Bulls blew the Jimmy Butler trade, and they’ll pay the price for years
NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.
Jimmy Butler was a one-man wrecking crew.
Now, the Bulls are just a wreck.
A half decade of frustration since Derrick Rose’s injuries sent the franchise spiraling off course culminated in a lousy trade of the star wing, an intentional blowup after years of unintentional blowups.
The Three-Alphas idea was poorly conceived and predictably faltered. Fred Hoiberg has looked out of his element in the NBA, and his rosters haven’t fit his preferred style. Five straight first-round picks – Marquis Teague, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine – have produced little value in Chicago and stressed the Bulls closer to their breaking point.
But they still had Butler.
Butler has grown steadily as a player, approaching superstardom. Using win shares and teams’ actual wins, he accounted for more than a third of Chicago’s victories – a higher percentage of his team’s wins than anyone in the NBA, save the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. But unlike Towns, Butler actually led his team to the playoffs. Butler could have again single-handedly carried the Bulls into the playoff race this season, which isn’t nothing.
Perhaps, the prospect of another early postseason exit was no longer appealing. Chicago has gone nine years without a losing record, but has advanced past the second round only once since Michael Jordan’s last championship, reaching the conference finals in Rose’s 2011 MVP season. There would have been nothing wrong with choosing to rebuild in aim of something bigger, and Butler – locked into a team-friendly contract for two more seasons – would have given the Bulls a huge leg up.
Instead, they squandered that elite asset.
Chicago traded Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and moving up from No. 16 to No. 7 in the draft. That last aspect is the cherry on top of an awful trade. The Bulls didn’t even get an additional first-rounder! They gave up their own in a deal that still would have been awful if they hadn’t.
LaVine is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February, a troubling injury for someone whose upside is tied to the athleticism he displayed while winning the last two dunk contests. Chicago will have him for only one year on his cheap rookie-scale contract before paying him market value (or so), either with an extension this summer or in restricted free agency next summer. Maybe the Bulls can get LaVine on a discount due to his knee, but they would be assuming real risk.
What did they see in him to make him the centerpiece of their Butler return?
LaVine has garnered attention by upping his scoring average in three NBA seasons – 10 to 14 to 19 points per game. Though LaVine’s efficiency is solid thanks to a smooth 3-point stroke, his heavy workload under Tom Thibodeau – 37.2 minutes per game, third in the NBA – contributed to LaVine’s impressive traditional statistic. He ranked 37th in points per game, but just 69th in points per possession, which is not so nice.
For all his athleticism, LaVine hasn’t really applied it to defending, rebounding or drawing fouls. His injury raises questions about whether he’ll maintain the athleticism necessary to make a jump. Just 22, LaVine still has time to blossom. But it’s worth acknowledging how one-dimensional he is.
Dunn, the No. 5 pick just last year, is actually older than LaVine. A rough rookie year was particularly disappointing, considering Dunn’s age. He has a way to go before his production warrants playing time, though he’ll see the court to develop – especially on this team.
Lauri Markkanen was a fine pick at No. 7, but the shooting big will have to majorly exceed expectations to make this a worthwhile package for Butler.
After surrendering with the Butler trade, Chicago looked directionless in free agency. Quickly securing Cristiano Felicio on a four-year, $32 million contract might have been commendable last year. In 2017 – a tighter market, especially for restricted free agents and big men – it’s a misread. Justin Holiday looks like decent value on his two-year, $9 million contract. Nikola Mirotic remains a restricted free agent.
Getting a second-rounder for paying a portion of Quincy Pondexter was a wise use of resources. Committing to rebuilding sooner and convincing Dwyane Wade to opt out of his $23.8 million salary would have created more room for similar salary dumps. We’ll never know whether Wade would have gone for that, but he might have.
The saving grace of this offseason: Chicago should be bad. Really bad. Maybe worst-in-the-league bad. That’ll net a high draft pick, unlike the Pacers, who are trying to win a moderate amount after their own flop of a star trade.
But the Bulls could also remain bad for years as they try to build back up. Their young core is lacking, and they don’t have a single extra first-rounder.
They never should have been this destitute after starting the summer with Butler.
Offseason grade: D-