Certainty for Potential: The Jimmy Trade

+ The Trade

The Bulls this past week traded their rising superstar Jimmy Butler along with the 16th pick in this years draft away to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the 7th pick in the draft, which they used on the Finnish Lauri Markennen. The response to this move in the basketball world has been one of universal disdain, from the loyal Bulls fan positing to Reddit in the summer, to the prominent media that grew up Bulls fans, to even arguably one of the most respected and level-headed sports journalists, Zach Lowe. Personally, I have read and listened to these critiques, and I think they’ve completely missed the point.

The first thing to address is why the Bulls were considering trading Butler at all, the chances that any Bull rises to his level in the next 5-10 years is slim at best, you rarely come across superstar talent, and it’s almost unheard of at the 30th pick. Teams spend all their time gathering good pieces but are just one superstar away from turning the corner, and the 2005 Detroit Pistons are the exception that proves the rule that superstars are necessary for titles.

The thing is, all of this history is based on the past 50 years of basketball, and when the Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to help Paul Pierce win a title, well those days of the NBA were over. In response, LeBron took his talents to South Beach and brought Chris Bosh along with him; later he moved back to Cleveland but only when they had Kyrie Irving and a couple young first picks they were able to turn into Kevin Love. Hell, Durant left Westbrook and a great core of Adams, Oladipo and Kanter so he could join Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay for the most fun show on the planet.

Sure, the Mavs snuck a ring in there with the more classic lineup of Dirk and a strong supporting cast, and the Spurs managed to win yet again with their local home-brew solutions. Even Golden State, which has now become a super team, was mostly built out of the draft. Which gets to the bigger issue, people seem to be thinking that compiling multiple stars through the draft is somehow different than bringing in multiple stars through free agency. The logistics change, but for the rest of the league the result is the same. Looking around the league at Minnesota, Milwaukee, Philly, Denver, Utah, Phoenix and Boston, it should be obvious to anyone that you have no chance to compete for a title in this league for the next 10- 15 years unless you have two, and more likely three, players who are at least capable of being All Star starters in the right situation.

Cleveland already has Kyrie, Love and James and they probably should’ve gotten swept and are now acting like a team on the brink of irrelevancy, desperately trying to get themselves even more all stars. You can blame this all on Golden State, but LeBron instigated this situation as much as anyone else. Even Boston, who just had the 3rd best record in the NBA and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, is behaving like they think they can have some fun and win some games now, but that any hopes of future titles rest more on Brown, Jayson Taytum and their ridiculous collection of future top picks than Isaiah Thomas and Horford.

+ The Hoiberg Era

The Bulls had a true contending window with Rose and Noah surrounded by Boozer/Gasol and various pieces which filled out the roster. Some awful injuries shattered that window, and so last year the Bulls decided to move on. Traditionally, that means you move out your previous contender-worthy pieces in exchange for some draft picks and then plan to lose a lot of games. The Bulls, however, had managed to nab Butler with the 30th pick, and so they actually had a true rising superstar already on the team. Following the concept that you shouldn’t just give up a superstar when you have a young one on a longer contract, they decided to try and build around Butler a bit. The only other piece which they had signed to any form of contract at that point was their coach Fred Hoiberg, and it’s worth looking at his system since that is what you are trying to build around. Well, honestly, Hoiberg's system has shown it needs 2 key positions, a PG who pushes the ball and gets the ball moving in the half court while also preventing penetration on defense; and a 4 who can start a 1-4 pick and roll on the wing, often just coming down straight from the defensive end and setting a down screen; the 4 needs to be able to hit from three and roll strong to the hoop.

So the Bulls front office brought in Dinwiddie, Grant, Canaan and later MCW as super cheap young 1s who they could get for no real assets lost to see if any of them pan out. They already had Niko and Portis to try and fit the 4 position. You had some pieces and you wanted to see if any of them develop, maybe none of the PGs seemed likely to do so, but you work with what you’ve got. They decided to reach out to Rondo, who in his prime was the perfect point guard for Hoiberg’s system, in hopes that he could help mold a player into what Hoiberg needed.

Then the most unexpected thing happened, Dwayne Wade hit up the Bulls asking if they’d sign him. Well, duh. Sure, you had to give him a lot of money, but the fact was the Bulls had one of the youngest teams in the league and were actually sitting below the league minimum. Also, the Bulls have the reputation as a franchise superstars like to tease, so turning down Wade would be pretty disastrous for their long term hope of pairing top talent with Butler. So they signed Wade to a 1 year deal with a player option for a second season.

