2016-17 record: 41-41. 8th in the Eastern Conference. Eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics in six games.
Transactions: Let’s just be blunt: the Bulls off-season was pretty much a complete and total disaster.
Gar Foreman and John Paxson (continuing the proud tradition of former Bulls making questionable management decisions) have been rumoured to be shopping Jimmy Butler since the 2016 off-season and Minnesota was always a destination that made sense given Butler’s relationship with Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau, who coached him during the first four seasons of his career and was instrumental in Butler’s development into an NBA all-star.
One year after the initial rumours the deal was finally completed. With the Bulls trading the three-time all-star for a return that is literally pennies on the dollar. Seriously they unloaded a superstar as well as their own first round pick (!) for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the 7th pick in the NBA draft.
I don’t know why the management unit collectively known as GarPax wanted to trade Butler. He’s a superstar, one of the best players in the NBA and arguably the best player that the Bulls have had outside of the Jordan era. Beyond that, Butler is 28 years old – just entering his prime – and under contract for two more seasons.
The Bulls were a play-off team and would have likely been one again if they’d chosen to retool around last season’s core of Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
Now they’ve opted to head right for the tank by trading Butler in his prime, waiving Rondo, and likely on the verge of buying out future Hall of Famer Wade.
Kris Dunn had a minimal impact in his rookie season with the Timberwolves. He didn’t see much of the floor, averaging just over 17 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.4 assists, 2.1 rebounds and one steal per game. Those numbers are incredibly disappointing for a rookie who came into the association with a lot of “steal of the draft” hype but Dunn can still has a lot of upside and can develop into a solid player for the Bulls.
The 23 year old point guard stands at 6’4” with a 6’9” wingspan and is incredibly athletic with explosive speed and impressive leaping ability. Although he has yet to display the elite level defensive ability that he was known for at Providence, he has all the tools to make a similar impact in the NBA. Offensively, Dunn needs to develop his perimeter play and to limit his turnovers but is very quick with the ball in his hands and is exceptionally good off pick and rolls.
In Zach LaVine, the Bulls are getting one of the most exciting players in the NBA in terms of the dazzling display he puts on with his dunks. Coming off a season ending ACL injury and subsequent surgery, it remains to be seen how the two-time dunk contest winner’s athleticism will be impacted by the injury. He definitely will not be ready for the start of the season but there also isn’t any need to rush him back to the rebuilding Bulls.
The 22 year old guard was showing signs of becoming a much more complete player as he added a consistent three point shot to his impressive arsenal of dunks. LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 45.9% shooting including 38.7% from three point range while adding 3 assists and 3.4 boards. He also made a tremendous leap in minutes played going from 28 per game in 15-16 to 37.2 in the last campaign.
Once healthy, LaVine will likely be a primary scoring option for Fred Hoiberg, especially if Wade is bought out. He will be one of the more confident and consistent scorers on a young Bulls team and will likely thrive in a larger role than the one he would have enjoyed as a third option in Minnesota. If his knee holds up, LaVine will play a big role in the Bulls’ future.
Still, LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen (more on him later) are largely still players whose biggest asset is their potential where Butler was an established NBA superstar and dominant on both ends of the court. Not being able to get more for a player of the calibre has to be considered a major failure for the Bulls and a poor start to their rebuilding efforts, especially when you consider the huge haul that the Cavs were able to get for Kyrie Irving who is nowhere near the complete player that Butler is currently.
If LaVine is never the same after that injury or injures it again (the Bulls are all too familiar with that scenario having dealt with Derrick Rose’s repeated injury woes), this trade could turn out to be even more of a disaster.
I don’t even want to talk about how bad it would be if Justin Patton (the player the Wolves drafted with the Bulls pick) turned out to have a great NBA career.
With the departure of Butler, it was a foregone conclusion that Rajon Rondo would be as well. The talented but somewhat mercurial veteran point guard isn’t exactly the type of guy who would do well in a rebuilding situation. He will leave behind fond memories in Chicago fans minds, though, after falling up a pretty lacklustre regular season with an incredible performance against the Boston Celtics which saw him lead the Bulls to a 2-0 lead in their series while averaging 11.5 points, 10 dimes, 8.5 boards and 3.5 steals before breaking his thumb. The Bulls dropped the next four straight without him.
