Denzel Valentine

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

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USA TODAY

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

Before you read any further, let’s get this out of the way: no organization will ever match what Danny Ainge and the Celtics accomplished the last four years. In that span they have hoarded assets and dealt them at the right time, developed young talent, signed A-list free agents in two different offseasons and traded for a top-5 point guard in the prime of his career.

The Celtics have gone from a 25-win team in Brad Stevens’ first season to the class of the Eastern Conference and holders of the NBA’s best record. They hit on just about every move (looking at you, James Young) and are built to win now and in the future.

So there’s your disclaimer: this isn’t written to be a blueprint for how the Bulls can mirror what the Celtics did and, voila, the 2021 Bulls are looking down on the rest of the league.

There are steps, however, the Celtics made that the Bulls can follow as they begin the first phase of their own rebuild. And hey, the Bulls play the Celtics tonight, so it’s timely. Follow along. We’ll be looking at a handful of moves the Celtics made from 2013 to this past offseason (not all of them, because there isn’t enough room on the internet), and how the Bulls can, in theory, attempt to recreate it within their own organization. And one last time, that’s all this is: a theoretical blueprint for how the Bulls can get back to winning games and competing for titles.

Chapter 1: Enter the rebuild with a splash

What the Celtics did: Danny Ainge broke up the Boston Three Party, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for a package that included four future unprotected first-round picks. The writing was on the wall for the C's, who had just completed a 41-40 season and bowed out to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. Garnett was 37, Pierce was 36 and LeBron had been to three straight Finals. The trade ensured Boston would be drafting near the top of the 2014 NBA Draft (they won 25 games the following season) and gave Ainge plenty of ammo for later years, regardless of how the Nets did. The fact that Brooklyn imploded as a franchise just one year after that trade helped.

What the Bulls can do: Trade Jimmy Butler. The Bulls began their rebuild in June when they dealt the three-time All-Star. In return they received Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which they used on Lauri Markkanen. It’s a good bet that all three pieces are not only part of the future, but significant pieces. Dunn, 23, has shown marked improvement in Year 2. Markkanen, 20, is a Rookie of the Year candidate. And LaVine, 22, was averaging 19 points on 46 percent shooting before his ACL injury. His ceiling is an All-Star wing. So the Bulls initiated Step 1 of the rebuild, and the early returns are they made out just fine.

Chapter 2: Draft well

What the Celtics did: All those picks were nice to have, but Ainge still had to draft the right players. And he did just that. In 2014 they nabbed Marcus Smart with the No. 6 pick (their own) and James Young with Brooklyn's (the only bad selection). The following year they took Terry Rozier with their own pick. Both have proven to be valuable bench commodities. But then the fun started. Brooklyn went in the tank and the Celtics grabbed Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2016. Then they won the Lottery in 2017, only to deal that pick for the No. 3 pick and another future first to the Sixers. With that No. 3 pick they drafted Jayson Tatum, who has taken on a major role in the wake of Gordon Hayward's ankle injury. That's four straight years of first-round "hits," with Brown and Tatum having sky-high ceilings.

What the Bulls can do: It’s easier said than done, but hit on their draft picks. We already know the Bulls are looking at a likely top 3 pick next June, and assuming a Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic doesn’t carry the franchise on his back as a rookie, another top 5 selection in 2019. Maybe even 2020 depending on how quickly (or slowly) the rebuild goes. GarPax adhered to the “younger and more athletic” mantra in drafting Lauri Markkanen, and there’s nothing but youth and athleticism at the beginning of drafts each year (especially 2018). Not focusing on positional needs (the Celtics took similar guards in consecutive years, then similar wings the two years after that) and instead evaluating and drafting the best talent available will be key. Simply put, unless you sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh in a single offseason, rebuilds only work if you hit on draft night.

Chapter 3: Make smart trades

What the Celtics did: Once the rebuild was underway the Celtics made three significant trades. First they took on Tyler Zeller's salary from Cleveland so the Cavaliers could sign LeBron James in 2014. The Cavs also attached a first-round pick to that deal (more on that later). With the rebuild in full swing they let Rajon Rondo go to Dallas a few months later, and received little-used Jae Crowder and another first-round pick. And that draft pick from the Cavs? They put that in a deal in 2015 that landed them Isaiah Thomas the following year. No one could have predicted what Thomas would become, but he was certainly worth the risk at the time. Three trades (pre-Kyrie deal) that hurt in the short-term but netted them draft picks and role players who could potentially thrive with plenty of minutes open in Boston.

What the Bulls can do: The Bulls aren’t going to find the next Isaiah Thomas in a deal, but they can find a Jae Crowder-type player. What that would require is dealing a veteran that can help a contender. The prime candidate, of course, is Robin Lopez. He doesn't hold crazy value given his limitations, but he's a reliable veteran who could bring back value. A team like Denver dealing with frontcourt injuries or Cleveland needing frontcourt depth could be options, but that's speculation. Nikola Mirotic is another trade candidate for a team looking for spacing and versatility, though his unusual no-trade clause makes that more difficult. Justin Holiday is an option, too, if he isn't part of the long-term plans. The Bulls don't have much tradeable talent, making inevitable deals all the more important with what they can trade. They can't afford another Gibson/McDermott-to-the-Thunder debacle.