If the Bulls were going to make it work with Butler, the clearly needed to be bringing in another star. At 34, Wade was certainly no longer that guy, but he is one of the leagues’ best ambassadors and had already assembled a super team once. As a mentor to Butler; a guy to help settle the growingly antagonistic relationship the Bull’s were having with the media; and possibly a recruiter; Wade made way more sense then divvying that money out to the other owners.

For a fan base which has often complained the ownership refused to spend money unless they were competing for a title, this should’ve been a move welcomed with open arms. Instead everyone acted like it was the dumbest thing they’ve ever seen, even the most respectable basketball analysts have gone totally blind to the actual implications of this contract. From Zach Lowe:

Splurging on Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade after lauding Fred Hoiberg's pace-and-space offense as the Next Big Thing showed almost an absurd lack of vision. What, exactly, was this team trying to be, other than mediocre?

Well, actually they were trying to be exactly what they were, a team which was trying to rebuild around Butler, clearly wasn’t going to contending the next couple years, and needed to gain experience. Coming off one of the most contentious and disappointing seasons in team history, the team chemistry was at an all time low, and media relations were awful. Bringing Wade in instantly did a lot to improve both of those situations, and anyone who slights the pickup needs to address that angle first and foremost. Additionally, it’d probably be useful to mention what exactly the Bulls have missed out on by signing Wade and Rondo, as I’m unaware of there being any other players the Bulls could’ve spent the money on. By the end of the year, the Bulls were known to have a very nice chemistry with their young squad and if you’ve watched Butler this offseason you can see he is vastly better at talking to the media than pre-Wade.

At the very start of the year I said the team would likely struggle through the season, end up right about .500, and likely sneak into the playoffs. Then, if Wade\Rondo\Butler were healthy, they would suddenly be a major problem for a top team to knock out of the playoffs, would make some noise, and possibly would pull off an upset or two. Low and behold, that is exactly how it played out.

+ Too Many Options is a Bad Thing

One of the biggest issues the Bulls faced all last season was they had just so many players and none of them were really proving they deserved minutes over anyone else. Mid season, the Bulls moved out Gibson and McDermott and got yet another potential PG and shooting big, but more importantly gave Portis, Niko, Zipser and Valentine the opportunity to actually get on the court. All of them responded far better in the second half of the season, showing they all might be able to grow into something special; but still, none of them were immediately showing they were the future.

People will always hate on that trade saying the Bulls gave up a lot, including a 2nd round pick, and in some ways it’s true. The thing was, Gibson would be gone now anyway, and Doug had been given far more of an opportunity than any of the other players on the Bulls, including Niko; and arguably had done by far the least with it. Possibly most interestingly, Zipser looked very solid once he started getting Doug’s minutes. Zipser has an almost identical game to Butler. He’s slightly thicker, and so he’s a bit more powerful than Butler but isn’t as strong (yet?) and can’t jump nearly as high. He plays awesome defense, even giving Harden fits, and plays well on the baseline and wings, able to knock down corner threes, and can drive off the bounce, either pulling up for a nice midrange jumper or showing the strength and agility driving to the hole. If you’ll notice, that is literally everything Butler gives you, just far less developed. Valentine didn’t get much of an opportunity even after the trade, but he did show off some range throughout the year. Valentine has always been a player who has come up big in the most important moments, and as a rookie playing the same role as Butler and Wade, there was no chance he was going to get an opportunity to play in the clutch during the season. He did get opportunity though, in summer league, and as any MSU fan would expect, he came up huge.

After last season, it was pretty obvious that building around Butler wasn’t going to happen. Wade had been a nice influence on the team, but even he had melted down midseason and started calling out young players who weren’t even on the court. No one anywhere was talking about the Bulls trying to move those young players to get Paul George, and they certainly weren’t coming up as a possible destination for Chris Paul or Gordon Hayward. Wade is Chris Paul’s good friend, and yet I’ve seen no word he’s ever reached out to Paul to try and have him join Butler in the weaker East and clean up.

