those rights and allow the guard to become an unrestricted free agent

In either scenario, the Bulls and Dunn can negotiate a new deal (even if pulling a qualifying offer from the table typically points to a pending separation.) Having started enough games last season to meet the relevant criteria within the CBA, Dunn is now eligible for a $7.1 million qualifying offer, an increase from $4.6 million.

What is Dunn worth to the Bulls?

Is Dunn’s increased qualifying offer relevant?

Well, yes and no. The answer is ultimately dependent on what offers Dunn receives, from the Bulls or any other team.

Frankly, if the Bulls intend on signing Dunn to a multi-year deal, it probably means little. However, if the plan was to leverage Dunn’s qualifying offer as a tool to retain him for only one season — thus preserving more cap space for the 2021 offseason — the team will need to pay an additional $2.5 million than originally intended. The latter point is where things get interesting.

Dunn, who turns 27 in March, is hardly a developing player anymore. Sure, he can still improve aspects of his game. He probably will. But will that occur in Chicago?

Should it?

Prior to the season being interrupted by a global pandemic, most of us were wondering what the Bulls would do with Dunn beyond this season. As originally reported by K.C. Johnson of NBCS Chicago, the Los Angeles Clippers had planned to chase after Dunn in free agency. There likely will be more suitors for the former lottery pick, too.

How relevant are these reports now given all that has unfolded? There’s no way to really know. In the interest of this post, though, let’s assume they remain relevant.

A team such as the Clippers showing interest in Dunn is notable given they — like most teams in the league — will not have sufficient cap space to offer free agents in 2020. Given Dunn’s status as a possible restricted free agent, few teams having cap space would typically be a lever the Bulls could pull to retain Dunn on a team-friendly deal.

The franchise has done that in the past, most recently with Zach LaVine. In such a scenario, the play is simple: less teams with cap space, less possible suitors for a free agent to leverage more money.

While Karnisovas could implement such a strategy with Dunn, its efficacy seems less applicable given his next deal likely won’t exceed an annual payment of eight figures. As such, this opens the field for his services, allowing teams who have no cap space — and only their cap exceptions — to place a realistic bid.

Teams without cap space are able to sign free agents using a mid-level exception (MLE). Depending on their cap position, teams could have access to the full MLE ($9.7 million) or taxpayers MLE ($6.03 million). While these exceptions will likely be reduced due to the revenue implications of COVID-19, the revised figures will still likely be set to an amount that is commiserate to a fair-value deal for Dunn.

As such, the Bulls’ leverage in this situation is mitigated. Dunn receiving a deal that pays anything between those MLE numbers seems fair and plausible. The bigger concern, though, is number of years offered in any deal.

Given the Bulls remain far from any meaningful contention, committing serious money to players who likely are not part of the long-term future doesn’t make sense. Short term deals below or at his qualifying offer is all the Bulls should be considering to offer Dunn.

Conversely, locking in guaranteed money over multiple years is the type of financial security Dunn will be seeking. As a result, expect a potential impasse.

Future roster considerations

The Bulls are still rebuilding. Their cap sheet still features several rookie contracts. But the clock is ticking. The franchise will soon be faced with an tightened payroll, something that could happen as soon as this summer.

Otto Porter Jr. would be insane to forgo a $28.5 million player option given his injuries this season. Lauri Markkanen is extension eligible. That may come this offseason or next. In either scenario, it will impact the cap calculation in 2021 and beyond. Zach LaVine will be extension eligible as soon as this offseason. Based on his improvement, he will almost certainly have played himself into a sizeable pay rise. Furthermore, the Bulls will be in a similar position with Wendell Carter as they are with Markkanen in one years time. These future considerations wouldn’t be an issue for an ownership with deep pockets. The Reinsdorf’s are anything but. And so Karnisovas needs to consider priorities by future proofing his team’s payroll for any additional extensions.

