Al Horford

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

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USA TODAY

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

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.

Bulls will have plenty of options in 2017 NBA Draft

Bulls will have plenty of options in 2017 NBA Draft

Owning homecourt advantage at this week's NBA Draft Combine, the Bulls have one of the league's largest contingents for the testing and games at Quest Multisport, including their analytics experts and head of international scouting Ivica Dukan.

Picking in the middle of the first round (16th overall), you can expect the Bulls to go with the "best athlete available" formula, with extra emphasis on finding a young wing player to develop behind Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

So, assuming the Bulls stay at No. 16, which players might still be on the board when they're on the clock? Let's start with a pair of athletic wings' OG Anunoby (Indiana) and Terrance Ferguson (currently playing professionally in France).

Anunoby would have probably been a lottery pick if he had not suffered a knee injury that ended his sophomore season with the Hoosiers. At 6-foot-8, with a 7'2 1/4" inch wingspan, Anunoby should be a plus defender immediately. With the Bulls, he could provide valuable rest for Butler and also spare the three-time All-Star the responsibility of guarding the opposing team's best scorer for long stretches.

Anunoby only averaged 11.1 points during his shortened sophomore year at Indiana, but he has the athleticism to run the floor for easy baskets, and since he still hasn't turned 20, he has plenty of time to develop his offensive game.

Similar story with Ferguson, who grew up in Tulsa but decided to play overseas rather than spend a year in college. He's only averaging 4.6 points for French team Adelaide, but scouts are intrigued by his physical skills and potential as a 6-foot-7 shooting guard.

Some other players to watch in the middle of the first round include power forwards' Ivan Rabb (California) and John Collins (Wake Forest). Rabb was projected as a likely lottery pick last season, but decided to return to Cal for his sophomore year.

Facing double teams most of the season, Rabb didn't show the improvement in his numbers (14 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game) that a lot of NBA scouts expected. Still, the 6-foot-10 lefty continues to draw comparisons to long-time Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat star Chris Bosh, and is a polished low post scorer.

[RELATED: NBA executives understand why top players skip combine]

Rabb can hit consistently from mid-range, but if the Bosh comparisons are going to hold up, he'll need to stretch his shooting skills out to the 3-point line.

I asked Rabb about the possibility of being drafted by the Bulls.

"One of my friends, Bobby Portis, he's a real good player," Rabb said. "He played pretty well in the playoffs and throughout the season. I know they traded Taj Gibson, they have (Nikola) Mirotic, so I'm not really sure what they plan on doing. I feel that's a great destination from me, too."

The Bulls needs at power forward depend heavily on whether they re-sign Mirotic, who will be a restricted free agent on July 1. Rabb could be a good fit as an athletic, rangy 4 who can replace some of the skills the Bulls lost with the Gibson trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Similar story with Collins, who averaged 19.2 points at Wake Forest last season. The 6-foot-10 Collins is known for his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim, but he understands how important it is to show scouts he can be a threat from the 3-point line.

"I think I can shoot it a lot better than I've shown, or had the ability to show," Collins said. "Definitely going to be working on that, and keep on expanding on that, so when the time is necessary for me to shoot it, I'm going to look good doing it."

When it comes to self-confidence, it will be tough for any of the prospects to top Creighton center Justin Patton. The 7-foot Patton averaged 12.9 points per game last season, playing for Doug McDermott's dad Greg McDermott at Creighton. Patton shot over 68 percent on 2-point attempts and is a powerful finisher on alley-oop passes.

When asked about his ability to be a "stretch 5" in the league like Al Horford or Karl-Anthony Towns, Patton said, "If they're looking for a stretch-5, they come to me, and find the right person. My skills translate perfectly. I can put the ball on the floor, I can shoot the ball with range, and I'm a willing passer, and a great passer too, and I have a high IQ."

Okay, then. Patton says he's already met with the Bulls and will be ready to play immediately with any team that drafts him. At this point, it seems unlikely the Bulls would draft a center at No. 16, but anything is possible considering Cristiano Felicio and Joffrey Lauvergne are both restricted free agents.

Other names to watch during the middle part of round one include power forwards' T.J. Leaf (UCLA) and Kyle Kuzma, Duke shooting guard Luke Kennard, Syracuse small forward Tyler Lydon and point guard Jawun Evans.

And, there's always the possibility the Bulls could be involved in a trade to move up into the Top 10. That would bring a whole different level of prospects into play. But for now, the front office is looking for athletes and shooters to add quality depth to a roster that figures to be very similar to the one we watched last season.

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 4 today on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 4 today on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Boston Celtics today in Game 4 on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. And be sure to stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live-streaming coverage of the Bulls.

1. Which point guard steps up? With "Playoff Rondo" shelved after suffering a thumb injury, one of the Bulls point guards needs to step up for them to win Game 4. No one is expecting a near-triple-double like Rajon was approaching in Game 2, but hitting open shots and pushing the pace will be vital on Sunday. Jerian Grant finished with a minus-15 and zero assists in Game 3, while Michael Carter-Williams played 23 minutes and scored only two points on 1-for-5 shooting. If those two continue to struggle, it wouldn't be surprising to see Fred Hoiberg call Denzel Valentine's name. 

2. Bigger game from Jimmy Butler. In Game 1 Jimmy Butler dropped 30 points. He followed that up with 22 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in the Game 2 win. Game 3 wasn’t as pretty for the Bulls’ top scorer. Butler had 14 points on 7-21 shooting and didn’t have any assists. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the Bulls need more from Butler to stay in front in the series.

3. Three-point defense. Boston is going to take plenty of threes. The Celtics were third in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game in the regular season with 33.4 per contest. Still, the Celtics shot 17-37 in Game 3. It’s hard to beat a team shooting that well from beyond the arc so the Bulls will have to limit the quality looks Boston gets from the perimeter.

4. Bench production. Not only did Butler have good showings in the first two games, but the Bulls got plenty of bench production as well. That dried up in Game 3. After the Bulls’ bench averaged 30 points in the two games in Boston, the bench had just 16 points in 44 minutes before scoring 10 points in garbage time in the final four minutes of the blowout loss. It doesn’t matter where it comes from - Bobby Portis played the hero in Game 1 and Paul Zipser had the big game off the bench in Game 2 - as long as the bench provides some numbers.

5. Tame big Al Horford. Horford had a nice bounce back game on Friday, scoring 18 points on an efficient 8-for-14 shooting. He also conflated that with a solid floor game, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing six assists. If Horford continues to be aggressive when the Celtics have the ball, it could spell trouble for the Bulls. When Chicago dismantled Boston in Game 2, Horford only had seven points on 3-for-8 shooting. 

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