Ashwin Ramnath is an NBA writer for Bballbreakdown, NYKinformation.com and is the founder of Knicksed and Bruised. He’s also now a contributing writer at Low Post Gazette. In part two of his “Crossroads” series, he examines how the Bulls’ course to contention was altered, and possible routes to get them back on track.
Jimmy Butler has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA, a transformation few saw coming when the Chicago Bulls drafted him with the No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft. Starting out as a defensive specialist, Butler has turned himself into a do-everything wing. That type of unexpected player development can prop open a title window much wider than what was already expected for a team with a 22-year-old MVP. Unfortunately for the Bulls, a series of injuries, age related regression, free agent departures and mismanagement by the front office never allowed the team to live up to its early potential, despite Butler’s meteoric rise.
With the eventual departures of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and head coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler has become the cornerstone of the franchise. Locked into one of the best contracts in the league, he’s continued to improve his performance year after year as he’s entered his prime.
In the aftermath of the Rose trade, which pulled the plug on the previous era of Bulls basketball, the team’s front office braintrust of GM Gar Forman and VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson, henceforth referred to as GarPax, declared their intent to to build around Butler by adding youth and athleticism. With this in mind, the Bulls made no effort to bring back Noah or Pau Gasol when free agency started.
Instead the Bulls followed this up by curiously splurging their cap space on post-prime vets in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. These signings failed in working towards the goal of getting younger and more athletic. Both players also exacerbated the team’s lack of quality shooting and failed to capitalize on Butler’s strengths as a scorer and playmaker. Rather, these signings seemed to be focused on keeping the Bulls good enough to battle for a playoff spot, without any real consideration given to finding players that could fill needs and complement Butler long term.
Another problem with GarPax’s plan is that the young players the Bulls have are not particularly young or athletic. Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser are the youngest players on the roster (22 and 23, respecitvely), and neither has demonstrated any kind of significant upside. Denzel Valentine, the next youngest player (an older 23), was selected by the Bulls last summer despite concerns over his athleticism. Jerian Grant, 24, was acquired in the Rose deal, but has continued to struggle in his second season when asked to run point and direct the offense. Doug McDermott, 25, and Nikola Mirotic, 26, have been major disappointments for the organization. The Bulls’ brightest young talent has been Cristiano Felicio, a 24-year-old center from Brazil. He plays below the rim, but has quick feet, good lateral quickness and has flashed promising defensive upside.
Some of these players could eventually establish themselves as quality rotation guys, maybe even starters, but none are likely to develop into a main complement to Butler capable of elevating the team from its current status as a bottom-end playoff team. Butler’s mere presence makes it very difficult to execute a full-blown tank job and, with the current talent on the roster and draft assets at their disposal moving forward, the path to fielding a competitive team around Butler is a tricky one, which is what makes the option to trade him and begin a full-scale rebuild appealing.
Butler has two years and $37 million guaranteed left on his contract after this season, with a player option for a third year that he’s very likely to opt out of. If there’s a time to trade him for peak value, it’s right now, with suitors knowing they’d have Butler locked up for two more seasons beyond this.
Chicago has been engaged in protracted trade talks with the Boston Celtics regarding Butler since last summer. With the Brooklyn picks, along with several other assets in their warchest, the Celtics have the juice to kickstart any rebuild in the aftermath of a Butler trade for the Bulls, but nothing has come to fruition so far. While other suitors haven’t yet emerged, the Bulls did engage in trade talks with Minnesota at the draft last summer, and teams such as Denver, Philadelphia and Phoenix could also put together attractive packages of future assets. Of course, the acquisition of picks and young players in any trade is all in the hope that you can again land an elite player at Butler’s level, but doesn’t guarantee it. And even if you do, it doesn’t guarantee that a team built around that player will present an easier path to contention.
If the Bulls instead choose to keep and build around Butler they must maximize their cap space in free agency and target players with complementary rather than redundant skills, with a priority on shooting. Moving on from Rondo this summer seems a certainty, but Wade holds a near $25 million player option for next season. His fit next to Butler can be clunky at times and his efficiency has dipped again this season, but his ability to create his own shot has been valuable in helping Butler shoulder the burden, and he provides an offensive fulcrum of sorts when Butler is off the floor. If Wade chooses to opt out and leave in free agency, the Bulls will need to find another capable shot creator in both the immediate and long-term future.
The path to contention with Butler isn’t very clear, especially without a young talent on the roster with star potential. Spending big in free agency doesn’t guarantee success, and with the benefits for players to stay with their incumbent teams increased under the new CBA, landing a star that way is harder than before, even for major-market teams. Any plan of building around Butler would require aggressive management in the trade market, never a forte of the GarPax regime.
With the trade deadline approaching any decision the Bulls make on Butler will shape how they approach the coming offseason. Even if the Bulls hold onto him into the summer, the speculation around his future won’t stop as the Bulls labor to another season where serious contention is out of the question. Without another rising star on the roster capable of growing alongside Butler, the odds of building a viable contender around him before he enters free agency in 2019 reduce and the risk of losing him for a reduced return increases.
Perhaps the real question the Bulls need to answer is whether or not they believe Butler is good enough to be the best player on a contender. From their on-again, off-again flirtations with Boston and their lack of aggression in making moves to find long-term complements to Butler last summer, it seems that GarPax isn’t sold on Butler’s credentials as a franchise player.
A proactive course of action would be to assess and find value for Butler and other veterans (such as Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson) on the trade market. Holding onto Butler could be done with intent, but is more than likely to be done with passivity. As in the case of DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings, putting off a tough decision for a year or so could yield an entirely different and much less attractive set of offers.