CHICAGO — NBA franchises fail all the time in trying to construct a team. On Thursday, the Bulls illustrated that it’s possible to botch the dismantling of one.
Anyone who watched the Bulls over the past two years could see that this team — whether it managed to sneak into the playoffs or not — was on a treadmill of mediocrity. And that was the case despite having an All-NBA talent like swingman Jimmy Butler. The reset button needed to be hit.
That happened Thursday when the team traded Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 draft pick, Lauri Markkanen. Without context, acquiring young players like LaVine (who averaged 19 points a game last season), Dunn (the highly sought-after No. 5 pick from last June) and 7-foot sharpshooter Markkanen would be a decent return for a player of Butler’s caliber. But, like always, the devil is in the details here. LaVine missed the final 32 games of the season after tearing his ACL — an injury the Bulls are all too familiar with — while Dunn had an incredibly rough rookie season, one in which he not only posted the lowest true-shooting percentage among first-year players, but the worst true-shooting mark of any player, period.1
And while it’s too soon to truly criticize anything about the Markkanen acquisition, it was shocking that Chicago felt the need to send its No. 16 pick2 to the Wolves to complete this trade, given how much better Butler was than everyone else involved. The Bulls shouldn’t have needed to send anything else to sweeten the deal.3 Yet the team says this was the best offer they had for Butler, by far, and that the move gave Chicago an opportunity to move from the center of the totem pole all the way near the bottom, where it will be easier to build through the draft in the future.
“Jimmy has improved as an individual maybe as much as any guy we’ve been around,” said Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson of Butler, who went from averaging 2.6 points as a rookie to nearly 24 points in his sixth year. “Minnesota is obviously getting a heck of a player. He’s going to be missed. But with that said, what we’ve done is set a direction. We’ve gone to the playoffs, but not at a level that we’ve wanted to. And in this league, success is not determined that way. And we’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster.”
FiveThirtyEight: What were the Chicago Bulls thinking?
The rebuild is already off to an odd start, though. Beyond LaVine’s injury risk, the Bulls are also getting him at a time when the 22-year-old is on the cusp of landing what figures to be a big payday. (In fact, they’ll be forced to hammer out an extension this summer — perhaps well north of $20 million a year, without seeing him play meaningful basketball since the injury — or else risk another team throwing a bigger offer at him as a restricted free agent and forcing Chicago to match.) There’s a decent chance his next deal briefly outpaces Butler’s annual salary of almost $19 million, one of the best bargains in the NBA, since Butler is locked in until at least 2019.
In other words: The rebuild will require the Bulls to shell out considerable salary to a young player who hasn’t proven to be a sure thing yet. And with Dunn, one of the older rookies in last year’s draft, they’ll be hoping that last season was just an aberration for him.
Part of what makes the swap so disappointing for the Bulls is the fact that they were engaged in draft-day conversations about the same players last year, before talks eventually broke off. The Bulls have more information now — that LaVine showed vast improvement on offense before tearing his ACL, that Dunn’s college success probably won’t translate right away, and that Butler is truly an elite, All-NBA talent — yet the Bulls pulled the trigger on a package that should be even less attractive to them now than it was then.
From Minnesota’s vantage point, it’s easy to imagine how Butler can immediately come in and change things for the youthful Timberwolves, who were a great first-half team but blew more double-digit leads in second halves than any other team in the NBA. The 27-year-old was fantastic when it counted this past season, posting a 44.5 player-efficiency rating in clutch scenarios,4 second-best in the NBA behind only Russell Westbrook, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. His presence also boosts a defense that was fifth-worst in the league last season, in part because Andrew Wiggins still really struggles on that end, even though he has wingspan and athleticism of a stopper. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear some put Minnesota on a short list of clubs that could potentially beat Golden State a couple of years from now if they continue to build out that roster.
There are a handful of things that figure to work out nicely for the Bulls as a result of this trade, too. LaVine showed considerable improvement as a shooter last season, something Chicago can use given the team’s abysmal numbers from outside. And his ability to get up and down the floor should allow coach Fred Hoiberg play the uptempo style he’s wanted to use since joining the Bulls more than two years ago. (This becomes even more true if Dwyane Wade, who recently told the team that he was opting into the last year of his deal for $24 million, decides it’s best to negotiate a buyout with the club.)
With Dunn, even if his offense doesn’t improve a ton, the team will at least have a very good, capable defender at the guard spot. The ex-Providence standout is a pest and uses his length to disrupt the passing lanes. He ranked fourth in the NBA with 4.6 deflections per 36 minutes.5
All things considered, though, there’s a reason that the Bulls are getting failing grades for this move. No one is knocking the idea of conceding that a rebuild was necessary. That much was obvious. But given that Butler had more time left on his deal, the team’s hand wasn’t forced to do something this very moment. Chicago easily could’ve waited until the trade deadline to try to sell the swingman off to a desperate contender.
Either way, the Bulls should have been able to get more than damaged, or diminished, goods in exchange for their franchise player.