Had an interesting back and forth with some of my friends at NBC Sports Chicago over the weekend regarding the Bulls’ future.
Basically it revolved around this question: Is the best player on the next contending Bulls' team already on the roster, or will he join the team in the future via trade, free agency or the draft?
The Bulls' front office hopes that player is already on the roster in either Lauri Markkanen or Zach LaVine. The 20-year-old Markkanen is leading all rookies in made 3-pointers, and is showing the kind of versatility on offense and toughness on defense that suggests future All-Star potential. Don't forget, Markkanen has only been in this country for two years and figures to get even better after going through a couple seasons of NBA weight training. Markkanen's ability to score inside and outside as a legitimate 7-footer makes him a nightmare matchup for most teams, and he's an underrated rebounder at both ends.
LaVine is still trying to regain his timing after 11 months away from NBA competition following surgery to repair a torn left ACL. But even in a small sample size of games played, we can see the athleticism is still there and Zach is working hard to become a better on-ball defender. LaVine averaging almost 19 points per game last season with the Timberwolves, shooting 39 percent from deep, so his scoring ability was never in question. Most players take some time to get back to peak efficiency following ACL surgery, so don't be too disappointed if we don't see the best of LaVine until next season. The Bulls will gladly lock him up with a long-term contract this summer.
Back to the original question: Could either Markkanen or LaVine be the best player on a contending Bulls team? Possibly, but it's more likely that player isn't on the roster yet.
Another reason why the finish to the current season carries so much importance for the future of the franchise. The 2018 draft features potential franchise changers at the top in Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, with Michael Porter, Luka Doncic, Mo Bamba and Trae Young also looking like big-time talents. If the Bulls could land the 1st pick and add an athletic 7-foot center like Ayton to their current core of Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn, they're probably a playoff team next season, with the possibility of adding some veteran role players in free agency to round out a strong roster.
If the Bulls pick in the 6 to 10 range, there are some intriguing wing prospects available like Kentucky's Kevin Knox, Villanova's Mikal Bridges and Michigan State's Miles Bridges, along with Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, but none of those guys look like the best player on a contending team. Sure, the Bulls could get lucky in the lottery and win a top-3 pick, but finishing with one of the worst records is still their best chance of adding an impact player to a young and developing roster.
Depending on moves they make before the February 8 trade deadline, the Bulls could have somewhere between $30 to 40 million in cap space this summer. They're not going to be able to sign headliners LeBron James and Paul George, which means their options are overpaying for solid veterans, carrying that cap space over to 2019 when there might be better free agent options available, or taking back more money in a trade for a star player who is trying to force his way out of his current team.
Obviously, there are no guarantees in trying to build a championship-caliber roster, but at least the Bulls have a good head start with the home run trade that brought Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn to Chicago.
Now it's a question of finding that No. 1 star to bring it all together.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
-- Speaking of star players unexpectedly becoming available, how about the Pistons' move to acquire five-time All-Star forward Blake Griffin from the Clippers in a six-player deal on Monday? Pistons coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy paid a hefty price to acquire Griffin: two young starters in Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley plus 1st and 2nd round draft picks, but Van Gundy told reporters it was worth it.
"Our thinking was this: The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star. It's just very hard to do," he told reporters. "It's hard to do in free agency. It's hard to do in trades. You get very few opportunities to do it."
That may very well be true, but it's hard to see the Pistons competing for an Eastern Conference championship with a team built around big men Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with inconsistent point guard Reggie Jackson. And, Monday's trade severely limits what Van Gundy will be able to do to tweak the roster in future years.
I actually love the trade for the Clippers. Harris is an underrated scorer who's only 25 years old, and even though Bradley is having a sub-par season he could be a nice fit as a 2-way shooting guard if the Clippers are able to re-sign him in free agency this summer. Plus, L.A. now has two 1st round picks in a solid 2018 draft. It will be interesting to see if Doc Rivers will remain in place as head coach long-term or Hall of Famer Jerry West recommends to ownership a change would be a good idea.
-- Injuries continues to a big story around the league. DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury last Friday, then valuable Oklahoma City defensive ace Andre Roberson went down with a ruptured patella tendon. Tuesday brought news that Wizards' All-Star guard John Wall would miss 6 to 8 weeks following a second arthroscopic surgical procedure on his left knee.
