The Chicago Bulls, as constructed, have gone as far as they are going to, and it’s becoming more apparent with each game (blowout). With Jimmy Butler (knee), Nikola Mirotic (surgery complications) and Joakim Noah (shoulder) on the injury shelf for prolonged periods of time, things aren’t likely to improve over the next four weeks.
If there's one stat that will tell you all you need to know, it's this one: The Bulls have been without at least one starter in 300 of their 344 regular-season games since the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s time the organization recognizes that and uses those maladies as an excuse to blow up the roster and start building again.
There are some current Bulls who could still work, but the bulk of the core that won the most games in the NBA in 2010-11 and 2011-12 either no longer have the legs they once did or lack the skills needed to succeed in the rapidly evolving NBA.
The Bulls front office brought Fred Hoiberg on board to bring the Bulls into that evolution. Now it’s time to give him players who can make it happen.
Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?
Butler certainly has a future. Sophomore Mirotic, while inconsistent, has played at a very high level from time to time. And rookie Bobby Portis, while raw, has shown good potential.
Even Doug McDermott, who has been disappointing, could still become a solid role player with his shooting. However, he’s probably still a few years away from consistency. He has the feel of the type of player who finally “gets” it when he’s 28.
But many of the Bulls' battle-tested stars and fan favorites may have to be shown the way out. Noah is a free agent next year. While he is unlikely to see the court again this season, he could be used as ballast in a trade with his expiring contract.
Taj Gibson would provide real value and leadership to a contender looking for defensive help in the middle. Pau Gasol is putting up All-Star numbers and might attract some help for the future. Even Mike Dunleavy, who has spent the bulk of the season healing from a back injury, might catch someone’s attention if he’s on the block.
Derrick Rose has been better of late, but not enough that anyone is likely to make an offer on his bulky contract, which still guarantees him $21.3 million next year. If someone makes a call, it’s worth hearing out. But if it's in exchange for another later-expiring overpriced contract like Carmelo Anthony's, it’s not.
Tony Snell, E'Twaun Moore, Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich aren’t likely to get GMs picking up the phone but could bolster a package or even out money.
The Bulls must invest what’s left of this season on developing youth. They aren’t winning in the present, so they might as well try to win for the future.
Option One: Boston Celtics
Celtics Get: Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol
Why Boston Does It: The Celtics are on the threshold of being genuine contenders for the Eastern Conference Finals. They’ve come up in rumors for Al Horford, according to Jay King of MassLive.com. Marc Stein reported on Jan. 30:
Boston has been quietly aggressive, with its well-chronicled array of assets, in search of the splashy move we all know team president Danny Ainge would love to make. But with Sacramento thoroughly unwilling to entertain offers for DeMarcus Cousins, and Cavaliers general manager David Griffin likewise emphatically shooting down the notion earlier this week of making Kevin Love available, there isn't a starry trade target for Ainge to chase. At least not yet.
It's pretty clear they’re looking for a veteran big to add inside presence, and Gasol and Gibson would certainly provide that. It might be enough to push them into the Eastern Conference Finals, and the cost wouldn’t be overwhelming.
Why Chicago Does It: The Bulls do this because it helps their future on multiple fronts.
David Lee has $15 million on his expiring contract. And while Gasol is likely to opt out of his deal this year, Gibson sill has another year left for $8.95 million. Ergo, this deal frees up cap space for next season.
Even after Zeller’s cap hold and Mickey’s contract, the Bulls would free up about another $1 million in cap space. Here’s what the contracts would look like, not including cap holds for draft picks or unfilled roster spots:
With the cap going up to $89 million next summer, that would give the Bulls right around $25 million for a max offer or close to it for someone like Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors), or maybe just a generous offer to Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks). If they waived their rights on Zeller, they’d even have enough space to go after someone like Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), though that’s unlikely.
A lineup of Rose, Butler, Barnes, Mirotic and Portis or Zeller would be something worth building around. And between their own pick, the Mavericks’ and the potential of getting the Sacramento and/or Minnesota selections, the Bulls could be back into contention quickly.
The caveat here is that the Timberwolves' pick is top-12-protected this year and then becomes two 2017 second-rounders.
Finally, the Bulls' own selection, via “tanking” by trading away Gibson and Gasol, would improve, likely becoming a lottery pick. That’s as many as four low-to-mid-teens choices the Bulls could have in this draft. Or, armed with a handful of first-round picks, they could move up as well.
