After a false start and a two-day delay, the Chicago Bulls completed their biggest and most widely anticipated move ahead of Thursday's trade deadline last week. They sent fourth-year power forward Nikola Mirotic and a 2018 second-round pick to the Pelicans for Omer Asik, Tony Allen, Jameer Nelson and New Orleans' 2018 first-round pick.
The players they received aren't important. In flipping Mirotic, one of their most productive players this season, for a draft pick, the Bulls reinforced what the organization has been preaching ever since trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in June: Despite some unforeseen recent winning, they're fully in rebuild mode.
Mirotic's fate was sealed within two weeks of his return to the court in December after missing the first 23 games of the season recovering from a facial fracture suffered in a practice altercation with teammate Bobby Portis. With Mirotic unavailable, the Bulls started 3-20, looking every bit as hopeless as they were projected to be following the Butler trade.
But when Mirotic returned, an inconvenient thing happened: The Bulls started winning.
They ripped off a seven-game win streak and went 10-2 in Mirotic's first 12 games back. In the month of December, he averaged 18.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting a ridiculous 47 percent from three-point range. He even played well with Portis, despite the two never speaking to each other off the court.
Clearly, Mirotic had to go. The Bulls were doing too much winning for their lottery aspirations with him on the court, and after a strong start to the season, his value would never be higher. Add to that the emergence of rookie power forward Lauri Markkanen and the organization's continued belief in Portis, and it was clear Mirotic wasn't in the Bulls' long-term plans.
That they were able to net a first-round pick, the likes of which have become increasingly hard to come by on the trade market in recent years, is an unequivocal victory.
Mirotic initially vetoed the deal due to the Pelicans' reluctance to pick up his second-year option for $12.5 million. The deal eventually went through after the Bulls gave New Orleans back its own 2018 second-round pick, an incentive for the Pelicans to pick up Mirotic's option.
Before the Bulls' Jan. 31 game in Portland, the day after the initial trade fell through, the organization made the last-minute decision to hold Mirotic out while trade negotiations with New Orleans were ongoing. Head coach Fred Hoiberg addressed his approach to playing shorthanded with that game in mind, but he might as well have been talking about the way the rest of the season will go: Lots of opportunities for little-used young players to get real minutes, which will translate to a lot of losses, just like the Bulls had planned all along.
"The way I look at it is it's a great opportunity for guys that have been out of the rotation to get the chance to go out there and play meaningful minutes," Hoiberg said. "Starting with Paul Zipser, and also Cris Felicio.
"These guys have been working extremely hard, and these are the moments when you're in that position that you live for, to get this opportunity and hopefully go out there and take advantage of some minutes that they haven't been given."
Following the trade, Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson reiterated in a conference call with reporters that the likes of Zipser and Felicio will get more minutes over the remainder of the season. He also brought up the imminent return of point guard Cameron Payne from a foot injury that has sidelined him for a full year.
Payne, a former lottery pick the Bulls acquired last deadline from Oklahoma City, has yet to show he can be an NBA-level contributor. That management is touting his return at this point in the season only reinforces that Chicago is fully focused on securing one of the top picks in the 2018 draft and a potentially franchise-changing prospect such as Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton.
The Mirotic trade will undoubtedly be the Bulls' biggest move before the deadline, but they may not be done dealing. They'd like to get another first-round pick for starting center Robin Lopez, a solid and productive veteran with one more season left on his contract at $14.4 million. However, it's hard to see a team giving up a pick for Lopez, and the Bulls can still move him as an expiring contract over the summer.
They have yet to waive Asik, Allen or Nelson following the trade with New Orleans, and league sources say the Bulls plan to keep Asik, at least for now. Allen will likely be waived, but Nelson could be attractive to playoff teams like Houston that need more veteran depth in the backcourt.
Elsewhere on the roster, veteran wing Justin Holiday and third-year guard Jerian Grant could be trade candidates, but the market for them doesn't appear to be robust.
Their best chance at picking up another significant asset before the deadline could be to do what they did in the New Orleans trade: take on another team's bad contract with a pick attached. The Bulls are still $16 million below the salary cap and likely don't plan on making any major moves in free agency this summer so early in a rebuild.
Phoenix, for example, may be willing to surrender a future pick to get out from under the two years and $30.2 million remaining on Brandon Knight's contract, and the Bulls would be well-positioned to facilitate such a salary dump.
These are the sorts of the moves the Bulls should and will target ahead of Thursday's deadline, with the future fully in mind as Hoiberg attempts to keep a young, unproven roster competitive.
"I've got a job to do and that's to try and put the players out there that are available to play in a position to go out there and compete," Hoiberg said last week. "That's first and foremost. Going out and hopefully playing at a high level from a competition standpoint."
The young Bulls aren't lacking in competitiveness. But with the Mirotic trade and more trades potentially coming this week, it's clear the Bulls are fully focused once again on a rebuild and all of the losses that come with it.
Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for outlets including Bleacher Report, The Athletic, NBC Sports and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter: @highkin.