The Bulls operated around the fringes at the trade deadline before the 2 p.m. buzzer, picking up Noah Vonleh from the Portland Trailblazers and picking up a future second-round pick in a separate deal with the Detroit Pistons.
Neither deal involved Robin Lopez or Justin Holiday, two players the Bulls were hoping to snag an extra first-round pick for in this June’s draft. After getting one in the trade involving Nikola Mirotic last week, the Bulls were operating with house money.
Of all the trades that took place Thursday, the Bulls did their work last week. And last June. And honestly, last February, when the trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott signaled moving away from Jimmy Butler before they actually moved Butler on draft night.
It was one year ago where the writing was on the wall for Butler and his tenure as a Bull, when one could argue the Bulls didn’t want to take on the challenge of building with their homegrown star—especially as all these stars in the NBA have changed addresses in the last six months.
Either they lacked the know-how or the desire to commit to Butler for the long-term, knowing he would be in line for a bigger max contract in two years, choosing the path of rebuilding as opposed to contending.
The decision, while questioned in this space considering a talent like Butler doesn’t come around often, has taken the Bulls down a path they clearly don’t regret as Butler makes his return to Chicago Friday night.
Even if Butler will be determined to give his former team every bit of 50 points and a night of torture at the United Center. Butler has elevated the Minnesota Timberwolves since his arrival, playing MVP-type ball over the past couple months since he stopped deferring and started taking charge.
Since December he’s been on a tear, averaging 25.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals on 50 percent shooting, performing like one of the most complete players in the NBA.
A player the Bulls didn’t see fit to build around, for various reasons.
“The one thing we learned from Jimmy while he's here, he's motivated by a lot of things but he's motivated by that chip on his shoulder,” Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson said. “He's survived, thrived his whole life by doing that. We have great respect for Jimmy.”
With Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the all-important cap flexibility, the Bulls feel they’re in a better position for the future than their present would’ve been with Butler.
“I won't speak for Minnesota but they have an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler to go along with their young core,” Paxson said Thursday. “It seems to have addressed the desires of both teams. In this business if you can do that, that's a good thing.”
It’s been a rare sight to see those three on the floor together but the Bulls feel as if they’ve seen enough to determine they’ve picked up three starters and at best, two future stars in LaVine and Markkanen.
“That, to me, is the exciting component of the season after the break,” Paxson said. “And that will continue to be what’s most important to us, those three and the other young players we have to see how they fit if they fit. But we’re going to find out because they’re going to get their chance.”
Getting a first-round draft pick for Mirotic from New Orleans when hardly any firsts were exchanged on an activity-filled deadline day is a coup of sorts for the Bulls—which is why there was no real urgency in moving Holiday or Lopez.
They like what they’re building, what they have and quietly, they probably love the fact there’s no expectations of winning now when employing a player of Butler’s stature.
“You know you're gonna have tough times when you're young and rebuilding, and wins may be hard to come by,” Paxson said. “If you don't have vets that are committed and care, it can really hurt the process. For us, having Justin and Robin, these guys come every day, they don't sit out practices, they work hard, they show the commitment, that's the model you want your young guys to see.”
The model the Bulls have embraced is one of flipping the roster. Of the team that took the floor against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs last April, only six players remain.
While the Bulls haven’t gone “Extreme Makeover: Cleveland Cavaliers edition,” they’ve laid out their plans for the foreseeable future. Paxson explained taking the long view for the rebuild while also acknowledging the micro view of acquiring players who don’t carry “long money,” as in having multiple years remaining on contracts to ensure flexibility.
“Gar and I talk about this all the time, we still believe all the one-year deals going forward, they used to be valuable until the spike,” Paxson said. “They'll become valuable again. So it goes back to patience.”
The patience Paxson is referring to is a light way of saying the Bulls will try to get the highest pick possible in next June’s draft, where there could be superstars and superstar busts, too.
Getting there will require a lot of “evaluation” of players we seem to know plenty about, as in Cristiano Felicio and the man McDermott and Gibson were traded for (essentially) in Cameron Payne.
Payne played with the G-League Wednesday and at some point this season will get an extended look.
“It’s one of the reasons that sometime after the All-Star break, we’re going to throw more of our young guys out there for significant minutes because we have to know,” Paxson said. “We have to see who fits us going forward and who can play.”
And although the word was on the tip of Paxson’s tongue, he didn’t have to say it. Because we’ll see it for the next two months.
The Watch is back.