In that sense, though these contracts have nothing to do with Dunn, they have everything to do with Dunn. As too should any plans of opening as much possible cap space order to convince a franchise-level free agent to choose Chicago in free agency in 2021 — someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo. Doing so is more difficult if Dunn is retained on a deal that extends beyond the upcoming season.

Frankly, all of the above decisions should take priority, and Dunn is far too flawed and replaceable as a player to be signed to a multi-year deal if it means jeopardising the Bulls’ flexibility moving forward.

Though it may seem harsh considering the guard finally found his niche within the league this season — culminating in narrowly missing out on an All-Defense team selection — Dunn is worth less to the Bulls than he is elsewhere.

So long as Zach LaVine and Coby White remain ahead of him in the rotation, Dunn will only ever be a bench player in Chicago. Tomas Satoransky, who can play both sides of the ball and is owed $10 million next season, is headed to reserve role next season. Why re-sign Dunn and pay big money for two reserve guards?

There’s also the draft to consider, too. Should the Bulls draft another guard (LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes), there’s even fewer reasons to keep Dunn around. The team also needs more wing-sized athletes (Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro, Devin Vassell), therefore using a No. 4 pick and filling a roster space on a perimeter player who can slot into small forward makes more functional sense than Dunn on the wing.

All of the above considered, the calculus on Dunn’s next deal is simple: Only keep him if he can be brought back on a one-year deal. Anything more for a one-sided player who can be game planned out of a rotation due to an inability to shoot the ball is not good enough to justify a multi-year deal at this stage of the Bulls rebuild.

Let Dunn walk, keep Shaquille Harrison

Future cap considerations is certainly a valid reason to be hesitant in paying up big for Dunn. Karnisovas also needs to consider a similar player already exists on the roster.

I don’t blame you if you erased most of last season from your mind. You may have even forgotten about Shaquille Harrison. It’s understandable given all that has gone on. But as reminder, the reserve guard was legitimately good over the last few weeks of the season and, in many ways, replicates the same attributes as Dunn.

After overtaking Ryan Arcidiacono as the defacto starting wing, Harrison averaged 10.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 26.2 minutes of play. His efficiency also spiked, increasing to 50.0 percent from the field, along with an unimaginable 64.3 percent from the 3-point line. While his shooting percentages are far more likely to be a product of an unsustainable hot streak, Harrison’s on-and-off ball defensive effort was consistently brilliant. In many ways, the Bulls stumbled into a reasonable facsimile of Dunn.

Harrison isn’t as good as Dunn. His ballhawk defense isn’t as destructive. But is the margin between the two significant enough to consider offering an exorbitant deal for Dunn when Harrison likely can be retained at a significantly lower cost?

To illustrate this, let’s assume Dunn receives a 3-year, $24 million offer from the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks, one of the few teams with cap space, are in dire need of backcourt defense. They may see value in prioritising someone like Dunn, who can offset Trae Young. If such a scenario were to materialise, the Bulls absolutely should not match given they can adequately recoup 70 percent of Dunn’s on-court production through Harrison, on a deal closer to 30 percent of the cost.

Harrison, like Dunn, is somewhat of an offensive liability. Unlike Dunn, he doesn’t have the prestige that comes with being a former top-five pick. These factors will ensure his next deal will likely not exceed more than $2-3 million annually. As such, the Bulls lose nothing by letting Dunn walk should he receive a multi-year contract offer when Harrison can be had for slightly less.

More importantly, any delta in contract value is an opportunity cost, one that would be better spent elsewhere. Take the difference between Dunn and Harrison’s deal and use that on a wing player. This needs to happen given Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison are injury risks.

We’ll soon find out what the free agent market thinks of Dunn. Perhaps other teams will deem his offense so bad that his defensive upside is not worth paying for? If so, keeping Dunn around at a lower cost for one more year, allowing the guard to rehabilitate his value, is a comfortable fall back position. Only on these terms, however, should the Bulls seriously consider retaining Dunn. Anything more substantive in price and years is simply reckless cap management.