Since Derrick Rose’s second major knee injury in November, many had believed it to be wise for Chicago to strip down the team and prepare to retool around next season’s roster. With last week’s surprising but not at all fucking surprising trade of Luol Deng, Gar Forman and John Paxson have made it clear that they are thinking toward the future and not the present. Bicky already spent a lot of time detailing the reasons behind and consequences of the Bulls’ trade with Cleveland, so I’ll just say that I’ve felt since last season that dealing Deng was the only move (he was never getting a realistic extension) and the Bulls probably couldn’t have gotten much more back for an expiring non-superstar. Still, I’d have liked them to spend a little more time working the phones for a better deal. It’s clear they saw the opportunity to pounce on Andrew Bynum’s unconventional contract and save some dough. And like Bicky said, the new CBA makes saving dough more important than ever before, so this wasn’t just a classic Jerry Reinsdorf move so the White Sox can overpay for some free agents.
Instead, I’m here to discuss the future. The Deng trade leaves the Bulls with three new assets going forward: a pretty protected first round pick and two second rounders. Because there is a real chance the Bulls end up receiving three second rounders, it’s hard to project more than one rotational player out of these picks. Second rounders can have underratedly big value, but the picks belong to Portland in 2015 and 2016. With a young, talented core, you have to expect those picks to fall in the 50s, aka useless. The best we can hope for is the 11th-14th pick from Sacramento sometime soon (I have trouble believing that they’ll make the playoffs in the next four years). Aside from those picks, the Bulls also own the Bobcats’ 2014 pick, top 10 protected. Unfortunately, I can promise you the Bulls don’t see that pick this year. Next year it becomes top 8 protected, and in 2016 it’s unprotected. As long as MJ is still Charlotte’s owner, this pick is a valuable asset. Obviously, the Bulls also own their own 2014 first round pick, which will probably land between 9 and 17, depending on what further moves are made by the front office.
The 2014 pick could yield a superstar, as many believe there to be six or seven available this year. Still, there are too many putrid teams behind the Bulls that will lose more games than them. Unless the Bulls win the lottery with <3% odds a second time (Rose), it seems unlikely that Chicago will receive more than a solid starter or role player. And while this player will certainly help, it’s not enough to make me think the Bulls will even be in the conversation to win a title next year.
I’ve seen a lot of talk from Bulls fans (even on this website) about how the team is prepared to launch back into the Eastern Conference elite next season with a core of a healthy Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Lottery Pick X and whatever free agents the team signs. (Assuming Carlos Boozer has been amnestied).
There are a lot of problems with this kind of wishful thinking. Let’s start with Rose. I think it’s safe to assume that a successfully rehabbed Rose can still be an All-Star caliber player (but not MVP-caliber, he never was!), but how safe is it to assume that Rose can stay healthy? He runs and cuts with a violent, unconventional style that has now ripped both of his knees apart. Changing his playing style may not even be possible, but it could also lessen the effectiveness of the Rose we know and miss. Furthermore, Russell Westbrook has had multiple complications involving his meniscus injury, and he hadn’t missed a game in high school, college or the NBA until the 2013 playoffs (!!!!!!). Assuming that Rose will be back playing well for 70 games next season might just be fools gold at this point in his career, sadly.
Next, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. While I love both these players and believe they’ve improved significantly from last season, they are not All-Stars. Both have below average usage rates, meaning they struggle to contribute enough on offense. Butler’s three point shot is a key weapon but it’s not a consistent threat and it may never be. Gibson is enjoying a career best season but he’s still only averaging around 12 PPG and 6.5 RPG. While Butler and Gibson are undeniably elite defenders, the Bulls cannot go anywhere until they have a league average offense. Starting Butler and Gibson together means the Bulls would need Rose to return to form and Nikola Mirotic to be LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love. While Carlos Boozer has disappointed for years, he still has generally provided solid scoring at a good percentage. Combine that with the loss of Luol Deng’s secondary playmaking and facilitating and the Bulls have a major deficit on offense.
I just don’t see that problem as fixable without a major free agent signing. Yet even if the Bulls sign Carmelo Anthony, that means they almost surely can’t afford Mirotic or any other free agents and Tony Snell becomes the de facto sixth or seventh man. While I’d be excited about a splashy move like that, I still think it puts the Bulls a lot closer toward Knicks status than Heat status. It’s very tough to build championship-caliber teams out of free agency because the market is designed so that teams will overpay. The Heat may have just bucked the odds, but the smart teams generally draft and develop their own assets like San Antonio, Oklahoma City or even the Bulls.
The fact of the matter is, the Bulls are currently doing everything that they need to. They had no control over Rose’s injury, and the departure of Deng has been brewing for half of a decade. Management made a sound decision in sacrificing present wins for future success. I’m just not going to guzzle the GarPax kool-aid like so many other depressed Bulls fans.