The Portland Trail Blazers currently owe the Chicago Bulls a first round pick the next time they make the NBA Playoffs, the residue of a 2021 trade that brought forward Larry Nance, Jr. to the team. Since the Blazers didn’t make this year’s postseason roundup, they get to hold onto their selection in the 2023 NBA Draft. But the obligation is in place until 2028, making it difficult for General Manager Joe Cronin to move future picks in deals for difference-making players.
For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, Cronin’s predecessor Neil Olshey entered into a three way transaction with Chicago and the Cleveland Cavaliers back in ‘21. Cleveland received Lauri Markkanen from the Bulls in a sign and trade, Nance Jr. became a Blazer. and Derrick Jones Jr., along with that that pesky pick, traveled to Chicago.
The unknown conveyance date of said pick is the reason the franchise’s next five firsts can’t really be dealt without contortions. Interestingly, and despite this pretty hefty roadblock, Cronin hasn’t been shy about his plans to make bold moves as he works to build a contender around Damian Lillard.
In order for Cronin to follow through on his plan and take a swing with future picks, he needs to provide alternative options to alter those existing obligations to the Bulls.
At Cronin’s post trade deadline press conference in February, he touched on his regular discussions with Chicago’s front office.
“Chicago and I talk pretty much during every transaction window where it’s ‘hey, if it becomes necessary, would you be open to this’, we lay a real light foundation to where ‘I’ll call you if things heat up’. Basically trying to tee that up a little bit in case we have to hurry.”
“It’s negotiable, it’s whatever we work out, whether we change the protections to a certain year and deliver it or whether we incentivize it somehow just to get the full pick back. It could be a player, it could be all kinds of variations.”
The Bulls’ Predicament
Regardless of when the pick conveys, it’s not going to be a particularly high selection. Given current protections, pick 15 is the best Chicago can get.
Despite Cronin’s aspirations to build a Playoff team around Lillard this offseason, there’s still no guarantee the pick conveys in 2024. If Portland drops into the lottery again next season, the Bulls will be forced to wait again.
In the meantime, the Bulls experienced a pretty ordinary campaign, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference. They beat the Toronto Raptors in the first Play-In game but lost to the Heat in the ensuing battle for the eighth seed.
Chicago’s payroll fell less than a million dollars under the luxury tax with roughly $120 million and eight players — including Patrick Williams’ team option — committed in 2023-24.
Their front office, led by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, have Zach LaVine locked in for up to four years (player option on the fourth) at more than $40 million per year. LaVine is a two-time All Star. At age 28, he probably has a few good years left.
DeMar DeRozan, who had a solid season as the Bulls’ crafty veteran wing, has one more year remaining at $28.6 million. Lonzo Ball, who hasn’t played since January 2022, is on the books next season for $20 million and has a player option for 2024-25 worth $21 million.
Nikola Vucevic, a good player with real flaws, is a free agent this summer and is unlikely to be let go for fear of losing an actual asset. Assuming he returns, the franchise is already edging closer to the projected $162 million luxury tax threshold next season.
It’s not particularly cheery news regarding draft picks either. The Bulls owe their 2023 choice — top four protected — to the Orlando Magic as part of the deal they struck to acquire Vucevic.
Chicago also owes their 2025 first-rounder (top 10 protected) to the San Antonio Spurs as part of their deal to acquire DeRozan.
For all these reasons, the Bulls have incentive to acquire cheap, young talent in the draft. Currently, they lack the means to do so.
What can the Blazers offer?
As Cronin stated, there’s more than one way to satisfy their obligation. Chicago and Portland could strike a supplementary deal, trading the owed future pick back to Portland for different compensation that conveys immediately. Players, picks, a combination of both, or a change in protections could be enough to satisfy the deal.
Outside the obvious Damian Lillard, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, we’re not sure who on the roster the Bulls might covet. Assuming the Blazers don’t want to bring back unwanted salary in the deal, it’s unlikely Jusuf Nurkic’s $16.8 million 2023-24 money is in play.
This leaves Nassir Little, Kevin Knox, Keon Johnson, Trendon Watford and Jabari Walker — all of whom could be moved. Aside from Little’s $6.2 million, the other four deals are priced at $3 million or less, making it easier to consummate a re-negotiated deal with as little fuss as possible.
There’s two obvious options here. The Blazers acquired a 2023 pick from the New York Knicks in a deal for Josh Hart at the trade deadline. That has turned into Pick 23, which the Blazers now own. Since they can’t get a pick higher than 15 anyway, Chicago might see the Knicks as equivalent to potential future gains should they wait.
The second option could come from a collection of the eight second round picks the Blazers can part with — five of which were brought back in the controversial Gary Payton II transaction at the deadline.
As Cronin mentioned, the Blazers could request a change in the terms of protection, guaranteeing a pick in a particular year and removing all other restrictions. This would allow them to define the year they’d owe a pick and work future trades around it.
If the Blazers were to negotiate a deal with Chicago to convey their 2024 pick, Top 4 protected, which would become two second round picks in subsequent years, things change. The Blazers would then be able to trade picks in 2026, 2028 and 2030 and offer swaps in the odd years.
This would be an improvement, but I wouldn’t feel great about it, especially if Cronin swings and misses this offseason. He could be gifting Chicago a mid-to-late lottery pick next year.
The Larry Nance Jr. trade has made things difficult for Portland. Nance Jr. was a decent player, but he’s now gone while the pick obligations remain.
Chicago has some questions to answer as well and may not hold all the leverage in this scenario. The Bulls have a lot of money on the books for a non-playoff team that owes its short-term first round pick future to other franchises.
Whether the Blazers can sell the Bulls on a young, cheap asset like Watford, the Knicks first, or multiple seconds remains to be seen, but I’d be pretty confident in the two teams reaching terms this summer.