Reactive rather than pro-active, the Butler trade demonstrates a lack of joined-up thinking

The Chicago Bulls of the twenty first century have a remarkable knack for not obtaining good value for their players.

Every now and then, they unearth good ones, with one of the better draft records in the league over the past fifteen years. Every now and then, they put together good teams. But almost never do they get value when taking them apart.

Either one of two things happens. Often times, the player concerned walks in free agency, leaving the team without any assets returning in the opposite direction. Over that same fifteen-year time span, this has happened to quality and important players such as Ben Gordon, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Omer Asik, P.J. Brown, Brad Miller and Chris Duhon. All were allowed to leave in this way, despite potentially (and certainly in the case of Pau) having options to cash in on their value via trade before their contracts expired. Nikola Mirotic may be about to join that list. So might Cristiano Felicio.

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This loss of quality even trickles down to some of the cheaper, ‘steal’ pick-ups the Bulls have made towards the end of their roster. Particularly at the guard spot. C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin and E’Twaun Moore all gave the team some cheap quality guard depth. All then walked. Maybe they didn’t have much redeemable value, given their contractual situations. Then again, only Watson and Moore signed for more than one year.

The other thing that happens with this team is trading low. Chicago has an uncanny knack for waiting until their quality players are at their lowest ebb, then moving them for minimal returns. Boy, do they seem to do that a lot.

In no particular order, here’s a few.

– After signing a big deal then underwhelming on it, one-time team godson Kirk Hinrich was salary dumped unto the Washington Wizards, with the Bulls giving up a first round pick in the process (#17).

– After protracted negotiations to re-sign the previous summer saw him turn up to training camp out of shape and far out of sync, resulting in a career-worst year, Tyson Chandler was also salary dumped onto the grateful New Orleans Hornets for P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith. The veteran Brown played one solid season before walking; Smith himself was dealt extremely low within a week, returning only two second round picks, one used on Aaron Gray (who played 1,500 minutes for the Bulls before also being dumped on the Hornets for Devin Brown) and JamesOn Curry (whose four-second long NBA career is the shorter there has ever been). Chandler inevitably turned it around, got good again, and still is.

– In the rare instance where they got away with it, Eddy Curry was signed and traded to the New York Knicks in exchange for a pick swap in 2006 (which saw the Bulls moved from #23 and Wilson Chandler to #2 and LaMarcus Aldridge), a 2007 first round pick (#9, Joakim Noah), a 2007 second round pick (#38, Kyrylo Fesenko; used to move up from #16 and Rodney Carney to #13 and Thabo Sefolosha) and a 2009 second round pick (#38, Jon Brockman; packaged with two other picks on draft night 2008 for the rights to Omer Asik). Isiah Thomas’s outbidding of himself saw the Bulls yield their best return in trade across this entire time frame; nevertheless, by trading him only when he was a free agent and fresh off of a diagnosis of heart trouble, the Bulls unequivocally traded low once again.

– Supposed to have been the rare instance of the elite player changing team by free agency, Ben Wallace managed one and a half underwhelming, ill-fitting, ill-tempered seasons before being moved onto the Cavaliers for Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown. Brown and Simmons were irrelevant; Hughes played very poorly for a year before being moved for two dead salaries in Jerome James and Tim Thomas; Gooden was all right, for a bit.

– The ill-fitting but talented John Salmons was traded, along with two second round picks (2011 #60 that became Isaiah Thomas; 2012 #60 that became Robert Sacre) and the right to swap first round picks (thus moving down from #15 and Larry Sanders to #17 and Kevin Seraphin) in exchange for the filler contracts of Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander. Both were non-factors; Warrick at least yielded a second when he was traded.

– Kyle Korver was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for nothing but an arbitrarily nominal amount of cash, and would have been waived had this not happened.

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– After years of high billing, the Bulls waited for Tyrus Thomas to fail to live up to it before trading him for a mid-first round pick (2014 #16 that became Jusuf Nurkic) and the filler contracts of Acie Law and Ronald Murray.

– This one was less avoidable. Nevertheless, one-time MVP Derrick Rose was traded, along with the plenty decent Justin Holiday and a second round pick (2017 #44; Damyean Dotson) to the New York Knicks in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant. One good starter, one mediocre back-up, and one filler contract that they then used more assets to move.

– Mike Dunleavy Jr was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for nothing at all except the draft rights to Ater Majok, a player who will never ever play in the NBA, whose rights were included simply to satisfy the “everyone’s got to trade something” rule.

– After three years of not developing and looking lost on the court, Tony Snell was traded last training camp to the Milwaukee Bucks for Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams will walk uncontested this summer. Snell, now good, is possibly about to get $40 million or more from the Bucks.

