When the Bulls dealt for Otto Porter Jr. in February, it was essentially their free agent spending four months early. The Bulls would have had room for a maximum deal but opted instead for a sure bet, trading for Porter and the $55 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons. Paxson reiterated as much the next day, explaining that the Bulls had to be realistic about the kind of talent they would have had a shot at that summer. Put another way, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving weren’t walking through that door.
Porter has worked out for the Bulls. It was only a 15-game sample size but he averaged 17.5 and shot a blistering 49 percent from beyond the arc. The Bulls offense looked night-and-day different with him in the lineup, posting a 115.7 rating with him on the floor versus a 104.1 net rating with him off it. Porter will continue to develop over the next two seasons, provide excellent length on the defensive end and open up the offense for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
But the acquisition of Porter was also a sign of where the Bulls stand as a franchise. In theory, max cap space in the league’s third biggest market with two rising stars in Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine should have been enough to get at least an interview with the Durants and Irvings.
The Bulls aren’t yet a destination for the top free agents in the game, and they didn’t do themselves any favors after a 22-win season in which the only time they made national headlines was because the players nearly started a mutiny against their new head coach for working them too hard.
The fallout from that season is that the Bulls are more or less locked in for the next two seasons without an opportunity to sign a true difference maker, a max-type player who could get the franchise over the hump as the end point of their rebuild.
That’s what makes the upcoming two seasons so critical. It’ll be up to Jim Boylen, LaVine and Markkanen to take the next steps and show potential free agents that this is a healthy environment and somewhere the game’s best can win.
“I do think that when you establish yourself, which we’re trying to do right now as a relevant team again, and as we get better positioning ourselves to have money when guys come up in the future, I think this will be a destination place,” Paxson said Thursday.
“But we have to get better. That’s the thing. We have to get to a point where we are playing for important things. But our young guys have to develop into the type of players that other guys want to play with. And I think we have a couple guys right now on the roster and hopefully we’ll have more in the future.”
Once the Bulls get into a position where they’re able to entice top talent – Paxson said he hopes a healthy Bulls roster can be in the playoff hunt next season – the onus falls on management. They struck out on Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in 2010 and again on Carmelo Anthony in 2014. Where they deserve credit in drafting Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. and trading for LaVine and Porter, the verdict is still out on whether they have the relationships, connections and attraction to close the deal with the types of players who make good teams great, and great teams title contenders.
“You always have an opportunity to change that,” Paxson said when asked about the Bulls not being a destination for top free agents. “My feeling is that the relationships that are really important are with the player and then subsequently with their agent. And if you have a good relationship with the agent then you’re gonna be able to get people in your door in terms of recruiting them or whatever that may be.”
That will matter farther down the line. For now it’s on Boylen to continue creating a winning environment and putting his young players in position to succeed. And to that point, Paxson feels confident the Bulls are headed in the right direction.
“The young guys especially feel an obligation to get better and to right this ship as an organization. And I think many of them see Jim as a guy that is investing in them. Jim’s already talking about wherever they are this summer, going out and spending time with them just to be there and show them that they have value to us. In that regard, I’m confident with a lot of things going on.”