CHICAGO — When the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves and undertook a full ground-up rebuild on draft night in 2017, they were clear about their reasoning.
Vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman declared that simply competing for the playoffs every year wasn't enough and that they were starting over to build back toward championship contention.
Two years into their rebuild, the Bulls' path to the NBA's upper echelon is as unclear as ever.
Like everyone else, Chicago was hoping for some luck in the May 14 draft lottery. The opportunity to add Zion Williamson, the most electrifying college player to head to the NBA since at least Anthony Davis, would have been a game-changer. The Bulls would have even been thrilled to wind up with Murray State's Ja Morant, the projected No. 2 overall pick, to fill their glaring hole at point guard.
Instead, they fell three spots and will pick seventh overall on June 20 in what is widely believed by scouts and league personnel to be a weak, top-heavy draft. Chicago picked in that spot in the previous two years, and the early returns suggest they nailed both selections. Finnish power forward Lauri Markkanen was chosen there in 2017 as a centerpiece of the Butler trade, and the Bulls took Duke center Wendell Carter Jr. last year. Both young bigs have shown considerable promise and look to be legitimate long-term starters.
This draft, however, is not believed to be nearly as deep with star potential. Outside Williamson, there aren't many sure franchise cornerstones. The best that most teams picking in the Bulls' range can hope for will be landing a rotation player or taking a gamble on a high-upside developmental project.
In Carter, Markkanen, guard Zach LaVine and forward Otto Porter Jr., the Bulls have the start of a solid young nucleus and plenty of cap space to add depth. But they're missing a star, and there's no clear path to getting one.
"We're going to add another good player in this draft," Paxson said after the lottery. "We're gonna go out and try to spend some money in free agency. We're gonna add some vets that can help our team."
These comments, as well as Paxson's declaration at the end of a 22-win 2018-19 season that the Bulls intend to become "relevant" again, suggest they don't want to play for lottery balls again next season. They'll look to move on from Kris Dunn and address the point guard position over the summer, but their free-agent options are mostly solid role players (Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley, Cory Joseph) who will win more regular-season games but not get them meaningfully closer to contention.
The Bulls have been in this position before under Paxson's leadership. Going into the 2008 lottery, they had assembled a nice young core, including Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon—solid complementary players in need of a superstar around whom to coalesce into a title threat.
That year, the course of the franchise radically altered when it won the lottery and drafted Derrick Rose with the No. 1 overall pick. With Rose, under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls became a legitimate contender, making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011 and looking like a long-term threat before Rose's knee injury short-circuited that group.
These Bulls are similar to that pre-Rose group. Carter, Markkanen, Porter and LaVine constitute a promising young core. But a star of Rose's caliber, which is needed more than ever in the era of superteams, is nowhere to be found.
Where will they get that star? That part is tricky.
Unless they get extremely lucky with the No. 7 pick, it's likely not coming in the draft. Plenty of franchise-level players have been selected outside the top few picks—the Bulls know this firsthand, having struck gold on Butler with the No. 30 overall selection in 2011. But the conventional wisdom about this upcoming draft says there aren't a lot of superstars in the making.
The Bulls aren't trading for a star. Not many of them are on that market outside Davis, who has given no indication he would have any interest in playing in his hometown. The Bulls don't have the trade assets to compete with teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics for one of those players, anyway.
They aren't signing a star in free agency, either. When they made the deadline trade for Porter, who is owed $55.7 million over the next two seasons, they took themselves out of having max-level cap space until at least the summer of 2021.
Besides, Paxson has admitted in recent months that the Bulls aren't yet in a position where they can be seen as a legitimate destination for the Kawhi Leonards and Kevin Durants on the free-agent market. They haven't been serious players in free agency since the summer of 2014, when they fell short in their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony.
If the Bulls aren't getting a superstar by any of the traditional routes—the draft, free agency or a trade—this rebuild hinges on the ability of one of their own young players to develop into one. Markkanen has the highest ceiling out of this group. The sweet-shooting big man has shown enough in parts of two seasons to suggest he could be a future All-Star. But there's a big gap between a future All-Star and a true franchise player on a title contender—the kind of team the Bulls started this rebuild in hopes of becoming.
And so the Bulls may be right back where they started: building toward the middle. Signing a reliable veteran point guard in free agency and banking on internal development will help them win more games than they have the last two seasons. They could even contend for a lower playoff seed in the Eastern Conference if everything goes their way.
That sort of ceiling is exactly what Paxson and Forman started this rebuild hoping to transcend. How they'll get over that hurdle is a question that now looms over the franchise.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.