Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, NBA

The Long Two: Heat, Bulls take big swings in free agency

Both the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls made bold acquisitions in free agency but may have moved in opposite directions this offseason.

The Miami Heat, clearly, had a plan this offseason. NBA free agency opened at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on Monday; by 7:00 the Heat had acquired Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker, retained Duncan Robinson, and extended Jimmy Butler, solidifying a formidable yet expensive (and aging) starting five. After signing Dewayne Dedmon, Markieff Morris and Victor Oladipo in the following days, Miami’s offseason appears complete. With the team now working against the hard cap and with limited flexibility moving forward, this is an enormous bet by the Heat on the present. Lowry and Butler, whose deals will take them through their age-37 and age-35 seasons, respectively, will almost certainly decline over the life of their new contracts, likely to the point of being significantly overpaid. The hope is that they’ll be worth enough on the front end to justify some pain on the other side.

There are equally persuasive arguments on both sides of whether the Heat have enough talent to compete for titles during this window. That Miami blitzed its way to the Finals two postseasons ago is a compelling piece of evidence, but so is the fact that the Heat were emphatically swept by the Bucks in last year’s playoffs.

Are these Miami Heat different enough to breakthrough?

The new iteration of the team has the makings of a smart, tenacious defense with enough ballhandlers and playmakers to play a dynamic read-and-react offense with multiple threats on every play; it also lacks an elite offensive catalyst and ace rim protector and relies almost exclusively on Lowry, Robinson and Tyler Herro for 3-point shooting. Lowry has been one of the league’s most valuable guards for the better part of the last decade, but showed signs of slippage last season as the Raptors sputtered out of the playoffs; was that an aberration, or the start of a trend?

At a bare minimum, the Heat’s new point guard should raise the team’s regular-season floor and fit seamlessly around Butler and Adebayo. Even as his athleticism declines with age, Lowry still fills an important need as a pull-up shooter and multifaceted pick-and-roll operator who, like Butler, also provides the little things within a given possession that open bigger opportunities for those around him. He’ll help stabilize an offense that has occasionally drifted into stagnation in the last two seasons, and he gives the Heat a primary ball-handler who will allow Butler, Robinson and Adebayo to find more comfortable shots within the flow of the offense.

Tucker, meanwhile, doesn’t offer quite the shooting threat Jae Crowder did in that 2020 Finals run, but gives Miami a more reliable Crowder replacement than anyone it trotted out in 2021. More importantly, he’s a capable small-ball center and legitimate defensive option against Kevin Durant in a potential playoff meeting with Brooklyn.

The Heat don’t have the top-end offensive talent around which title winners are usually built, but rather a more balanced group of players who amplify one another. Butler, Lowry and Adebayo may not be top-10 players, but all three probably fall somewhere in the 11-25 range and, at least theoretically, fit together well. The team figures to have a defensive bent, with the versatility to play just about any scheme Erik Spoelstra chooses to deploy.

The offense may be slightly thin on shooting (hence Robinson’s five-year $90 million deal) but should manage to grind out buckets with smart players running Spoelstra’s movement-heavy system. Whether that sort of two-way balance amounts to a title contender remains to be seen, and will depend in part upon variables beyond Miami’s control. But as this week showed, the Heat will do everything within their power to seize whatever opportunity they make for themselves.

The Chicago Bulls invested in their present

The Bulls made a similarly strong commitment to the present this week, only, unlike Miami, without the realistic possibility of a deep playoff run. Chicago was one of the first teams to strike on Monday evening, signing Lonzo Ball to a four-year, $85 million deal via sign-and-trade with New Orleans, then outbidding the Lakers for Alex Caruso’s services at four years, $37 million. That’s a substantial investment to make in two point guards who are more connectors than initiators, but both are more than justifiable for a team hoping to build around Zach LaVine in the long term. Chicago’s real misstep came on Tuesday afternoon when it signed DeMar DeRozan to perhaps the most shocking deal of the week.

On the surface, shelling out $85 million over three years for an inefficient volume scorer in his early 30s who plays the same position as your best player seems slightly misguided. But considering what the Bulls sacrificed to make it happen, it appears foolhardy at best. Chicago sent the Spurs a future first-round pick, two second-rounders, Al-Farouq Aminu and Thaddeus Young (who may have been more valuable to the Bulls last year than DeRozan will be next season) in a sign-and-trade for the privilege of paying DeRozan roughly twice what he’d likely be worth on a purely rational market. NBA front offices, however, aren’t always rational, which is why the Bulls now find themselves firmly in the league’s middle ground, with only a narrow path toward improvement and their best player set to become a free agent next offseason.

While DeRozan is a skilled, reliable scorer and improved playmaker on the ball, his limitations make fitting him around other primary creators difficult. Like newly-minted Laker Russell Westbrook, DeRozan’s inability to shoot from beyond the arc both undercuts his own scoring efficiency and clogs the floor when he doesn’t have the ball. That significantly reduces his value to an offense, and could make life trickier for LaVine, who had just begun to blossom as an on-ball creator and will now see much of his favorite real estate occupied by a less efficient player. (High-post hub Nikola Vučević will also find himself working out of slightly different areas of the floor.)

Still, DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević have the skill sets to coexist offensively, even if none fully maximizes the other two. Vučević’s passing and shooting will be helpful in opening up the floor, and LaVine could be a devastating shooter off of screens and off-ball movement. Playing four-out around DeRozan would go a long way in offsetting his lack of shooting, and Billy Donovan will have the option of staggering DeRozan and LaVine to keep an offensive initiator on the floor at all times.

The bigger issue will be on defense, where the Bulls lack perimeter containment, rim protection and frontcourt versatility. Ball and Caruso — one of whom will come off the bench — are both smart, rangy help defenders but probably underqualified as true on-ball stoppers. DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević are all decidedly below-average defenders at their positions, and it remains to be seen whether second-year forward Patrick Williams can hold up as a defensive tentpole. Extracting an average defense from this roster would be an achievement for Donovan, though even that outcome feels rather optimistic. Chicago might hope to outweigh its poor defense by overwhelming opponents on the other end, if only it projected as a top-flight offense.

If trading for Vučević and bringing in DeRozan were attempts to prove to LaVine the team’s commitment to winning in an attempt to keep him around next offseason, the thinking was woefully short-sighted. Both transactions cost Chicago a first-round pick and brought marginal immediate improvement at the cost of long-term success. If both moves pan out, the Bulls might sniff the second round of the playoffs. If not, they’ll watch other teams make the draft picks that might have finally pointed the franchise in the right direction.

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