Isaiah Canaan was also waived by the Bulls while journeyman guard Justin Holiday returns to the Bulls after a season in New York and gives Chicago some nice range at the wing and will likely get a lot of minutes on the tanking Bulls.
GarPax handed a 4 year, $32 million contract to returning big man Cristiano Felicio. The 25 year old centre is very effective on the pick and roll with good hands and a soft touch, but offers little else offensively. He also offers nothing in terms of rim protection and opponents shot 53.4% against him. To say that contract is an overpay would be an understatement. With the departure of Joffrey Lauvergne in free agency, Felicio with get more of a chance to play.
The team acquired swingman Quincy Pondexter who has missed the last two seasons after ACL injury, a second round pick in 2018 and cash considerations for the draft rights to Ater Majok (a 2011 pick who will never play in the NBA). In a move that allows the Pelicans some cap flexibility to address their need at small forward and allows the Bulls to acquire another pick while either using the veteran Pondexter to eat minutes on a rebuilding team or waive him and allow him to try and restart his career elsewhere.
The Bulls also brought in guards Antonio Blakeny, on a two way deal, and David Nwaba on a waiver claim. Nwaba caught on with the Lakers after a D League call up and had to be let go to make room for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and is a nice low risk and potential high reward add for a squad that won’t have much to look forward to this season.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 7th pick in the draft acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade, the Bulls selected 7 foot, 230 pound Lauri Markkanen out of Arizona. The power forward was born in Vaata, Finland, which makes him only the third player in NBA history to have Finnish roots.
Markkanen stood out in his freshman year for his incredibly efficient offense which saw him average 15.6 point per game on 49.2% shooting including 42.3% from beyond the arc. He’s an incredibly versatile jump shooter who can torch opposing defenses with his spot up shooting and on pick and pops. He’s also very fluid on the dribble and has very good footwork for a man his size.
The Dirk Nowitzki comparisons come fast and furious but are obviously incredibly unfair in terms of the expectations they place on a rookie.
Markkanen was seen as a bit of a reach due to his relative lack of strength for a young man who looks every bit his 230 pounds, but he’s only 20 and has a lot of time to hit the weight room which greatly improve his ability inside and allow him to develop into a more effective finisher. It will also help him defensively where he struggles on the block.
A lot of the big Finns detractors are being silenced by his performance at the Eurobasket. Markkanen averaged 22.6 points on over 55 percent shooting including 50 percent from three point range and added 5.7 boards. In one thrilling sequence, he put in 14 points in the last 3:34 of regulation and the overtime period in a thrilling victory over a heavily favoured French squad.
The Bulls may have found themselves a gem.
However, it wouldn’t be GarPax without doing something incredibly stupid after hitting on a great draft pick.
We all know how the Golden State Warriors built and developed their championship core – the one that also won them 73 regular season games in a single season – of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green through the draft. The same core that later allowed them to add Kevin Durant in free agency because they were all under favourable contracts and the organization held their Bird rights. So when that team contacts you about selling them a draft pick that’s being compared to Draymond Green and at the very worst will give Steve Kerr another Swiss-army defender. You might want to keep that player – especially if you’re rebuilding.
Not if you’re GarPax. Then you sell the rights to Jordan Bell to the Warriors for cash considerations.
The next time you want to complain about the lack of parity in the NBA just remember that it stems from moves like that.
Outlook: Next season will be rough for the Bulls. The main focus will be on developing Markkanen and Dunn and slowly working LaVine back into the rotation from his injury.
The plan here is clear and it is a shameless tank job. “The Process” is underway and it’s going to be very ugly at times if you’re a Bulls fan.
To that end it’s only a matter of when but not if Dwyane Wade will be bought out. It doesn’t make sense for either party to keep him in Chicago. He can steal too many games for you if you want to tank and likely shouldn’t spend the twilight on his Hall of Fame career at the bottom of the standings. I’d expect him to take his talents to Cleveland, LA or even back to South Beach.
