Taking Advantage of a Bullish Trade Market

One of the hardest things to do in life is self-assessment. We all see ourselves in a positive light. We all have fond, vivid memories of our successes and brush off our shortcomings as blips on the radar that don’t truly represent who we are. Many people live their whole lives in a bubble of false self-perception.

This trait is not just true of individuals. Often times, large groups of people are even more likely to buy into a false sense of success. This truth extends beyond your group of friends and coworkers. It also has some validity in professional sports.

The NBA landscape right now is very interesting on many levels. The traditionally strong Western Conference is in a down year and boasts only seven teams with a winning record. The uncommon weakness in the back half of the playoff race has emboldened several slow-starting teams to continue their playoff push. The Eastern Conference field is stronger than it’s been in memory. 12 of the 15 teams have had successful beginnings to their seasons. Many of them have not enjoyed a playoff run in many, many moons.

Optimism in the NBA is at an all-time high.

Despite all the teams dead set on making a playoff push, any serious NBA fan would tell you that only three have a real chance at winning the championship. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers are in a tier of their own, able to reach heights far beyond the reach of the rest of the potential playoff field, save perhaps Oklahoma City.

The ultimate goal in the NBA is to win a championship. Just making the playoffs is nice, but in a league where more than half of the teams qualify for postseason play, it ultimately is not a memorable achievement.  If any team knows that, it should be the Bulls. Chicago is a city that has been spoiled by ultimate basketball glory and does not look fondly upon second round exits.

tom-thibodeau-frown-face
Thibs was done in by playoff failures.

While only three teams can be considered serious contenders, there are an inordinate number that are enjoying some of their first success in a long time and/or experiencing ownership pressure to win. What all this means is that the rapidly approaching trade deadline will be much quieter than most years. There will be very few teams next month willing to throw in the towel on the season and sell off any valuable trade pieces to acquire future assets. The rising salary cap and diminished value of expiring contracts will also play a part in what I predict will be a quiet trade season.

And the teams that really stink, the obvious sellers, each have unique quirks that make them unlikely trade partners. Philadelphia, Portland, the Lakers and Timberwolves are each built around young cores without much veteran talent of value on the roster. Brooklyn is convinced they can field a quality team as soon as next season. Milwaukee probably still thinks they’re closer to last year’s surprise success story than the mess they’ve been this season

Sacramento and New Orleans are under pressure to win now and are unlikely to transition to selling mode. The Pelicans should try and move the expiring contracts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, but with GM Dell Demps unsure of his employment beyond this season, it’s unlikely he makes any trades with an eye towards the future.

Phoenix has some potential trade chips, but their hands are tied until they sort out the messy Markieff Morris situation. Denver’s decision to extend Danillo Gallinari seems brilliant, and is probably the most valuable trade chip should they decide to make moves. But beyond the Suns and Nuggets, no team jumps out as an obvious deadline seller.

Which is exactly why the Bulls need to make a trade.

Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher is reporting that the notoriously quiet Bulls front office is quietly shopping their big men around the league ahead of the deadline. This news greatly excites me given the circumstances of the entire league.

Look, I’ve definitely enjoyed what I’ve seen from Hoiball in year one. The offense looks alive, and the defense has maintained the characteristics that had been instilled by Tom Thibodeau. The six game win streak was a blast, and Jimmy Butler has solidified himself as a legitimate NBA star and a top three player at his position. But there is no way in hell that this team has the juice to squeeze by the Cavaliers in a seven game series.

I’m not saying the Bulls should “blow it up.” While the current roster is not quite championship caliber, there are certainly players who could be members of the next great Bulls team. Jimmy Butler, Bobby Portis, and Nikola Mirotic (I’m still a believer) are all potential cornerstones of a title contender if the team is able to retool effectively.

Jimmy and Niko are long-term keepers.
Jimmy and Niko are long-term keepers.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The trio of bigs are all past their prime and are just crowding a front court rotation that should be spending more time focusing on developing younger guys.

This is not to say that Gasol, Gibson and Noah are all worthless, washed up basketball players. Quite the opposite is true. Gasol, defensive shortcomings be damned, is still a dangerous offensive threat and above-average shot blocker. Noah’s athleticism has slipped, but his passing ability and overall creativity on offense will allow him to thrive carrying second unit offenses for years to come. Gibson is 30, but somehow managed to escape Thibodeau’s murder by minutes, and should have some good years left in his legs.

Given the state of the NBA marketplace, the Bulls would be very well served to trade at least one of these three players. With so many teams with a buyers mentality and nowhere to spend their money, the Bulls could bring back far greater returns on their veteran big men than logic would dictate. Moving one of these guys would sting in the short term, but the assets they could bring back could be crucial pieces in Chicago’s seventh championship.

Of the three, Taj Gibson likely has the most value on the trade market. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol can both hit free agency next season while Taj is under contract for $8 million, far below market value for an average starter in the new salary cap era.

What could the Bulls pry from Toronto in exchange for Taj? The Raptors are a prime example of a team feeling great about themselves right now that also is desperate to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Taj Gibson’s skill set is something sorely missing from the Raptors. Toronto is rich with picks and prospects. Would Toronto be willing to part with Lucas Nogueira, Luis Scola, Anthony Bennett and a pick?  What about the Clippers 2017 first round pick? What about their own 2016 pick? What about the Knicks 2016 pick?

That seems like a steep price for a big man with no shooting range clearly past his athletic peak. But in this Bull market, anything can happen. While losing Taj will certainly sting for Bulls fans, the pain will be dampened with the hope that he’s been replaced by building blocks for the future.

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