While the Chicago Bulls front office has built quite the tight-lipped reputation since joining the franchise in 2020, not even they can hide the team’s glaring need for another big man.
Rim protection became a serious problem as last season dragged on, especially as perimeter defenders like Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso experienced injury trouble. Too much defensive weight fell on the back of Nikola Vucevic, who has never turned into the real shot-blocking threat his near seven-foot frame might suggest.
Still, with Rudy Gobert rumors dying down and the front office harping continuity, Vucevic appears in line to remain the team’s starting big man. The question now is who will become his primary and complementary backup?
Fortunately for the Bulls, there is no lack of free-agent centers on the market later this week. But whether or not they can afford some of the better options remains up for debate.
Some Big Names
Marinating in a winning organization since 2015-16, Kevon Looney is fresh off earning his third ring with the Golden State Warriors. He is also fresh off a season where he played easily the best basketball of his career, appearing in all 82 games of the regular season and all 22 of the postseason.
While the big man averaged only 6.0 points per game, he hauled in a career-high 7.3 rebounds per game and helped anchor a frontcourt that sacrificed the 5th-fewest points per game. He may not be the most imposing presence at just six-foot-nine, but he’s a switchable big who has become a consistently reliable role player. And, with that in mind, he’s likely to earn starting money from the Warriors or another franchise, thus taking him out of the Bulls’ price range.
Speaking of out of the Bulls’ price range, Mitchell Robinson could be just what the Bulls need.
The 24-year-old seven-footer has reportedly been on the organization’s radar since this past season’s trade deadline. Arturas Karnisvoas and Co. have continued to keep tabs on him as he looks toward unrestricted free agency, even being labeled as the Knicks’ “main competitors” for his services back in June.
A gigantic human being whose seven-foot-four wingspan helped him block the 4th-most shots this season, Robinson would immediately offer the Bulls the rim protection they desperately need. Not to mention, he’s a serious lob threat who has also always been an efficient finisher at the rim.
The problem for Chicago is that Robinson could easily net a deal above the MLE this offseason. And, like Looney, he’s proven himself as worthy of holding a substantial role in the rotation. So unless the Bulls envision Robinson as the center of the future with Vucevic’s contract expiring after this season, it could be hard to pry him away from a potentially bigger role in New York.
Is the former top-6 pick finally coming into his own?
Mo Bamba played the best basketball of his career for the Orlando Magic last season, flashing the kind of two-way versatility that initially made him one of the NBA’s most intriguing young prospects. He shot 38.1 percent from downtown on 4.0 attempts per game while also averaging 3.2 blocks per 36 minutes on the other.
His combination of length and shot-making feels like a potentially easy fit for a Bulls team that desperately needs more traditional size but will still want to keep the lane clear for their two All-Star scorers. Bamba very well could be the most likely out of these three big names to accept a deal within the MLE, but there is also a world where a salary cap team overpays due to his upside. We’ll see.
The Toronto Raptors big man has continued to come into his own over the past few seasons.
Chris Boucher is a lengthy 29-year-old who can slide into either frontcourt position and fits the part of a modern NBA big. While he doesn’t possess the most consistent jumper, he has shown an ability to space the floor and hang with smaller players along the perimeter on the defensive end.
His seven-foot-four wingspan has made him a consistent shot-blocking threat, and he also continues to excel as an offensive rebounder, averaging 2.2 boards over his 21.1 minutes played per game last season. Boucher might not be able to offer the Bulls the kind of physicality or playmaking they are looking for in the post, but he would provide a level of positional versatility and shot-blocking that they clearly lacked last season. Unfortunately, whether or not he can be pulled away from the Raptors is doubtful, as Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer recently reported that he is expected to return on a fresh deal.
I’ll be honest, Hartenstein might be the top name on my “realistic” free-agent wish list.
The Clippers’ decision to add John Wall has potentially taken them out of the running to re-sign the backup big man who had a breakout campaign last season. Still just 24 years old, Hartenstein finished as a plus-contributor on both ends of the floor thanks to his combination of rim protection and passing.
For a Bulls team that likes to keep the ball in motion, Hartenstein feels like a great fit. Not to mention, he showed his strongest flashes yet as a roll man and efficient finisher during his time with Los Angeles. Exactly how much Hartenstein will demand in free agency is unclear, but I have to imagine the Bulls can grab him under the full MLE.
A former Big-Ten standout, Thomas Bryant showed continuous improvement over his first four seasons in the league. However, just 10 games into a highly-anticipated 2020-21 campaign, the center suffered a torn ACL.
Bryant returned to the floor last season and appeared in 27 contests, averaging 7.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in a mostly off-the-bench role. There is no question Bryant looked a bit rusty over that stretch, but he’s flashed enough in the past to be worth a gamble somewhere. Bryant is a hard-nosed player with a solid jump shot and wide frame. I’m not sure he’s a risk worth taking for the Bulls, especially in win-now mode, but there is likely still a good player in there somewhere.
JaVale McGee – If the Bulls are looking to go the full-blown veteran journeyman route, you can’t do much better than JaVale McGee. A 34-year-old center who has been a plus-defender every season of his career since 2015-16, McGee is a physical rim protector, strong screen-setter, and active rebounder. As far as backup bigs go for a contending team, McGee has become the example.
Bismack Biyombo – While we’re on the topic of Suns big men, Biyombo is another inexpensive option who improved his stock last season. I’m not sure if he flashed enough to be considered the go-to back-up for a winning team, but he is a solid defender and good offensive rebounder. Offensively, though, he’s always been a borderline liability.
Nemanja Bjelica – While Nemanja Bjelica lacks some of what the Bulls might want in a rim-protector, he does offer some of the versatility this front office seems to covet. He has shot 38.4 percent from behind the arc over his career and can dish the ball better than a lot of big men. He’s also been a pretty decent and switchable defender in the past. After a championship run with the Warriors, plenty of teams should have interest in him, and perhaps one of those teams will be the Bulls.
Dewayne Dedmon – If it’s the size they want, it’s the size they get with Dedmon. He’s an imposing seven-footer who plays with a high motor and rebounds hard. The 67 games he played for Miami last season were his most since the 2016-17 season, so whether it’s a sign of a more impactful player to come or just an arbitration from the norm remains to be seen.
Dwight Howard – May I interest anyone in a 37-year-old potential Hall of Famer? Similar to Biyombo, I’m not sure if Howard should be trusted with full-time backup big man responsibilities, but we all know what he brings to the table: Toughness, rebounding, and playoff experience.
Taj Gibson – May I interest anyone in a 37-year-old old friend? Gibson only appeared in 52 games last season and 45 games the year before that, so expecting him to carry a big workload probably isn’t the smartest. The Bulls could still do a lot worse than the former fan favorite as a reserve piece, as we all know the energy and defense he can bring to the floor when at his best.