The Chicago Bulls are reportedly considering a major shakeup, and the Sixers could be poised to take advantage.
On Tuesday, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that teams are “probing the availability” of Bulls guard Zach LaVine, and “there’s been increased openness from the organization and player about exploring a trade.” Although Charania said the Sixers are among the teams “expected to have a level of interest” in LaVine—along with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers—a few local sources weren’t as certain.
“It’s my understanding that the Sixers will look into this, but I’m told they are happy with the team is playing right now and would probably lean towards waiting until the trade deadline for a big trade to see if there are any needs or injury issues,” John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia tweeted Tuesday. “I’m told the Sixers like the depth they have now and the Bulls’ high-salary players may not be a fit.” (Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer later echoed that report.)
The Sixers held “preliminary conversations” with the Bulls about LaVine during the offseason amidst the James Harden trade saga, according to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, so it makes sense to circle back now and at least gauge their asking price. But while they’re talking to the Bulls, they should also inquire about Alex Caruso, who’s going to be in high demand across the league if the Bulls embark upon a full-scale teardown.
LaVine is currently in the second season of his five-year, $215.2 million contract. He’s owed $40.1 million this year, $43.0 million next year, $46.0 million in 2025-26 and has a $49.0 million player option in 2026-27. If the Sixers acquire him ahead of the trade deadline, their cap-space plan in 2024 will be up in smoke. (Granted, team president Daryl Morey has already said that he’d prefer to use that cap space early, for reasons explained here.)
LaVine has averaged 25.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game over the past four seasons while shooting 47.9 percent overall and 39.0 percent from deep. Pairing him with Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid would give the Sixers one of the most offensively potent trios in the league. It’s fair to be worried about LaVine’s knees and whether a Maxey-LaVine backcourt could hold up defensively, but it’s also easy to see the upside in acquiring him.
Depending on the Bulls’ asking price, though, Caruso might be the better fit of the two.
Caruso is earning $9.5 million this year and is under contract for $9.9 million in 2024-25, only $3.0 million of which is guaranteed until June 30. Unlike LaVine, he wouldn’t necessarily close off the Sixers’ ability to use cap space this summer to sign a free agent or acquire another star via trade. With Embiid, Caruso, Jaden Springer and Paul Reed under contract, the Sixers could keep the cap holds of Maxey ($13.0 million), De’Anthony Melton ($15.2 million) and KJ Martin ($2.1 million) on their books and still have nearly $33 million in cap space. That wouldn’t be enough to sign someone to a max contract, but they could free up more space by renouncing Melton and/or trading Springer or Reed.
Preserving the cap-space plan isn’t the only reason to prefer Caruso over LaVine, though. He’d also fill a positional need, and he shouldn’t be nearly as costly in terms of the depth that the Sixers would have to give up to get him. Since the Bulls currently aren’t over either salary-cap apron, they’re allowed to take back 125 percent of the salary they send out in any trade, plus $250,000. That means the Sixers would have to send out at least $31.9 million in salary to acquire LaVine, but they’d only have to send out $7.7 million to acquire Caruso.
Marcus Morris Sr. ($17.1 million) is an obvious choice for salary filler, but Nic Batum ($11.7 million) and Robert Covington ($11.7 million) have already carved out meaningful rotation roles in Philadelphia. Unless the Sixers were willing to offer Tobias Harris ($39.3 million) instead, they’d have to include one of Batum and Covington with additional salary filler for LaVine. That would take away from one of the team’s early strengths—its versatility.
“One thing I really like about this team is that we may not have one guy that’s a lockdown [defender]—like, you know, this guy’s gonna need to guard [a star],” head coach Nick Nurse said after last week’s win over the Boston Celtics. “We can’t switch, we can’t play schemes. We’ve got five above-average guys with size and athletic ability and aggressiveness. Guys that are out there trying really hard to guard.”
Is it worth giving that up to get LaVine? Perhaps. But they might not have to do so for Caruso. They could send out a package of Furkan Korkmaz ($5.3 million) and Danuel House Jr. ($4.3 million) instead, or some combination of Melton ($8.0 million) and Jaden Springer ($2.2 million) with those two.
Caruso is nowhere near the offensive threat that LaVine is. He has never averaged more than 9.2 points per game in any of his seven NBA seasons, and he’s a much lower-volume three-point shooter, although he’s hit nearly 37 percent of his career attempts from deep. However, he’s vastly superior to LaVine defensively.
LaVine posted a positive mark in Dunks and Threes’ defensive estimated plus/minus for the first time in his career last season. Caruso has been in the 90th percentile leaguewide in defensive EPM in each of the past five seasons, and he had a career-best plus-4.1 mark in that metric—which ranked in the 100th percentile—last year. He’s doing that while taking on some of the toughest assignments across the NBA, too.
Alex Caruso gave Kevin Durant hell last night. Deep dive on how he did it.— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 9, 2023
Turn sound on to hear why Caruso is a defensive savant. pic.twitter.com/F8hT1IiMr7
LaVine is elite offensively, but he’s been largely average (at best) on defense in Chicago. Caruso is a gap-filler offensively, but he’s one of the league’s best point-of-attack defenders.
The latter seems to be the archetype that team president Daryl Morey is hoping to acquire.
“I would say first off, they need to be pretty solid on both ends,” Morey said during a recent appearance on the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast. “As you get into the playoffs, it gets very hard for your top guys to be elite one way. It has worked, it’s very rare, though. The other thing would be, we probably need them to have a bit of playmaking, connector, ball-movement aspects. We are a little short on that, and it becomes more important in the playoffs.”
Another benefit of acquiring Caruso would be keeping him away from other contenders. One Eastern Conference executive told Sean Deveney of Heavy that if the Bulls are open to moving him, the Heat would “have to be the first in line.” Meanwhile, Turner Sports’ Chris Haynes said “a lot of people” believe Caruso would be “a great addition” to the Milwaukee Bucks. Frankly, it’s hard to find anyone in the league that couldn’t use Caruso.
The Sixers can’t aggregate Morris, Batum, Covington or Martin with any other contracts until Jan. 1. If the Bulls are hoping to move LaVine sooner than that, the Sixers would have to use Harris as the main salary-matching piece. But even if the Bulls are willing to wait until closer to the deadline, the Sixers should arguably be targeting Caruso over LaVine.