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Big questions for the Chicago Bulls following the inevitable Zach LaVine trade

Will Gottlieb Avatar
December 1, 2023

With DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine out of the lineup on Thursday night, Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas got his first glimpse at what the future could look like after February’s trade deadline.

For now, Karnisovas is reportedly focused on evaluating the roster after a LaVine trade, rather than immediately looking to tear things down. But with LaVine out for at least another week as his right foot injury heals, Karnisovas gets an additional grace period to gather more data. An overwhelming positive byproduct in the wake of the unfortunate injury news.

(Side note: many assume LaVine will net more than Bradley Beal did in the trade that sent him to the Suns because LaVine, unlike Beal, doesn’t have a no-trade clause. But if there’s “not a market for LaVine right now”, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting, it doesn’t matter whether he has the no-trade clause. If no one wants him, no one will be willing to give up anything of value for him.)

Still, it’s probably safe to predict that the Bulls view LaVine as the first domino to fall, and will end up moving him before the deadline. But let’s assume it takes until the league fully opens for business on January 15 for a trade to materialize. If true, Karnisovas would have only three weeks (10 games) before the deadline to re-evaluate. And that assumes a deal is done the minute the trade restrictions lift on January 15.

If Karnisovas doesn’t feel comfortable making further moves before taking some time to re-evaluate the new-look roster, it behooves him to get a LaVine deal done as quickly as possible to maximize the evaluation window. But he needs to also get it done right. And using this window while LaVine is out injured to gather data can help Karnisovas make those decisions.

That leaves DeRozan’s unrestricted free agency as the first big question the Bulls must answer after LaVine is traded.

Should the franchise trade him for whatever you can get at the deadline? Let him walk for nothing in the summer? Re-sign him and continue on course with the post-LaVine iteration of the team?

Reports are percolating that DeRozan is “considered very likely” to be moved by the deadline. This is probably the best thing for the Bulls ahead of his unrestricted free agency.

So the real decision comes down to whether the Bulls will move on from Alex Caruso.

There’s an argument to be made that Caruso’s presence, leadership, player-coaching and game-winning/saving three-point shooting will help whichever young players are around develop an understanding of how to play the right way. He’s one of the most productive defenders in the league. He hits clutch shots when called upon. He embodies the style the Bulls want to play, and having him for another year-and-change may prove to be more valuable than whatever they get for him on the trade market.

The Bulls are reportedly “setting the price tag high” on Caruso, and perhaps Karnisovas values Caruso’s presence more than anything a practical trade could return.

One league source said the Bulls should be able to acquire a pick and a young player with upside for Caruso.

That’s more than what they should be willing to pass on.

Especially considering his value will never be higher — Caruso has two playoff runs left on his contract, is nearing 30-years of age and is a major injury risk. The Bulls can’t wait a year too late to trade their most-prized asset and watch his value decline, just as they’ve allowed to occur with LaVine and DeRozan.

It’s true, the Bulls should prioritize keeping productive veterans around during their next phase to help sheppard the next group and keep them on the right path — something they failed to do during their last shot at a rebuild.

But that can’t be the priority over long-term growth, especially when it comes to capitalizing on Caruso’s sky-high value.

Nikola Vucevic, not Caruso, can and should be the veteran the Bulls build with.

In Thursday’s refreshing win, Vucevic threw back to his Orlando days. He proved he can still be a dominant offensive threat, and if the Bulls are going to roster a ton of raw, toolsy, energy guys, it’s important to have an established presence who can act as a reliable scoring hub. The Bulls current problem with pace is that their top-three players rarely push tempo. But having one slow-it-down option would open up some new doors without closing all of the old ones.

So even if Vucevic does command the ball more than he should, it would take a lot of the burden off the younger players the Bulls are trying to develop. They can learn to create without being overtasked and overwhelmed.

My perspective on the matter is clear: the Bulls need a full-blown rebuild. We’ve seen what happens when teams wait too long to sell on their assets, while teams like the Oklahoma Ciry Thunder (9 incoming firsts), Utah Jazz (8 incoming firsts) and San Antonio Spurs (7 incoming firsts) sold high and will have a surplus of future draft concessions the Bulls — and the rest of the league — will struggle to replicate.

Draft picks are like three-pointers. If your volume is low, you better make a high percentage. But the more you take, the better chance of scoring in volume, even if the percentage dips.

So if the Bulls can begin to accumulate assets — ideally three future-firsts and two interesting prospects in exchange for the combination of Caruso, LaVine and DeRozan — it will set them up well for the future.

Still, that plan requires landing a high pick in the 2024 draft, acquiring a bevy of future picks and a finding some interesting prospects on the margins. Those are critical boxes to check. But if done well, it will be the formula for a more exciting and fruitful rebuild.

Maybe things aren’t as bleak as some dumb idiots online have suggested.

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