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.