If you’re the Bulls now, the writing is on the wall, you have to move Butler, and every day you don’t do it, he loses value. The possible deals being mentioned were from Denver but didn’t included Jokic, Boston but didn’t include any picks in this years draft, nor next year’s Brooklyn pick. Showing just how pathetic the bidding was, somehow Cleveland was apparently trying to get involved. Please, name ONE asset the Cavs have that’s worthwhile to a team trying to rebuild?

The Timberwolves are certainly a young team on the rise, but as I’ll dissect in a different article, they definitely needed to make a move. Thibs obviously loves Butler, and so he hit up the Bulls. People are very excited about what this brings to their team, and I am too, but I also see signs of major flaws in the plan, so keep your eyes peeled for that breakdown. Back to the Bulls. As I laid out, Hoiberg is now the only major asset the Bulls are tied to long term, and his team requires a shooting big and a ball pushing, aggressive defending point guard. Despite the stable the Bulls had collected, so far none of them was clearly the future at those roles. Now, giving up actual assets, the Bulls get LaVine, Dunn and Markannen. Let’s walk through each of these players and see how they fit.

+ The Rise of LaVine

LaVine turned 22 in March and had immediately made it obvious he was the most athletic man in the league when he entered, and possibly one of the most athletic in its history. In his first year he ended up starting and averaging 25 minutes a game, put up 10 points, 3.5 assists on 42% shooting and 34% from three, averaging about 2 threes attempted a game. Last year, he was averaging 19 PPG on 46% shooting in 37 minutes, attempting 6 threes a game and knocking them down at a 38% clip. Already a two-time dunk contest winner, the man looked to be a clear perennial all star, likely a future all NBA player, and easily one of the most valuable assets in the entire league. Unfortunately, in the 47th game of the season, LaVine tore his ACL and has been sidelined since.

Knee injuries are always scary, ACLs are no joke, and never great news for terrific athletes. Suddenly, his future as one of the best NBA players looks a hell of a lot more questionable. Yet, in reality, this is absolutely the only reason he becomes an available asset. No ACL, and basically you’d have to trade Butler straight up to get LaVine.

Now, after losing Derrick Rose to a series of knee injuries, why on earth would the Bulls be willing to take on LaVine? Well, let’s look at this risk. First off, not every player is ruined by an ACL. People forget, but players like Kyle Lowry, Jamal Crawford and Baron Davis have each gone on to become notable only after the injury.

There’s absolutely no way to know how LaVine will respond yet, but there’s reason to be optimistic. First off, he had the surgery at 21 turning 22. Crawford had his at 21, Lowry was 19 and Davis was 19 and none of them lost a step. Rose has had a variety of surgeries to both knees, and yet he’s still one of the fastest players in the game, and had his first ACL tear at 24. Other players such as Chris Paul (actually a meniscus) and Bernard King didn’t have the surgery until 25 and 29 respectively, maybe did lost a step (although it could’ve just been age at that point), but they went on to terrific careers.

Jabari Parker unfortunately just tore his ACL again, but looked just as good after the first injury than before. Rose actually claimed to have gained a couple inches on his vertical after surgery, and Jamal Crawford talks about how the injured leg is actually stronger than the healthy one after recovery. It’s a different sport, but Adrian Peterson hasn’t done faired too badly either. Rubio was never a speed demon, but several years later and he looks to have completely regained his form from his ACL a couple years back.

Will LaVine be as good of an athlete after the injury? His camp seems pretty confident that yes, he’s going to be the same Zach LaVine. Looking at his age and recent history, that seems like a very reasonable outcome. Even if he doesn’t, however, there’s every reason to believe he will remain all-star caliber player, and is probably just as likely to become an all NBA talent as before.

Hidden in LaVine’s stats was that he is a very gifted three point shooter. He actually shoots far, far more efficiently behind the arc than inside it. In reality, his game was probably evolving into more of a perimeter player who occasionally attacks the rim anyway. LaVine also wasn’t known as exceptionally fast off the dribble, he’s able to make space more with jump, and while I’ve heard of people losing a step from the injury, it seems everyone regains their bounce.

An important factor for any player going through rehab, the word is that LaVine is an absolute tireless worker. Thibs himself put LaVine in the same tier as Butler and Kevin Garnett when he stated he was the hardest worker he’s ever known. Even if the man does fail to be the athlete he was before, that kind of effort spells success. Seeing as how he’s already a very good outside shooter, there’s every reason to believe he could translate his game to being more of an outside scorer effectively if forced to do so.

