2. The burden of Lonzo Ball is hard-capping the Bulls’ full potential
It’s been said a thousand times at this point, but still, it can’t be said enough. The moment Lonzo Ball went down with a knee injury, the Bulls’ window of true contention slammed shut. There’s simply no way to overcome the loss of a player that compensated for so many of Chicago’s weaknesses with his defense, playmaking, and sharpshooting. Even worse, his $20 million cap hit has made seemingly it impossible to find an adequate replacement.
This loss means the Bulls are effectively working with 15% less cap flexibility than every other team in the league. That disadvantage would be difficult to overcome even if Ball wasn’t such a big contributor for the Bulls on the court in the first place.
Applying for the Disabled Player Exception was a step in the right direction. That $10 million exception could be used to bring in a true difference-maker on a one-year deal either in free agency or on the buyout market later in the season. We’ve yet to receive any news on whether or not the league office intends to grant the Bulls this exception, but nothing we’ve seen from Lonzo suggests he’ll be available to play anytime this season.
Rather than waiting things out, it may be time for the Bulls to offload Lonzo Ball any way they can.
Even if the Bulls are granted this exception, it unfortunately won’t cure what’s ailing this franchise. Is ownership even willing to use DPE and commit to paying the luxury tax? Will any top free agents even see a middling team like the Bulls as a top destination? Are there even any free agents out there that can emulate what Lonzo offered this team?
As much as I wish it wasn’t, the answer to each of these questions is more than likely “no”.
For that reason, I believe Chicago should be willing to explore the idea of using Lonzo’s contract as salary filler to explore potential trade scenarios. If the Bulls managed to swap Ball’s $20 million deal for a player who can actually contribute next season, their odds at genuinely competing will drastically improve overnight. Even if it requires sacrificing a few assets to get it done, I believe there are a few deals out there that could move the needle for Chicago.