The second part of this is taking on bad contracts and attaching draft picks to them in trades. The Nets did this in the offseason in taking on both Timofey Mozgov's (Lakers) and DeMarre Carroll's (Raptors) bad contracts, and it's something the Bulls could and should seriously consider. Players like Brandon Knight (Phoenix), Matthew Dellavedova (Milwaukee) and Luol Deng (Lakers) have ugly contracts that teams are certainly looking to rid of. Eating a year of two of those salaries to stockpile future first-round picks (the Nets got a lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick and a second-round pick in the Carroll deal) or talented young players (the Nets got D'Angelo Russell in the Mozgov deal) can pay off down the road, and the salaries don't matter in the short-term. Hey, maybe Brandon Knight revives his career in Chicago. OK, let's not get crazy.

Chapter 4: Retain your role players

What the Celtics did: Boston committed to Avery Bradley, their first-round pick in 2010, by giving him a four-year, $32 million deal. They did the same with Jae Crowder, giving him a five-year deal after he showed plenty of promise as a 3-and-D wing. Crowder was used to land Irving, while Bradley was dealt to make cap space for Gordon Hayward, though the two were arguably Boston's best defenders the previous two seasons when the C's began their turnaround. Plus, both turned out to be extremely team-friendly deals. They'll have to make a decision on Marcus Smart next season, but there haven't been any players during this rebuild that got away from Boston. They evaluated talent correctly, gave up quickly on mistakes (James Young, R.J. Hunter, Jared Sullinger) and invested in the right players that helped them get to where they are now.

What the Bulls can do: Develop role players with current roster. The Bulls haven't drafted well of late, to say the least, so there isn't a slam dunk contract extension awaiting any of the players on their rookie deals. But those decisions won't have to be made for a few years. Players like Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis all could play themselves into roles for the future. It isn't exactly likely, but Portis is still 22, Valentine and David Nwaba are 24 and Jerian Grant is 25. Let's not close the book on one of those players blossoming in a few years’ time into an able-bodied reserve. Let's not bet any large sums of money on it, either. But the point to take away here is these early rebuilding years are about evaluation as much as anything else. Assuming the Butler return (Dunn, Markkanen, LaVine) are locked in, finding those role players for the future on the current rebuilding roster is important. Then locking those players down as they settle into their roles adds another piece to the puzzle.

Chapter 5: Attract big-name free agents

What the Celtics did: Sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to long-term deals. Only the Sixers have completed a rebuild without the help of big-name free agents (no offense, JJ Redick). But the rebuild was moving in the right direction after the Celtics won 48 games in 2015-16, and doing so with players mostly on rookie deals gave them cap flexibility that summer. They signed Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal and proceeded to win 53 games. They lost in five games to LeBron and the Cavs, but they again had max cap space this past summer when Hayward became a free agent. And although Hayward suffered that gruesome ankle injury on Opening Night, he'll make a full recovery and the Celtics will have him for three more years. These deals were possible because A) the Celtics were starting to win, and both Horford and Hayward saw an opportunity to win titles and B) they did that early winning with players on team-friendly deals, so the money to sign those All-Stars was there.

What the Bulls can do: It doesn't make sense to name names (don't worry, we will in a little bit), but the key here is to improve little by little each season to the point that an A-list free agent sees himself as the missing piece toward a championship run. When the Celtics signed Al Horford they had improved from 25 to 40 to 48 victories in the East. When they signed Gordon Hayward this past summer that record jumped to 53 wins and included an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Even with max space next summer (and maybe even the summer after that) it's going to be tough to lure a max free agent in if the Bulls are winning 25 and 30 games. Again, this is going to take time. But the final piece, at least as it was for Boston, will be finding All-Stars ready for a fresh start, and ones who want to do it in a big market with a steady head coach and a young team ready to compete now.

OK, so you want names? Assuming the top guys aren't coming in 2018, here are expected big-name free agents for 2019 that realistically could be looking for new homes: Paul George, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Kemba Walker

And 2020: Kyle Lowry, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and...Jimmy Butler

Chapter 6: Trade for Kyrie Irving

What the Celtics did: They traded for Kyrie Irving and turned him into an MVP candidate.

What the Bulls can do: Trade for Kyrie Irving. OK, so this part isn't happening. The Bulls won't have a disgruntled superstar fall into their laps and have the assets to deal for him. But, hey, it's nice to dream.

Kris Dunn's Jekyll and Hyde performances continue in Bulls' ugly loss to Pacers

Kris Dunn's Jekyll and Hyde performances continue in Bulls' ugly loss to Pacers

For most of Wednesday night Kris Dunn looked like everything the Bulls wanted in a point guard of the future. He was attacking the basket, finding open shooters (who were knocking those shots down) and playing his usual aggressive style of defense.