So, you basically are in the same situation you always are with a 22 year old top draft pick. LaVine probably sits around 5-10% chance of being an All NBA player, a 25% or so chance of being a perennial All Star starter, a 50% chance of being a perennial All Star, and a 25% chance of being a questionable starter. Now, sure, had he not had the injury there was no chance of him being a questionable starter and he probably was probably closer to 25-33% chance of being an all NBA player. Yet, in exchange for those lower odds, you also get another top draft pick and an opportunity to move into mid-lottery from just outside of the lottery.

+ One and Dunn

Kris Dunn came into the league as the top PG prospect his year and with a considerable amount of upside. His senior year in college he averaged 16 ppg on 45% shooting and 37% from the 3 point line, as well as 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 2.5 steals. Dunn unfortunately missed much of summer league with a concussion, but in his two games was arguably one of the most impressive players in the tournament, getting 21 points 9 rebounds and 4 assists on 9 of 17 in one game, and 27 points 5 boards and 2 assists in the other.

As was known coming in from college, he struggled a bit with his outside shot, although people were commenting that his form looked improved. Despite this, his drives were exceedingly impressive and his defense very aggressive. There was some concern with his ball distribution ability, and looked to be well suited off the ball. People are obviously going to focus more on his regular season, where he only managed 3.8 ppg in 17 minutes, shooting 37%, 28% from 3 with 1.1 TOs for only 2.4 assists. Definitely not promising numbers.

The thing is, these numbers do not occur in a vacuum. Dunn was entering the league on a team who had just brought in one of the most respected and successful coaches in league history to guide their promising young core to the first playoffs in 12 years. Thibs is known for being extremely focused on defense, and is renowned for a distaste of play playing rookies. Thibs was also entering his first year on a team which featured a lot of future stars.

Karl Anthony Townes was already almost indisputably a generational talent after just a single season in the pros, LaVine as discussed was one of the most promising players in the game, and Wiggins rounded out quite a top 3 of young potential stars. Beyond that, Rubio is incredibly valuable and despite Townes’ success was still largely viewed as their most important player. Dieng was rounding into form and looks like a great piece alongside KAT. Along with Dunn, they also had a young Tyus Jones, yet another point guard who was a promising scorer and showed quite a bit in summer league once Dunn went down with a concussion.

If you are an entering coach and needing to start building relationships with your players, Dunn is going to be somewhere around 5-7 in terms of your focus. For a player coming in as a top 5 pick, that’s basically unheard of, as generally a top prospect like that will immediately be getting the eyes and ears of the coaching staff as they try to capitalize on his talents.

So if I’m Dunn, playing the same position as the team’s engine, competing with another young promising talent who is known as a scorer, and playing for a coach who is known to overlook rookies and basically only lets role players on the floor who defend well; there is going to be absolutely only one thing on my mind, defense. I can’t even being to describe how much more effort I would put on the defensive end, both in practice and in games. Generally when playing basketball, and especially as a point guard, a majority of your focus, energy and attention goes into running the offense. The best players know not to take defense off, but the reality is as a point guard that many plays you are going to take the few opportunities you have to defend off the ball to gather yourself and catch your breath, particularly as a rookie adjusting to the speed and precision of the pro game.

There’s no way to know what Dunn’s perspective was, but the dude came into the league being known for his tenacious defense. Despite this, his largest weakness defensively was defending the pick and roll, and he struggled more with preventing penetration and exceeded more at using his incredible length to come up with steals. If you’ve listened to Thibs discuss defense, you know that he de-prioritizes steals and other defensive stats in favor of his players “moving on a string” and . So, even though Dunn has always been considered a strong defender, he was going to have to make some changes to be viewed that way by his coach and GM.

Let’s look back at Tyus Jones minutes and production in his sophomore year under Thibs. The first thing you notice is his minutes and points per game both dropped, from 16 and 4 to 13 and 3. His shooting percentages did rise a bit, from 36% and 30% from 3 to 41% and 36% from 3. Despite these gains in efficiency and a year of experience, he saw the court even less than before.

Now lets look at games where Dunn actually got the kind of run a top 5 pick would expect and as he will with the Bulls. In his 4 games over 30 minutes, he averaged 8 ppg, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, going 14/37 and 3/11 from 3. While these numbers are inefficient, those are pretty decent numbers for a rookie point guard who wouldn’t be expected to be a primary scorer.