– Even more recently than that, Taj Gibson was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with Doug McDermott and yet another second-round pick in exchange for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne. At least one of the latter two is leaving via free agency this summer, and it may well be both, while Payne, the supposed choice cut, is now third or fourth on the point guard depth chart.

– Lastly, stalwart and one-time poster child Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the luxury tax relief of Andrew Bynum and what ultimately became three second-round picks. One was used on Paul Zipser, one was a surely needless throw-in into the initial McDermott deal, and the third was used Thursday night on Jordan Bell. And then it was sold.

This commitment to trading low even applies to the trades involving fourteenth men. Second round pick Cameron Bairstow, after two years on the bench not being played and not having upside, was dealt to the Detroit Pistons for Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie was waived for Carter-Williams; Dinwiddie, too, is good now, having proven himself as a solid reserve guard in a season with the Brooklyn Nets. Even the 2003 trade of Roger Mason Jr for Rick Brunson goes down as a trade in which a previously prized asset (the first pick of the second round the season before) was given up on for an eminently replaceable veteran. You shouldn’t trade for Rick Brunson. You especially shouldn’t trade a talented youngster for him and then waive him three months later.

Despite appearances, these two outcomes do not contradict. Getting little is bad, getting nothing is worse. So getting little would be better than getting nothing. But getting a good price and fair value should be the aim. It is almost never the result.

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The Bulls don’t always ‘lose’ trades. Often, certainly, but not always. Even some of the above represent a decent attempt at addition by subtraction, and certainly not all trades they have made are included. Rare though has been the trade in which value was obtained; a few in which it was include trading Thabo Sefolosha for a first round pick (later used on Taj Gibson), trading James Johnson for a first round pick (later used on Norris Cole, but via a trade-up, essentially became Nikola Mirotic), and the second trade of Kirk Hinrich in which they landed Justin Holiday and a second round pick (one of the two used to salary dump Jose Calderon).

However, there is still a very strong legacy there of trading low. Almost invariably, the Bulls take all their draft picks, use them for a bit, and then essentially dump them. Look at how often it has happened above.

And now it has happened to the best player of them all; Jimmy Butler.

On draft night, Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, in exchange for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick. It was the same trade package that was said to be available for Butler last summer, with some changes; Dunn had not then put up a really poor rookie season, LaVine had not yet torn his anterior cruciate ligament, and in the initial formulation, Chicago did not include their own first round pick (#16) as they inexplicably wound up doing.

For whatever reason, despite the fact that he is an elite player at the top of his game who is just about turn 28, entering his prime, and having just posted the best season of his career by quite some way, Chicago somehow lowered their price tag for Butler. Despite the fact that a Butler trade was to be the first domino to fall in an offseason with a few potential big trades to come – with Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kristaps Porzingis as names said to be available – the Bulls did not use this as leverage. They instead took a deal that was there before, and that would be there again, acquiring both LaVine and Dunn at low ebbs, receiving the seventh pick in a six player draft, and for some reason including their own at #16.

It is OK to make a Jimmy Butler trade. Despite the fact that he is the best talent they have had since the dynasty – including Derrick Rose when Derrick Rose was good – and the kind of player a team could build around, the Bulls never sought to build around him, and nor did Butler over the last two years seem to want that. Butler did not seem to like being there, not blending with head coach Fred Hoiberg, and although his free agency is still two years away, there was certainly an argument for moving a player before he can leave unchallenged.

If he had been allowed to leave via free agency, he would have joined the long list above of players who walked for nothing; if they had waited too long until his contract was close to expiring, they may have received only the limited returns that have plagued them for so long. This wasn’t a bad time to do it. The problem is not trading Butler.

The problem is trading Butler for that package.

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To be fair, it could in theory become quite a good trade package. Although not a particularly strong all-around player, failing the point guard experiment and distinctly poor on the defensive end, LaVine has become an excellent jump shooter, able to score off both the catch and the dribble on a high volume of shots. Meanwhile, despite a rookie season in which he looked completely lost for ideas offensively, Dunn’s defensive potential is excellent, and his handles and flair are already there. The selection with the #7 pick, Lauri Markkanen, has very legitimate questions as to whether he can rebound, create and defend at the NBA level, and whether he can become more than the Keith van Horn and Ryan Anderson types he is so readily compared to. But even if he does not, Markkanen is a seven footer with about as true of a shot as a seven footer has ever had. 