Option Two: Philadelphia 76ers
76ers Get: Nikola Mirotic, Sacramento pick and/or Bulls 2017 pick
Bulls Get: Jahlil Okafor
Why Philadelphia Does it: The Sixers are getting calls on Okafor and Nerlens Noel, per Philly.com's Keith Pompey, as the two are just not meshing well together, and with Joel Embiid hopefully returning someday, the glut is close to getting worse.
The Sixers would probably prefer to keep Noel, and if the Bulls had their choice, they’d take him, too. But Okafor isn’t a bad substitute, especially given his Chicago lineage.
Primarily, Mirotic is just a better fit alongside Noel in Philadelphia, who is a defensive monster but does his best work at the rim, hitting 62.8 percent there, according to StatMuse.com. Meanwhile, Mirotic’s defensive issues wouldn’t be a great concern playing alongside the athletic and versatile rim protector.
Mirotic isn’t a better player than Okafor by any stretch, but as a stretch 4 he’s a better complement to Noel. Throw in a first-round pick, and it should make up the difference.
Why Chicago Does It: Okafor is another homegrown star, and combining him with Rose would certainly have some appeal. Okafor has plenty of star potential, even with the occasional problems he’s run into over the course of his rookie season.
He is getting overshadowed by fellow big freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, but he’s still averaging 17.1 points and 7.4 boards per game. That’s something worth building on.
The hesitation here is that Okafor does not upgrade the defensive mobility issues already suffered with Gasol. The difference, though, is that Okafor is a young 20, and Gasol is a worn 35. So there’s more hope for Okafor to improve.
He does have the potential to be an All-Star and is the best young player who might be available. So even though he’s not the best fit for “Hoiball,” he might be worth the risk.
It’s going to depend on how the game evolves over the next few years. Twenty years ago, he would have been a beast in the making. Now he’s a gamble.
Option Three: Orlando Magic
Magic Get: Taj Gibson, Aaron Brooks, Cameron Bairstow
Bulls Get: C.J Watson, Andrew Nicholson, Evan Fournier
Why Orlando Does It: After a hot start, the Magic are starting to taper off, having lost 16 of their last 20 games. They’re 23-29 and sitting dangerously close to falling out of the playoff race. But at 3.5 games behind the No. 8 seed, it’s not too late for them to get back in.
Gibson would bring interior defense, mental toughness, work ethic and leadership to a team in dire need of it. Brooks for Watson doesn’t change much, but it does give Orlando more cap relief this summer, as Watson has two more years at $5 million each after this season on his contract.
Why Chicago Does It: Evan Fournier is the best reason to do this. He’s a legitimate three-and-D guy who could help the Bulls both immediately and in the future. He’s a beautiful fit for Hoiball with his deep shooting.
A lot of the times when one talks about “stretching the court,” we're envisioning stretch 4s. With that comes the idea of corner threes. And corner threes, because they’re closer to the rim, tend to be the most efficient threes. But when it comes to stretching the court, wing threes are better.
They are better because they are further from the basket. Furthermore, with corner threes you can't extend the shot distance because you will step out of bounds. With wing threes, you can go back as far as you want. That forces defenses to extend themselves even deeper. Thus, they stretch the court much more. Think Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
According to StatMuse.com, Fournier shoots 47.4 percent from the left-wing three and 38.3 percent from the right-wing three.
And while Andrew Nicholson isn’t the cornerstone of this trade, the fourth-year power forward is a 35.2 percent three-point shooter, so he does have some value to Hoiball. He's developed a reputation for being soft, but that seems to have improved some this year.
Option Four: Houston Rockets
Rockets Get: Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah
Bulls Get: Dwight Howard
Houston is allegedly shopping Dwight Howard, according to Adrian Wojnarowksi of The Vertical:
This one was drawn up by my editor, Joel Cordes, with the explanation, “Before you throw up, let's say both teams have to make the playoffs, but desperately need to shake up their mojo. These all are essentially expiring contracts anyway, so you're banking on just changing up the locker room dynamic for a bit. Howard gives the Bulls the interior mobility they lack, and Houston gets Howard and Harden away from each other while knowing Gasol will just play. And they can protect him with Capela anyway.”
It’s a good idea. For both these teams, the gamble is essentially the same: Maybe you tap into something and make magic happen; maybe you don’t. If you don’t, you’re no worse off than if you didn’t try.
Of course, the one thing both teams would sacrifice is the chance to get assets going forward, and that might be the deal-breaker, which is why that qualifier about “having to make the playoffs” is important. Or maybe neither team gets the assets they want, so they go for the gold.
If you really want a blockbuster trade that rolled the dice—something that Gar Forman and John Paxson have been criticized for not doing—this is it.