After trading Jimmy Butler in 2016, the Bulls took on a rebuilding project that didn’t take. They filtered through a Rolodex of point guards while Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter spent years waiting for a proper entry pass. Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison were flops. The Jim Boylen experience was a disaster from the moment he assumed the job. There was a team mutiny, litany of comical one-liners and a four-season stretch of having the worst collective record in the entire NBA.
Simply put, the Bulls did an incredibly bad job during their last effort. They weren’t able to development any of the young players they drafted or acquired. They only acquired one additional draft pick during that time and had two seasons bad luck with the ping pong balls.
So yes, Bulls fans are traumatized. Justifiably so. Curse you, seventh pick!
I understand the aversion to tearing things down, it sucks being bad. But things have spiraled out of control and it’s time to make some changes. Whether that’s in the form of a complete rebuild or a re-tool, the Bulls can’t keep on this path any longer.
And if they’re smart about it, the next rebuild doesn’t have to be as painful as the last.
With the trade deadline looming, the Bulls have a real opportunity to recoup the value of their outgoing assets, set themselves up better long term, without necessarily taking too much of a step back in the present.
Here are the avenues the Bulls can take:
What does it entail: Trading at least two, but potentially all four of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Nikola Vucevic.
What to prioritize: All of the draft picks and young players to get a jumpstart on the next era of Bulls basketball.
Argument for: With the NBA as wide open as it has ever been, the Bulls are in prime position to capitalize on their talent. If they can find a desperate enough team, they will be able to come away with a much brighter future than if they stay the course or even pick one of their ‘stars’ to build around.
Argument against: Given the constraints on the front office set by ownership (stay out of the luxury tax, be competitive, don’t blow it up), anything other than keeping on with at least one of the core three seems impossible. If they can make a move that gives them a chance to remain competitive, they can still make a playoff push.
What does it entail: Trading one of LaVine, DeRozan or Vucevic with the goal of remaining competitive without taking too much of a step back this year and picking up a few assets along the way.
What to prioritize: Lower end talent (non-All-Star) that fit better around whichever player the Bulls decide to keep. That means adding shooting, passing and defense to better maximize the remaining core.
Argument for: If Bulls ownership is opposed to a total teardown, they at least have to recognize that things are not working. There is talent on this roster, and if it it better utilized, the Bulls may be able to stay in the play in range while also picking up draft capital.
Argument against: If you’re going to trade one of the “big three,” it probably makes sense to just trade them all. Trading LaVine makes you old and caps your upside unless you can find the right supporting talent. Trade DeRozan puts you in the gutter. If you’re going to do it, do it.
There is a third option — adding talent to the current group. But after what we have seen out of this group, I feel completely uncomfortable with spending what few assets the Bulls have in their war chest to add older, win-now talent via trade. That ship has sailed.
Whatever direction they decide to take, they need to approach this deadline with value being the top priority. If that means selling high on DeRozan, even if the Bulls would prefer to keep him, so be it. If it means holding LaVine until the summer, when teams typically offer more in marquee trades, so be it.
With that said, they do need to start planning ahead now and take advantage of their position as one of the few sellers in the marketplace. If they can produce bidding wars and overpays for their guys, they could more than recoup the assets they have shipped out.
The market for guys like LaVine and DeRozan is more inflated than it has ever been. Rudy Gobert was traded for three first round picks, a lightly protected pick, a first round swap, three players and their pick from the 2021 draft, Walker Kessler.
The Cavs shipped out Lauri Markkanen, Colin Sexton, three unprotected picks and two pick swaps for Donovan Mitchell. The Hawks sent three first round picks and a pick swap for Dejounte Murray.
The Bulls may not be able to get quite as much for LaVine or DeRozan — at this point, teams have probably realized those were overpays — but the Bulls should set their asking price at that level and see what kind of value they can get.
Vucevic won’t fetch the value the Bulls dealt for him, but he has played exceptionally well of late and would be a big upgrade for contending teams in need of a do-it-all big. The Bulls would be wise to find him a new home rather than lose him for nothing in the summer. If that means even some cheaper, longer-term option and a second-round pick, it could be a win.
Caruso is the ‘one piece away’ guy for teams that need a final rotation player. Derrick White was had for Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and a first-round pick — the Bulls should be looking for similar, if not better return for their stopper.
If and when the Bulls finally do decide to pull the trigger, their number one the Bulls need to invest resources into player development. Failing to create an environment that fosters growth cost them during their last rebuild. Their draft picks didn’t develop or show signs of keystone potential fast enough to warrant keeping on their path.
Any way you slice it, the Bulls should change direction. They can’t be paralyzed by the fear of being bad or giving up the fifth pick to the Orlando Magic. They can’t cling to their hot streak from 2021 any longer.
They need to be in the business of extracting value and thinking big picture about the future. Be open to selling high on DeRozan. Rehab Lonzo Ball’s value. Give Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White and Dalen Terry a real opportunity. Clean up the cap table in order to take on bad contracts for draft picks. Utilize the fringe roster and two-way spots on players that could turn into something.
This next rebuild doesn’t need to be as scary or painful or fruitless as the last one.
They just need to execute better.
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