Nonetheless, that is not a high yield for an All-Star two-way player on a team friendly contract about to enter his prime. Especially when the #16 pick is included for no obvious reason. [Do the Timberwolves really not do that deal if Justin Patton is not included in it? Call that bluff, and, if they really mean it, stand pat. They have already shown they’ll come back.] Outcomes in which Dunn and LaVine become a backcourt of the future, and in which Markkanen becomes more than a role player, are selectively favourable projected outcomes at this stage.

In making this deal, the Bulls have finally seemingly committed to a direction, that being of a full rebuild and the high draft picks it involves. But the Bulls of the last decade have not shown that they assign much value to draft picks. It is true that, aside from the luck of the Derrick Rose pick, they have not had particularly high draft picks to work with since the Bill Cartwright era. But they have not shown value in the ones that they have had, even the decent mid-first rounders and high seconds.

To acquire Doug McDermott, the Bulls traded two first rounders, used on Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, both of whom are far, far better than Doug. They further included a second round pick in that deal, and agreed to take on the unwanted salary of Anthony Randolph, even though Randolph interfered with their cap space plans. They later traded two more second round picks to salary dump Randolph. And they did all this to simply move up five picks from #16 to #11, purely for McDermott, who then wasn’t even that good. They later inexplicably added yet another second in the deal to get rid of McDermott, and traded two more in the salary dump of Jose Calderon (a necessary but unwanted part of the Rose trade). And then on past draft night, the Bulls included the #16 and Justin Patton into the Butler deal, then sold the #38 to the Golden State Warriors for cash and cash alone.

$3 million of the $3.5 million they received for Bell can now be used to pay the guaranteed portion of Rajon Rondo’s soon-to-be-waived contract. So it’s nice to know they aren’t wasting it.

As above, the team often gets either nothing at all, or a couple of second round picks, for players once worthy of much more than that. Those second round picks are then either used to move along the filler contracts obtained in deals in which they invariably included other second round picks to facilitate in the first place, or seemingly they can now also be sold as well. The first round picks apparently don’t matter that much, either, and this overall lack of value placed on draft picks does not inspire confidence in the rebuilding process they seemingly are now to embark upon.

It is very much worth remembering that they did not choose this path so much as they were stuck with it.

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Last summer, in what was a half-baked but reasoned attempt to build something with Butler, Dwyane Wade was signed as a free agent. Despite declining as a player and being far from the youthful, athletic, pace-and-space-style player that they claimed to want, signing Wade was a statement of intent and also quite a free agent scalp for a team that has had few others. It made some sense in the short term, at least if superior long term options were not readily available (which, as Brooklyn demonstrated, they likely weren’t).

Now, though, Wade stands out as an anomaly. Not only does he stand in the way of LaVine on the depth chart, but his big contract and unwillingness to be a part of a rebuilding process is incongruous. Given the age and contract factors, and that there are few teams he would be prepared to go to, Wade is more likely to be looking at a buyout, potentially at mid-season if not now, rather than a trade. This would mean yet another asset (nearly $24 million in cap space in this instance) being used up for no long-term returns.

The Bulls have shown more of a willingness than they are credited for to swallow ‘dead’ money; that is to say, paying off the contracts of players they no longer want (Carlos Boozer) or never wanted (Jerome James etc). However, selling second round picks to find the money to do so is impossible to reconcile both with their financial clout and their supposed policy from here on out to rebuild via the draft. If Wade is bought out, and the need/want for the money to do so comes from selling assets that should be conducive to the kind of future they now claim to be committing to, then this will not sit well.

Chicago are best when they are aggressive rather than reactionary. The 2004 trade to obtain Luol Deng’s draft rights is one such example of timely, selective aggression, as was their 2010 free agency campaign. Indeed, even though that campaign was largely unsuccessful, the signings of Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick (whose offer sheet was matched) to what were then considered big deals were ahead of their time. The team that reacts rather than plans is the team that has to trade low and improvise, that has to scavenge for what it can get, that trades a load of picks to obtain a player (McDermott) only to have to pawn them off for whatever they can get (Payne), only for that already somewhat obsolete player to become even more obsolete with the next scrambling-to-get-something trade four months later.

It’s just not very joined-up thinking, and nor has it been for a while.

As for Minnesota; Butler is not a particularly good fit with Wiggins offensively, and will not be until Tom Thibodeau diversifies his offensive playbook. But that can be worked out later. The potential for their new line-up is there, especially defensively, and the value was too good to pass up. The Timberwolves have been patient in the early stages of their rebuild, and selectively aggressive as they now transition into the second phase. They are now potentially already a playoff team, with plenty more to come in the developments of Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and others, with money to spend, with assets to trade, and with an incumbent All-Star in toe. They did so with good planning, good timing, good patience, and by exploiting the weaknesses of others.

Maybe that would be a good model for Chicago to follow.

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