It’s also unclear if the Bulls will bring back free agent Nikola Mirotic. The 26 year old would offer a veteran presence that this Bulls squad sorely lacks and offer some spacing and shooting ability off the bench. Currently he’s without a contract.
This leaves Robin Lopez as the veteran presence on the team and the only player whose career began before 2010. I like RoLo. He proved his worth as a rim protector for the Bulls last season and is a solid starting centre in the NBA. Lopez is very limited offensively and isn’t a great roller which hurts his stock somewhat, but should be a good veteran presence on a young team or if the right buyer comes along doesn’t have too large of a contract that he can’t be moved.
I really think that David Nwaba will prove to be a steal off the waiver wire for this squad as he should get minutes on a terrible team and really showed a lot of heart and soul when he was called up from the D-League on the Lakers last season. Stories like that are really what makes watching tanking teams worthwhile. Seeing guys get a chance who never would otherwise.
Paul Zipser shocked the world with his sharp shooting when the Bulls went up on the Celtics in the play-offs and will likely get a chance to do more of the same with not much else of quality to put on the floor.
I’m also interested to see if Cristiano Felicio can offer the Bulls anything more with an increased role off the bench to earn his rather inflated deal. His defensive weaknesses aside, he’s got some offensive promise and if things go well for him he could provide the Bulls a bit of a spark off the bench and a more offensively driven look when he relieves RoLo.
It’s a make or break season for 22 year old Bobby Portis who is entering the third and final year on his rookie deal. The power forward has really struggled for most of his NBA career but did show flashes with an increased role after the Bulls shipped Taj Gibson to the Thunder. A 22 point game break out in a March game against the Utah Jazz and a 19 point performance in the opening game of the Bulls play-off series against the Celtics give the hint of some promise. Portis will be a getting a lot of minutes behind Markkanen – especially if the rookie struggles.
Denzel Valentine is going to get a huge opportunity to make a big leap in his second year. His rookie season was unspectacular but he averaged 13 points, 6.2 boards and 3.2 assists in Summer League action and can earn himself a much larger role on this team if he can stand out from other young and unproven guard options with consistent play. He is capable of playing either guard position so will have a lot of opportunities for minutes.
24 year old guard Jerian Grant has similarly struggled with consistency but will also get a bigger role on this Bulls squad as he is the likely back-up for Kris Dunn – depending on how Hoiberg chooses to deploy Valentine. Either way, with LaVine starting the season on the shelf and Wade likely being bought out, Grant will get his opportunities and this year will go a long way toward determining his long-term future in Chicago.
There’s just not a lot to get excited about on this team beyond seeing how Dunn can improve from an underwhelming rookie year, how LaVine can come back from a major injury and how Markkanen develops throughout his rookie season. If the Portis, Valentine, Grant or Felicio can develop into reliable rotational pieces, that has to considered a big win.
That’s where the bar is at for the Bulls. Things are about to potentially get pretty ugly in Chicago. Particularly once Wade is bought out and before LaVine returns. In situations where Markkanen in on the bench during that stretch things will be bleak. Rebuilding can be a painful process. Especially when you’ve started the tear down by getting pennies on the dollar for your biggest asset.
It cannot be stated enough that the Bulls lost the Jimmy Butler trade in a franchise-altering way and I’m saying that as someone who is higher on Lauri Markkanen than most (probably because my hometown of Thunder Bay has the highest population of Finns outside of Scandinavia). When you factor in the return that Cleveland got for Kyrie Irving – who isn’t at Butler’s level yet – it really is unforgivable that GarPax didn’t get more for a perennial all-star who still had two years left on his contract. The fact that they included their own first round pick in the deal and then sold another pick to the defending NBA Champions is just inexcusable for a team starting a rebuild.
But what’s done is done and the Bulls have no choice but to bottom out to gain the assets that they left on the table in settling for less in the Butler trade.
With that the tank is on.
Prediction: 18-64. 15th in the Eastern Conference.