Expanding that to games with at least 25 minutes, he averages 7.5 ppg with 5.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists, and obviously struggling from the field. These are not bad numbers for a rookie guard, and considering the concerns of him initiating the offense, the fact that in his last game he came up with 16, and had a couple other games with 9 is quite promising. His career bests right now sit at 17 points, 16 assists, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks, 2 3s made and 8/13 from the field. These are the numbers of a guy with a ton of upside, despite the obvious issues. He never once had the opportunity to shoot more than 13 shots, only attempting more than 10 four times. For comparison, another top pick Brandon Ingram got to shoot 10 shots 30 times, and the second highest PG selected in his draft, Murray, did so 34 times.

Quite simply, we have not seen nearly enough of Dunn to know anything about his game beyond that he isn’t going to be lighting it up from behind the 3 point line any time soon. The thing is, very, very few point guards are great 3 point shooters coming out of college, especially if they play defense, and many end up doing quite well by the prime of their careers. Dunn will now have an opportunity to average 30 minutes a game and get into a rhythm, and will be expected to provide some serious scoring at the rim.

As already discussed, there is a ton of risk with any top prospect. Dunn is certainly no exception, but as the free player you get because LaVine got injured, you could do a hell of a lot worse. Many many GMs would’ve balked at giving up Dunn, instead insisting that the deal go through with Tyus Jones as great scorer for a team that shot 28th in the league in threes. Maybe in retrospect that will look like the better deal, but I think the Bulls got the player with far more upside.

The big thing the Bulls need from their point guard is not outside shooting, particularly now that they’ve moved on from Butler; but a guy who pushes the ball and plays great defense. We know Dunn fits on the defensive end, so the question will be how much he’s willing to push the ball and make sure it starts moving side to side. Since his game is largely predicated on strong drives to the hole and not spot up jump shots, it seems likely that he will in favor of sprinting up the floor rather than letting the defense get set. The shooting will need to come from at least one big man in Hoiball, and looking at players like LaVine, Zipser and Valentine, it seems like the Bulls younger core of wings will be much better at 3s than any team the Bulls have run before.

Finally, the Bulls used the opportunity to move up from the 16th pick to the 7th pick to get Markannen. A very intriguing prospect, he is known for his lights out shooting from 3 point range, and evidence shows he has been putting up at least 4 and a half hours worth of 3s a day for years. Known as the definition of a hard worker and coming from a family of successful athletes, he is the type of player who surprises. Also, suddenly the NBA has been overrun with players who are 7 feet and come from Europe who have absolutely shattered our expectations, most notably Jokic and Porzhinghis, but also including Nurkic and Domantas Sabonis. Even Niko, drafted with 22nd pick, has outperformed what you’d expect to get that late in the draft, although he’s been frustrating since for stretches he’s looked like a star while most times he’s struggled to gain traction.

+ Judging Risk

Whenever you trade a superstar, you are inherently choosing to move a known quantity in exchange for a whole lot of risk. It’s a tough scenario, and you almost always come out looking like you’ve lost the trade. As I discussed at the start, the Bulls were not getting any closer to a title with Butler, and they had a lot of very young players who looked like the deserve minutes if you’re not competing for a title today. Of the players who have shown the most promise so far, the first, Zipser is basically a clone of Butler, Valentine plays the same position, and Portis and Niko are both 4s who prefer to play almost exclusively on the wing.

As I’ve already discussed, the offers that were on the table this summer all sucked, bad. The biggest question mark has been what Chicago got offered last summer, and while ESPN has continued to say that Boston was willing to give up the 2017 Brooklyn pick back then, the Bulls beat writer and person I am most likely to believe to know the details of this situation, K.C. Johnson, has consistently stated that Boston has never offered the Brooklyn pick without top 3 protection. Judging by everything we’ve seen Ainge do, this seems like it is almost certainly true, and even in the off chance he did offer that Brooklyn pick, I give a zero percent chance it didn’t come with a trade protection for at least top. 3 which would’ve meant the Bulls wouldn’t have gotten the pick anyway, and most likely would either have gotten screwed into no pick or getting one of Boston’s own draft picks, all of which will be nowhere near the lottery. So, of the options the Bulls have been presented, they clearly made the right choice. Yet still, even Zach Lowe continues to play this game that he just feels the Bulls could’ve done better:

This is the one instance leaguewide in which the Warriors intimidation factor may be chilling a potential win-now deal. There was no bidding war for Butler the way the Nets and Knicks raised and re-raised against each other for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. With so much talent and so many future assets, Boston has the rare luxury of straddling two paths at once: be good now, be (maybe) great later, and don't commit whole hog in either direction. Minnesota has no such luxury. The Timberwolves haven't made the playoffs in 13 years. Do you know how hard it is to be that bad, that long? They just need to win, today.

