The upgrades the Bulls made in the first two days of free agency Monday and Tuesday will be immediate.
Lonzo Ball (four years, $85 million) is a pure play-maker who understands how to run a team with pace. He also has size for his position and a willingness to defend both ends of the floor.
Fellow point guard Alex Caruso (four years, $37 million) is a pick-and-roll defensive expert who understands winning and doing the dirty work that impacts games.
On Tuesday, the Bulls completed a sign-and trade with the Spurs to land small forward DeMar DeRozan for three years and $85 million, parting with veteran forward Thad Young, forward Al-Farouq Aminu — whose contract is expiring — and yet another future first-round pick.
But forget the cost of these deals for now. They’re about the Bulls becoming better constructed for the way they want to play this coming season, especially if All-Star guard Zach LaVine leaves as a restricted free agent — either by his own decision or because his asking price is too high to match.
DeRozan, Ball and Caruso don’t have the same skills LaVine has, but they offer a safety net for possibly the next three to four years while giving the Bulls a second wave of talent to build from — something they didn’t have before Monday.
In a perfect scenario, DeRozan, LaVine and All-Star center Nikola Vucevic can start pushing the Bulls into the postseason while forward Patrick Williams and Ball continue on their high trajectories. But if LaVine leaves, there’s a solid Plan B. Ball’s unselfishness and defensive mindset should make him an attractive complement to a pure scorer. And Williams has the skills to emerge as a two-way wing defender as early as this season. A Williams-Ball future may even be more exciting than the LaVine-Vucevic model.
Having the 31-year-old veteran DeRozan for three years is a bonus. He averaged 20.1 points per game in his first 12 seasons with the Raptors and Spurs and had a career-best 6.9 assists per game last season. He has appeared in four All-Star Games — the last in 2018 — and 58 playoff games.
No matter how the new-look roster works out, Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, can at least sleep well knowing he has set up LaVine with the best NBA team he has ever been a part of — the kind of supporting talent he has always wanted. That will give LaVine something to think about when deciding his future. More money won’t be part of it, though. Adding DeRozan, Ball and Caruso spoils any chance the Bulls had of clearing more cap space to give LaVine a pay increase for the upcoming season and then extend him at a higher number. He can discuss an extension after next season, when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
The Bulls also have the option to trade LaVine at some point during the season. If the team is healthy but still outside the top six in the Eastern Conference by the 2022 trade deadline, that’s a possibility they may need to explore.