He was the catalyst for a Bulls team that looked ready to end their nine-game winning streak in impressive fashion, going wire-to-wire with a Pacers team that entered the night 7-4 at home.

But for as well as Dunn performed - finishing with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists - what Bulls fans will remember is his inability to close the game in an eventual 98-96 loss.

With the Bulls leading by four with 1:48 to go, Dunn missed badly on a floater, grabbed his own rebound and promptly turned the ball over. That led to a Pacers jumper from Corey Joseph, and Victor Oladipo drained a 3-pointer after Denzel Valentine dribbled the ball over to the Pacers' swingman the previous trip down. Out of a timeout Dunn got stiffed by Oladipo and had to settle for a contest 20-footer from the left wing. That shot missed, and Oladipo hit 1 of 2 free throws.

With a chance to win the game Dunn couldn't initiate the Bulls into any semblance of a set and had to settle for a wild Lauri Markkanen 3, which clanged off the backboard and sent the Bulls to a 10th straight loss.

The two misses and turnover both hurt from Dunn directly, but Valentine's turnover and Markkanen's missed shot can also be attributed to him. Dunn has proven capable of running the offense - he did it superbly for most of the game - but wasn't there down the stretch to make a play or set up a play to help the Bulls close it out.

It washed away a really solid performance from Dunn, who actually stopped a 7-0 run just before that ugly sequence with a drive and layup to push the Bulls back out in front, 96-92.

Dunn scored or assisted on 20 of the Bulls' first 25 points, and he scored eight points in the third quarter to keep the Pacers at bay. He played 34 minutes and half his shots came in the paint (plus three free throws). He was aggressive (one of his turnovers was a charge in the paint) and kept pace with the 9th-fastest offense in the league.

But he couldn't close things for the Bulls when they needed a ball handler and a decision maker. Perhaps it'll be a good lesson for Dunn, who continues to show growth in Year 2. He's averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 assists over his last five games, shooting 55 percent from the field and 64 percent from deep (9-for-14). There's more good than bad for Dunn this year. Unfortunately we'll remember the bad on Wednesday.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

- Denzel Valentine was outstanding in the first half. He finished cold from the field (5 of 13) but really gave the Bulls a spark before halftime. He passed well (three assists) and made an effort to crash the boards, which then initiated the offense. He's not great at any one thing, but he really does contribute in multiple areas.

- For all Valentine did in the first half, it was David Nwaba's show in the second half. The rust from sitting out multiple weeks is clearly gone, as he finished with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting, three rebounds, a steal and a block in 22 minutes. He actually played the most of any Bulls reserve, and even saw first quarter minutes. But he went to work in the second half, and he scored a pair of buckets and added a block and steal in a 3-minute span in the fourth quarter. He'll continue to get minutes.

- The Bulls had five assists in the first 7 minutes of the game, and just 11 more in the final 41 minutes. For whatever reason, ball movement stopped and it really hurt in the second half when shots weren't falling. Again, this can fall on Dunn, although he was attacking and taking what the Indiana defense gave him.

- As Insider Vincent Goodwill noted, Lauri Markkanen seemed to have tired legs tonight. Perhaps it was having to guard the ever-active Thaddeus Young, but his shot looked short almost as soon as it left his hand (1-for-6 from deep) and he wasn't all that physical. He also had three turnovers after just four combined in his last five games. He'll surely bounce back against the Hornets on Friday.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Kings

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Kings

Oh yeah, it's the Bulls and Kings tonight on NBC Sports Chicago! Coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live, and the game is also available to stream via the NBC Sports app

Here are three things to keep your eye on: 

1. Lottery implications?

Let's be honest: the Bulls and Kings aren't going anywhere this season. The Bulls have lost seven straight and own the league's worst point differential and the Kings are giving significant minutes to 36-year-old Zach Randolph and 40-year-old Zach Randolph. Fun players and we're glad to still see them in action, but the Warriors aren't really looking over their shoulders. Sacramento owns the second worst record in the West (Dallas) and the Bulls are worst in the East. A loss is good for both these squads, but they've played tough: the Kings just knocked off the Steph-and-KD-less Warriors.

2. But there's young talent everywhere!

Hey, just becuase both teams would rather take L's than W's these days doesn't mean there's no reason to watch. Both sides tout really special young talent, starting with Sacramento's De'Aaron Fox. The latest graduate of John Calipari's School of Point Guards, Fox is averaging 8.3 points, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals in his last six games (five starts). Then there's Lauri Markkanen, who was selected two spots after Fox in June's NBA Draft. Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn all make this a game to watch of what the future could hold for both squads.

3. Another back-to-back for the Bulls

Back-to-backs haven't been great for the Bulls this season, as they're 0-3 in the second halves of those sets. Most recently they lost by 30 in Utah, although it helps that this time they'll be at home: they took the Pelicans to overtime at home in their first back-to-back of the year, and two of their three wins this season have come at the United Center. Sacramento hasn't played since Tuesday, so you can bet they'll be rested and ready to roll after getting thumped at home by Giannis and the Bucks.