Even so: It feels like the Bulls could have gotten more, or waited for better deals to emerge as teams lost out in free agency. Butler is not on an expiring contract. He has two full seasons left on an old-cap max deal that looks almost charming now. Chicago is acting on the timetable Utah used to acquire Derrick Favors, the No. 3 pick, another future first, and a useful player (Devin Harris) for Deron Williams in 2011.

He goes on to talk about the Bulls trading Butler to the Celtics for that Brooklyn pick (wasn’t gonna happen) and a bunch of Boston’s mediocre assets that didn’t even include Crowder. I’m sorry, but that sounds like a shitty, shitty deal. What the hell are you going to do with Avery Bradley and Jonas Jerebko? Nothing. LaVine by himself after a ACL is still a better option than 4 or 5 of those Boston players with no upside. He also starts going on about how they shouldn’t have given up the 16th pick. Except, they didn’t give up the 16th pick, they moved up in the draft from the 16th to the 7th. Describing it any other way is silly, and as I’ll get to in a minute, the Bulls aren’t actually in a position to accept any more draft picks in the 2017 season. As you can see, I’m not convinced by his rhetoric, but he does know the NBA better than I do. So let’s take a moment and look at the history of other superstars getting traded.

We’ll start with the most recent one, since obviously that sets the stage for the going value. Well, it was Cousins and Casspi for Buddy Heild and the 10th pick which they turned into the 15th and 20th picks, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles; as well as for a half season rental on two players. Ok, so that’s 1 top 5 pick and 2 non-lottery picks as opposed to 2 top 5s and a 7 all under 24. Seems like a no-brainer the Bulls beat that deal.

Well, everyone basically universally decried the Cousins deal as a fleece. Sure, it does set the standard, but it was a standard that the next team was going to have to raise moving forward. The Bulls can’t just be beating that trade to have done well.

+ Melo

Moving back to the next superstar to get traded, we get to Carmelo Anthony. Now, Anthony is often regarded as the opposite of the Kings scenario, a situation where the bidding got so out of hand that the Knicks had to gut their team to get him and that Denver actually won the trade. Certainly, this is how it’s played out, but I’d argue that has less to do with the trade and more to do with Amare Stoudamire’s horrific decline shortly after the trade.

The official trade was in 2011 and included Melo and Billups for Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Felton, Mozgov, the Knicks 1st pick in 2014 and the rights to swap in 2016. At the time Gallo was the 5th pick and showed some promise; Felton had played 6 years and was a well known bust as the 5th pick although was peaking with the Knicks that year scoring almost 17 ppg; Wilson Chandler was known to be a fringe 6th man type player; Mozgov was looking good but was un-drafted and wasn’t viewed as having any chance to improve (he didn’t), and then two Knick’s picks.

Now in retrospect, it’s easy to look at those picks and talk about how well Denver won the trade, but the reality is they got very, very lucky. Had Stoudamire not fallen apart immediately, the Knicks had a nice duo of Melo and Stoudamire, and had a bunch of great role players in Tyson Chandler, Shumpert, Lynn and J.R. Smith and even had a great collection of savvy vets with Mike Bibby, Baron Davis and now Chauncey Billups.

The Bulls were Miami’s only competition that year, and with a healthy Stoudamire, the Knicks probably had more to compete with over the next few years than the Pacers. Had Stoudamire continued to be effective for another 5 years as you would’ve anticipated a 29 year old to do, they probably wouldn’t have done a bunch of fire sales on Chandler, Shumpert and J.R. Smith and those picks Denver got were much more likely to be late first round picks than the early lottery picks they turned out to be.

Give Uriji credit for accepting 1st round picks several years after the trade went down, giving the Knicks time to fall apart, but I’m sure he’d agree it was still fortunate how well that all panned out. Those picks were actually used on Doug McDermott (turned into Nurkic, now Plumlee, and Harris) and Murray.

