When the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler in 2017, it was the beginning of a new era. The “grit-and-grind” Bulls of the Tom Thibodeau era were long gone and the Bulls were going to modernize the franchise and move towards “pace-and-space” and an exciting brand of basketball. At least, that’s what fans expected with the pieces the Bulls were chasing. Now, four years later, the Bulls are no closer to making the actual playoffs and seem further away from relevancy than they did then. The hope and the excitement of the trade that facilitated the rebuild is long gone and the pieces that former GM Gar Forman and former VP John Paxson drafted to be cornerstones of the rebuild have mostly been vanquished. Fans are left trusting in Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley, but it’s difficult to see a quick path back to prominence.
On the surface, the Bulls have two All-Star talents in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic and that seems like a great place to start. But the fact remains that the Bulls were a mere 12-17 after the Vucevic trade compared to 19-24 before it. Since the rebuild started, the Bulls have struggled with redundancy. In the first year post-Butler, they had Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, and Lauri Markkanen all on the roster. They also had Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacano, who both share the same strengths and arguably the same weaknesses on the basketball court. The following year, the Bulls drafted Wendell Carter Jr. and signed Jabari Parker while retaining Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis for some of the season, who all did similar things on the court and played the same position – aside from Carter Jr. who many felt would be better utilized at power forward rather than center. Last season, they draft Coby White, who is best utilized in the way Zach LaVine is utilized, and also signed another power forward in Thaddeus Young and drafted another center in Daniel Gafford while retaining Carter Jr. and Markkanen. While the Vucevic trade was a huge swing, it also spelled out what would happen to one of the core pieces to the Jimmy Butler trade: Lauri Markkanen will likely not be retained in free agency and the Bulls will hitch their wagon to Vucevic to see if they can maximize LaVine’s prime. Markannen disappointed many (I am not in that camp), but the Bulls inability to get something…anything…for Markkanen and with their draft pick likely going to Orlando this season because of the Vucevic trade paints the Bulls into a corner. How will this team get any better?
Let’s just assume that the Bulls waltz into the offseason with a payroll of $99 million and the projected cap at $112 million. That’s not a lot to work with and frankly, there’s not a lot of flexibility. They could exercise the option to terminate Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky’s contracts and decline Ryan Arcidiacano’s team option, but other than that, there’s very little wiggle room to add the necessary pieces to vault them into the playoff picture. Particularly worrisome is that both LaVine and Vucevic have a glaring weakness: They’re poor defenders. The Bulls will need to surround them with players that can cover up their defensive deficiencies. When you look down the list of projected unrestricted free agents, there’s not a lot of players on that list that fit that mold. Where can they turn to find players that are better fits than the ones they’re relinquishing? It complicates where they’re going and where they can go. The easy answer for most fans is, “Well make a trade!” But first, you have to have someone who wants to trade with you and second, you have to have pieces to trade. Currently on the books for next year are LaVine, Vucevic, Patrick Williams, Young, Satoransky, Coby White, Troy Brown Jr., and Arcidiacano. Not exactly a plethora of appealing players. Also the Bulls traded their 2021 and 2023 first round picks. League rules prevent them from trading 2022’s first and 2024’s first. Would they be willing to trade one way down the line in hopes they’d land another impact player? Maybe, but what’s the shelf life on the LaVine/Vucevic pairing? LaVine turns 27 this year and Vucevic is 30. Four years from now, would they regret that immensely? Also, there’s some of uncertainty surrounding LaVine’s contract. Will he really stay in Chicago? Most local media think it’s likely and that money talks, but I’d imagine LaVine wants a chance to play in the playoffs. If the Bulls drop the ball this offseason, are we sure it’s a lock for LaVine to stay?
Arturas and Eversley inherited a rough situation. There were more questions than answers when they were hired and Gar/Pax certainly made some questionable draft selections that started this rebuild off on a rough path. They’re taking steps to right the ship, but it will take time and it requires a management team that has a long-term vision. Will the Reinsdorfs be willing to ride it out until their new management team’s plan finally plays out? Time will tell, but the future isn’t nearly as bright as it was four years ago when the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler.
1 John 5:3-5 (NLT): “3 Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. 5 And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.“