The Pelicans are talking with the Bulls about a trade to acquire Niko Mirotic, but there's no way Mirotic can replace the production New Orleans was getting from Cousins. It's been reported Pelicans' GM Dell Demps and head coach Alvin Gentry need to get to the playoffs to keep their jobs, and the organization also has to convince Anthony Davis that he's best served staying with the organization for the rest of his career. The Pelicans probably will sign Cousins to a long-term extension this summer, even though he's not likely to be ready to play at the start of next season. Difficult decisions for a small-market franchise, but if Demps can't build around a talent like Davis, you can bet ownership will be looking to find someone else to run the front office.
Oklahoma City will be scouring the trade market for a 3-and-D wing to replace Roberson, so might there be a match with the Bulls for Justin Holiday? Seems pretty unlikely from the Bulls' perspective, since Holiday is signed for next season at a very affordable price of $4.4 million and has taken on an important leadership role with a young team. The Thunder might try to find a replacement on the buyout market, which figures to be bigger than ever with the trade deadline now coming before the All-Star break.
As for the Wizards, Wall's absence could drop them into a battle with the Pacers, 76ers and Pistons for the final three playoff spots in the East. Wall should be back for the stretch run and the playoffs, so it's unlikely Washington will seek out a major move to acquire another point guard. Former Penn St. star Tim Frazier moves into the starting lineup, with Bradley Beal taking on more ball-handling responsibilities. The Wizards could also look to add another veteran once the buy-out season begins.
-- How about some positive news on the injury front? Chicago native Jabari Parker is scheduled to make his return from a second ACL injury to his left knee Friday night in a home game against the Knicks.
Parker has been working tirelessly to make his way back, beating the Bucks' timetable of taking a full year off following the 2nd ACL tear last February. What kind of player will Jabari be after a second surgery on the same knee? Only time will tell, but we can only hope Parker can return to the form he showed last season, averaging 20 points a game with an explosive first step and powerful finishes at the rim.
With the Bucks' payroll drawing close to luxury tax territory, the front office will have to decide this summer how much money they're willing to commit to Parker, who will be a restricted free agent, just like the Bulls' Zach LaVine. It will be interesting to see if Parker quickly re-establishes himself as a key part of the Bucks' core group, or if Milwaukee's front office looks for some sort of sign-and-trade deal in July.
-- Finally, it's sad to see the way the careers of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are coming to a close. Both were All-Stars under Tom Thibodeau and routinely among the league leaders in minutes played. Both were fortunate to find teams willing to hand them outrageous contracts during the Wild West Summer of 2016 free agent signing period. And now both are usually inactive on game days, watching younger players getting the court time on mediocre teams.
Noah's frustration finally boiled over recently in a heated sideline confrontation with Knicks’ coach Jeff Hornacek after Noah was pulled from mop-up duty in a blowout loss to Golden St. The Knicks organization tried to defuse the situation by saying Noah would be away from the team for a while for "personal reasons," but as of now there are no plans for Noah to return to active duty, and the proud veteran refuses to engage the front office on buyout negotiations. Noah wants every dollar on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with then President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson back in July 2016. So, unless the Knicks want to pony up the remaining cash, it looks like they have a stand-off on their hands.
As for Deng, the Lakers have tried to trade the remaining two-plus years on his four-year, $72 million deal but have found zero interest, even if they include other players and draft considerations as a sweetener. It seems likely the Lakers will eventually use the "stretch" provision in the collective bargaining agreement to spread out their salary cap obligation over the next five years and effectively end Deng's NBA career.
When you consider all that Noah, Deng and Derrick Rose gave to the Bulls organization, it's unfortunate to see how these proud athletes are going out.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Back to Stan Van Gundy, who's rarely boring in his give and take with the media. Van Gundy said he would have made the trade for Griffin even if the Pistons were on a 10-game winning streak, instead of an eight-game losing streak because it's so hard to acquire a big-time star.
But then, he contradicted himself with this salvo.
"I've said it before, I'll stick to it: Every single guy in this league is available. I don't give a s--- what any organization tells you. Every single guy in this league is available," he said. "Now some of them, it's going to be very hard to get because their price would be really, really high. But hell, you can put together a deal for LeBron, you can put together a deal for Kevin Durant. Every guy in this league's available. If they don't have a no-trade [clause], they're available."
Oh, by the way, LeBron has a full no-trade clause. But he will be a free agent this summer (in case you haven't heard!)