We’ll have to see how the careers play out, but right off the bat, even with the incredible fortune of the Nuggets, none of those players look to have the upside of LaVine, and if I were a GM I’d be willing to bet on Dunn’s potential over Murray or the other guys, but that’s certainly debatably, especially since Murray had the better rookie year. Beyond those two, you moved up in the same draft.

A key here is that it’s taken Denver 6 years to finally get a team which looks like it could compete for the playoffs, and the face of their franchise, Jokic, actually came from all the years of tanking the trade allowed for. We’ll have to wait and see with the Bulls, but by getting 3 players all under 24 at the exact same time to add to their collection of players of the same age, the chances that all these players can come together and start being competitive in the next 3 years are much, much higher. Additionally, since the Bulls are pretty much guaranteed to get at least one more top lottery pick, you’ll have to wait and see if they can take advantage of the situation as Denver did.

All around these two trades are hard to compare. First off, Melo was widely regarded as a generational talent already one of the 5 best players in the league and entering his prime whereas Butler is viewed as a top 15 player who has vastly outperformed even his own dreams, so Melo was already valued higher. The Bulls did also move a draft pick, but they did so to move up in the same draft and got yet another top lottery talent at the same age, rather than spreading it out over half a decade.

Denver had also given up Billups though, which would’ve been a huge coup for New York if they had been able to make the playoffs as Billups is the kind of guy you can see putting the dagger in Boston’s heart on the way to meeting up with Miami, and he probably could’ve exposed Chalmers handily in those series. Thus, if I’m New York and in win now mode, it’s hard to overstate how valuable I’d consider Billups and would be willing to move on from some additional pieces in order to secure his experience.

Even still, getting 3 top lottery picks at once seems easier to build around than 1 lottery pick in 2011, a few role players you know are only going to keep you from tanking, and then two picks 3 and 5 years later. While those picks ended up being 12 and 7, it was probably far more likely they’d be in the late teens and early 20s when the trade occurred. So all in all, the Bulls didn’t necessarily do that bad compared to Denver, despite it being viewed as the best trade of a superstar of all time.

+ Other Landmark Trades

It was certainly complex, but Chris Paul got traded along with 2 second round picks for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Aminu and Minnesota’s second rounder. Gordon was in his third year averaging a career best 22 ppg and looked like a nice piece, but few projected his ceiling as still rising, Kaman had already noticeably declined, and Aminu was in his 3rd year without his stats changing and was known to be a fringe starter at best. Yes, I will hands down take 3 top 7 picks under 24 all day over that noise.

Next up, Garnett was over for Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Tellfare, and Boston’s 2009 pick. Sure, Garnet was at the tail end of his prime, and Al Jefferson is an ok piece, but overall, that trade gave you pretty much no opportunity to become a playoff caliber team, let alone start contending, a result which is only confirmed by history. Not much to say here, that never gave anyone hope.

Going back even further, Shaq got traded to the Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future first round pick. Odom (4th pick) was in his 5 year averaging a career high 17 points, Butler (10th pick) was in his second season averaging 9.2 points and had a pretty strong playoff appearance as a rookie, and Grant (8th pick) was already 10 years a pro and known to be a middling player. The Lakers drafted Jordan Farmer with what ended up as the 26th pick, so nothing too special.

So there you are trading one of the most dominant big men in history in his prime, coming off 3 consecutive titles, and went on to win one for the team you traded him to. Obviously that’s got to be valued higher than Butler, who is somewhere between the 2nd-6th best at his position, and in return you got two players who looked like they had the chance to be All Stars (Odom never did make it and had actually already peaked, Butler was a 2x All Star), a bench warmer and a poor draft pick two years later. Again, I personally think the Bulls compare nicely with their haul of 3 top 7 picks all under 24.

You can go on and on, but I think my point is pretty clear; you are never getting terrific value when you give up a superstar. Looking at the most successful trade of a superstar in Denver, they managed to get some mediocre pieces in the present and some potential draft picks that came in the future. In retrospect, they are getting much more from those two picks in what’s so far become Harris, Plumlee and Murray than they got from Gallo, Chandler and Felton. The true best thing for them was that the temporary talent didn’t pan out, Gallo got hurt, and so they got Jokic in return for years of misery.

