Top 5 Mid-Level Exception Targets for the Bulls

We take a look at five mid-level exception targets fro the Chicago Bulls left in free agency

After seeing the largest names in NBA free agency sign league-altering contracts over the past week, the market has hit somewhat of a halt since the self-introduction of All-Star Forward Kevin Durant into the trade market. As teams across the league gather trade packages, bigger named free agents such as Deandre Ayton and Collin Sexton remain unsigned so that teams have their full salary cap space to identify possible paths to acquiring the Brooklyn Nets’ superstar.

As the Bulls continue their off-season, mainly resigning Zach Lavine to a massive 5-year, $215 million contract, there is hope that Chicago is one of many franchises making a realistic offer to acquire Durant. However, while teams want to reserve cap space for this potential trade, there is still work that the Bulls’ front office can continue to do in the free agent market to make the 2022-23 roster deeper than last season. While signing a big-name contributor would be difficult to imagine, both in the salary cap and on the floor, there is certainly still room for improvements and additions.

Most notably, the Bulls still possess their 2022-23 Mid-Level Exception (MLE), a salary cap exception that allows teams to go over the cap to acquire a contributing veteran without destroying the already in-tact roster. The NBA’s salary cap is certainly a bit confusing at times, but the MLE is actually a very common roster tool used annually during free agency. In fact, during the 2021-22 NBA season, 28 out of 30 teams used a MLE of some form, and many teams showed the importance of the players that often take these deals.

Last season, for example, MLEs were used across the league for players such as P.J. Tucker, JaVale McGee, Patty Mills, Reggie Bullock, and the Bulls’ own Alex Caruso. While it is apparent from this list that these players aren’t necessarily superstars, many were integral to their respective teams last season, including the playoffs (Bullock averaged 11 ppg and 5 rpg on 40% 3-pt shooting and Tucker averaged 8 ppg and 6 rpg on 45% 3-pt shooting). In fact, the New Orleans Pelicans split their MLE last year amongst two players, forward Herb Jones and guard Jose Alvarado, two players who were crucial in taking the eight seeded Pelicans to a game six against the one seeded Phoenix Suns.

This season, the MLE is roughly $10 million, so while the Bulls continue to try to improve and deepen their current roster, this exception will likely come into play at some point this season. Here are my top 5 Mid-Level Exception candidates for the 2022 roster.

Taj Gibson (37-year-old forward)

Admittedly, this hypothetical contract may be closer to a veteran minimum, but despite the age and limited minutes, there is still a lot of value in the former Bulls veteran. After following former Head Coach Tom Thibodeau around the NBA, from Chicago to Minnesota to New York, Gibson is still playing a relatively high number of minutes for his age. Just last season, Gibson averaged 4.4 ppg and 4.4 rpg in a little over 18 mpg. Nothing spectacular from the looks of it, but a deeper dive shows that Gibson was in fact nearly a 50/40/80 player last year and a total +43 +/- for the season.

However, Gibson’s impact would likely be greater than his on-court statistics. Last season, the Bulls were in the bottom third of age across the league and had only a few players with legitimate playoff experience (DeRozan had made the playoffs several times in Toronto with little success and Caruso won a championship with the Lakers in the bubble). Adding a player like Gibson who has been in the NBA for a very long time, has made the playoffs numerous times, and most importantly, understands the importance of Bulls basketball in the city of Chicago could be a good beacon of light for many of the younger players currently on the roster.

Carmelo Anthony (38-year-old forward)

Fresh off a disappointing season all around in Los Angeles, adding Anthony could do a couple of things for the Bulls roster. First, even at his age, Anthony is still a reliable player and scorer. Last season, Anthony played 69 games for the Lakers, and while he only started in three of them, only Russell Westbrook and the recently departed Malik Monk played in more contests for the purple and gold. In this time, Anthony averaged over 13 ppg with 4 rpg in 26 mpg. Additionally, his shooting splits were relatively effective at 44/38/83.

Coming off the bench in Chicago, Anthony would likely be focused on perimeter scoring, but given the athleticism in the second unit with Dosunmu, Caruso, and Jones Jr, Antony could compliment some of these players’ shooting woes as a veteran, 3-pt scorer.

Blake Griffin (33-year-old forward)

After spending two years (really one and a half) with the up-and-down Brooklyn Nets, the former Rookie of the Year and Slam Dunk Contest champion still has some quality basketball left in the tank. Griffin, a traditional power forward, would fit in nicely and bring another dimension the Bulls, who often run lineups with only one big. With as much value as a scorer that Griffin can bring, especially as a dunker alongside like-minded athletes in Lavine, Caruso, Green, Jones Jr, and frankly the whole roster at this point, the former All-Star’s value may be most obvious on the defensive side of the ball.

Despite the addition of Andre Drummond in free agency, low post defense is still an area of concern for the Bulls heading into the season, and an athletic, big body such as Griffin alongside any of our centers, especially Vucevic, could really take some of the defensive pressure of these players.

Hassan Whiteside (33-year-old center)

Mentioned above, the interior defense is one of the greatest areas of concern for next season, and again, despite adding Drummond, the Bulls still have a relatively small center rotation. Vucevic, Drummond, and backup Tony Bradley all sit around 6’10”, with Mario Simonovic being the tallest on the roster at about 6’11”. First and foremost, adding Whiteside would provide the team with a true 7’0” player, who can be utilized specifically in many different situations, such as closing with a lead. Despite his 63% FT average last season, Whiteside accounted for about 8 ppg with nearly 8 rpg in just under 18 mpg.

Most notably, however, Whiteside totaled 103 blocks in 65 games, and as a relatively effective rim-protector, there is a lot of value to add him into the center rotation. Frankly, to compete in the Eastern Conference, teams need to have a solution for bigger scorers such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. Whiteside probably is not the answer to stopping these forces, but he’s likely a step in the right direction and could be effective in limited minutes, more so than Vucevic or even Drummond.

T.J. Warren (28-year-old forward)

Certainly, the player on this list with the biggest on-court potential, Warren seems like an obvious candidate for many teams to spend an MLE on for the 2022 season. Warren pulled the attention of many NBA fans during the 2020 NBA bubble, where in ten games, the forward averaged nearly 27 ppg with 6 rpg including a 53-point night where he shot 9/12 from deep. The only problem with Warren is that the bubble was the last time he was healthy, and after playing in only four games since then, there is a lot of concern around the player’s durability and availability.

In his last significant season, the 2019-20 campaign, Warren averaged 15 ppg on 54/40/82 splits. As a relatively effective scorer, there is hope that Warren could become a primary bench scorer on the Bulls and would have significantly less pressure to stay healthy. In many ways, signing Warren to the MLE would be an accessory of sorts, the cherry on top. We know that the Bulls have a solid roster without him, so anytime we could play with him healthy would simply provide another scorer that opposing teams would have to focus on.

This would be a riskier signing, as the forward started for his team in his last full season but has essentially missed two seasons since then. It is nearly impossible to predict whether he will return to his bubble form, or would simply be an addition off the bench, but with the MLE, it seems like a worthy risk to add him to the roster.

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