Bulls

Nikola Mirotic saga over as Bulls fulfill objectives in trade with Pelicans

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USA TODAY

Nikola Mirotic saga over as Bulls fulfill objectives in trade with Pelicans

The saga is finally over and the Bulls can move on after trading Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, two days after Mirotic initially vetoed the deal with his no-trade clause.

The Bulls received a protected first-round pick, along with former Bulls center Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen. The Pelicans guaranteed Mirotic’s $12.5 million for next season and received a 2018 second-round pick from the Bulls.

The Bulls will waive Allen, a Chicago native, along with veteran Quincy Pondexter. They haven’t yet made a decision on Nelson, a veteran point guard. The fact the Bulls were able to get a first-round pick for Mirotic is a coup of sorts, all things considered and it opens the door to more conversations involving Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Bulls executive vice president John Paxson praised Mirotic for his stint in Chicago, which certainly had its share of ups and downs, culminating with a strong return after suffering facial injuries from a Bobby Portis punch before the season began.

“Want to thank Niko for the time he spent here,” Paxson said in a conference call. “We were pleased when we drafted him years ago and he gave us a lot of good basketball. We wish him well in New Orleans. I think it will be a good situation for him.”

Mirotic was consistent in wanting a trade after the incident with Portis, Paxson said. And Mirotic’s 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 25 games, helping turn around a Bulls team that was 3-20, aided his trade value.

For the Bulls, picking up a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft was the most attractive asset for them, so it wasn’t just a salary dump of a player who didn’t want to be in Chicago.

“It’s just consistent with the direction and plan that we talked about this summer on draft night when we made the trade,” Paxson said. “Acquiring a draft asset and having salary control over a young player in the position we’re in is important and valuable to us. This deal made sense.”

The situation with Mirotic and Portis was odd, to say the least. The two played well off each other on the floor and had virtually no communication off it.

“It was a very unfortunate thing that happened,” Paxson said. “I thought Niko handled it really, really well. He played terrific and with confidence. He never used that in any way, shape or form. He deserves a lot of credit for how he handled that.”

With Mirotic being on a short deal after his disappointing foray into restricted free agency last summer, it would’ve been tough to see a future with him and the Bulls even if the incident with Portis hadn’t happened.

The emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls’ financial objectives during the early stages of the rebuild put Mirotic’s objectives and the Bulls on separate planes.

They have cap space this summer, but will have to re-sign Zach LaVine and take another year of development before going full bore into a playoff hunt.

“We’ve got to look long term,” Paxson said. “As we mapped out what Niko would be looking for financially going out, that wasn’t a part of our timeline. We now have a situation where we’re invested in these young guys. Our focus remains on growth and development of them.”

Paxson said he hasn’t communicated with Mirotic directly, but one has to believe he’s ecstatic about the outcome considering the Pelicans weren’t ready to guarantee Mirotic’s $12.5 million for 2019-20 two days ago, worrying about commitments to the current roster.

For Mirotic, it gives him another year to prove himself to the NBA world at large before heading into free agency again—and retaining his Bird Rights in the process.

“They never backed off that stance one bit,” Paxson said. “I’m sure given everything we heard throughout this entire process is this satisfies what he wanted. More than that, it satisfies what we wanted to get out of it in moving him. It fits our timeline. It fits the direction we’re going.”

With the Bulls coming back to reality following a 14-7 stretch when Mirotic returned—settling near the basement of the Eastern Conference with an 18-33 record, they can focus on the development of their young players.

Paxson said the Bulls will play Cristiano Felicio and Paul Zipser more down the stretch, and even Cameron Payne will have an opportunity with 31 games remaining.

The message is unspoken but it’s clear: The Bulls are back in tank mode.

“When you look at where we’re at in the season, the record that we have, we have to continue to find out about our young players,” Paxson said. “This type of deal allows us to get Paul and Cris on the floor more than they have all season long. It’s our job to evaluate what they are and who fits into our future. The only way you do that is by seeing them out on the court.”

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.