Which is why I make the case that your best bet in trading a superstar is figuring out how to get a young core all at once. If you spread it out over years, you run into issues that your earliest picks are getting to win-now mode just as your are finally getting all your young talent. This makes it exceedingly hard to manage, as you somehow need to transition to win now mode even though half your best players have only been in the NBA for a year or two.

+ Your 2017 Chicago Bulls

The Bulls already had a roster which included Niko (26), Felicio (24), Grant (24), Valentine (23), Zipser (23), Portis (22) and Payne (22), while also having Canaan (26), MCW (25), Lauvergne (25) and Lopez (28). Finally, they have 3 vets with Wade, Rondo and Morrow. Now you bring in 3 players who all have a lot of potential who are the exact same age as your best players. Wade and Rondo can stick around for one more year as mentors, and Morrow and Lopez will likely get moved to a contender for future picks or cash near the trade deadline.

All in all, this seems like a smart play. The Bulls won’t be winning a ton this year, and so they’ll likely get another top pick next year. If all goes well, LaVine and Dunn will both be rounding into form next season and the Bulls will be able to see what they want to keep of Felicio, Portis, Valentine, Zipser, Niko, Payne and Markannen. If it all goes poorly, the Bulls will just be in rebuilding mode with no money on the books.

The Bulls GMs have basically gone all in trying to find a future PG and PF for Hoiberg. Between LaVine, Dunn, Grant and Payne and Niko, Portis and Markannen, it seems reasonable they’ll get one of each from that batch. Once those positions get settled, then you can see where you’re at and flesh out from there. I’m suspicious Valentine and Zipser will fill out the wing positions, and I like Felicio and won’t be surprised if he ends up their starting center when they start looking to transition to win now.

After reading everything I’ve said, I think most people will agree that the trades are not egregious and have potential. We can all agree it’s risky, but there’s a lot of potential in that risk, and the backstories behind the players are ones that evoke promise. What I haven’t addressed is Zach Lowe’s biggest complaint, which irritates him so much he even wrote it in all caps:


Ok, so if you are in rebuild mode, it does seem pretty dumb to be giving up 2nd round picks all over the place. I mean, on top of trading one for Payne, they even sold their 2nd round pick from the Loul Deng trade to Golden State this year for $3.5 million.

Well, the trade of the pick for $3.5 million handsomely explains why this logic doesn’t apply to the Bull’s scenario. Unlike most rebuilding teams, the Bulls already had 6 players under 24 who all look like they could be worth consistent NBA minutes, and just picked up 3 more in the trade of Butler. You need a couple vets on any team, so Rondo, Wade, Lopez and Morrow can serve to help guide these players through a rocky season. Other than that, you have another shooting big in Lauvergn as well as MCW and Canaan making up your 15 players.

Unless the Bulls were somehow able to move MCW, Canaan or Lauvergne for picks a few years down the road, they quite simply do not have roster space for any more picks this season. Had the Bulls kept Bell, they would’ve had to put him on their G league, and since he couldn’t have been on their official roster of 15, Golden State would’ve grabbed him for free.

As it is, I think you are better off letting Payne develop at 22 than a 2nd round pick, and $3.5 million is certainly more than you would’ve gotten for MCW, Canaan or Lauvergne. Maybe the Bulls could’ve worked harder and managed to turn everything into 2nd round picks in the 2020s, but other than that, I don’t see how they could’ve done better with those 2nd rounders.

All in all, as someone who watches a lot of the Bulls, there is way more to be excited about right now then there was 2 weeks ago. It’ll be fun to see if Dunn or Markannen can capitalize on their potential, if LaVine can return to his apparent rise as a future star, and if any of the other young Bulls can start to excel now that they’re being given a proper opportunity. This is far more fun for me than watching Butler dribble out the clock and occasionally put up heroic efforts while the media goes to town about how the team is wasting Butler’s potential. While it would’ve been nice if Chris Paul and Paul George had been open to joining Butler and being a true contender today, no one other than me has ever even mentioned those as possibilities.

The Bulls had better assets than what Cleveland and NY are putting together for George, and I think Reinsdorf would’ve been happy to pay the luxury tax to add Paul to a roster of Butler, George and Wade. Yet NO ONE talked about that as a possibility. With that being the case, clearly the Bulls were not going to be making anything of their time with Butler. Unless you can show any other potential trade which involved 3 top 7 picks all under 24 coming in immediately, you have some serious explaining to do to justify how the Bulls made a mistake.


All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.