If there’s one thing the Bulls have excelled at in the past year, it’s violently pushing back against trends. Last summer, in the immediate aftermath of a season defined by the 3-pointer, Bulls GM Gar Forman constructed a team built on the foundation of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo. Together, as the Three Alphas, they pulled defenses so tightly toward the center of the floor that they instituted gravitational collapse, leading one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league by any measure. Then, Thursday night — under cover of the dark shroud Phil Jackson cast over the draft by publicly dragging Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ once, future, and only hope — the Bulls were seemingly out to prove that rotting an NBA franchise from the inside out doesn’t have to come from an embarrassing, viral display of ego-driven paternalism. It can happen the old-fashioned way: with a terrible trade.
In a deal that overshadowed the entire draft proceedings, Chicago traded Butler and the rights to the no. 16 pick (high-upside center Justin Patton) to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the rights to no. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen. In other words, the two franchises essentially ran back the same trade proposal that had been rejected during the 2016 draft, except with a reversal in power dynamics. Last June Tom Thibodeau nixed an offer that would have sent LaVine and the no. 5 pick to the Bulls for Butler. Since then, Butler has established himself as a top-15 player in the league, Zach LaVine tore his ACL, and Kris Dunn balanced out his rabid individual defense with a complete lack of NBA-level offensive aptitude. Butler made a rarefied leap; the Wolves’ assets depreciated in value exponentially — and yet all it took for the trade to go through was the inclusion of the no. 7 pick from Minnesota. That’s a deal that would have already leaned in the Wolves’ favor if they didn’t also pick up a first-rounder for their troubles.
There’s something perverse about the Bulls losing a deal to Thibodeau as a lead front-office executive that goes beyond the resulting quality of each team’s roster. The trade felt like multilayered psychic warfare on the people responsible for his acrimonious exit from Chicago. In reuniting with his best soldier in Butler, he publicly defaces Bulls management by wresting the best player in the trade away with little resistance; in leaving LaVine at their doorstep, he plants an all-too-familiar seed of doubt: Bulls fans managed to escape the post-traumatic stress of Derrick Rose’s injuries for only a year before another world-class athlete recovering from an ACL tear fell in their lap.
Thibodeau is the big winner in this trade, but Butler, its crown jewel, is a close second. Jimmy Buckets has been airlifted from the burning wreckage in Chicago and dropped into a situation with a clear plan and trajectory. Butler immediately becomes the most established star on the roster, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the first option on offense. The team now has three players who can, on any given night, shoulder the load and drop 30-plus; both Butler and new teammate Andrew Wiggins had five games apiece with at least 40 points last season. Butler’s last season in Chicago was star-making, and it was awe-inspiring watching him bulldoze defenders over and over again because he couldn’t trust his teammates enough to make an open shot. Yet part of me longs for the more balanced offensive diet that Butler had in years past. He’s become a noted soloist, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him flash more of his considerable off-ball talents. In the 2015–16 season, Butler was in the 92nd percentile of all NBA players at scoring off of cuts, generating 1.53 points per possession on 126 possessions; last season, the number of opportunities he had cutting to the basket was sliced almost exactly in half at 66. A more balanced floor plan should help Butler rediversify his game.
Of course, there is a bit of redundancy in Butler and Wiggins on offense; both enjoy posting up and neither is quite good enough from 3 to space the floor the way they’d hope, though both saw percentages trending toward league average last season. Now here is where I drop a stupid but fascinating fact: We will be entering an even-year season, and since Butler’s rookie year, he’s shot terribly from 3 (29.4 percent on 456 attempts) in even years, and shot at or above league average (37.4 percent on 546 attempts) in odd years. This has been a trend for six seasons. Even if the pattern breaks in 2018, the Wolves will need to find other reliable deep threats to maximize their offensive efficiency.
These Wolves could be really fun, both in the casual sense, and in the Thibsian law-and-order sense (which is to say, not fun at all for the opponent). The Wolves were almost obnoxiously young last season, with an average age of 24 (the youngest in the league). It showed in ways you’d expect, but it also happened to shatter the veneer of Thibodeau’s defensive wizardry. Minnesota had the fifth-worst defense in the league, allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions in his first year at the helm, but a lot of it can be chalked up to kids being kids. Players were slow to close out on shooters and often lost track of the rotations they were supposed to make. Ricky Rubio is a respected veteran and the best defender on their team, but it takes time to acclimate to the specificity of Thibodeau’s demands and a level of commitment from top to bottom.
Adding Butler will accelerate that process. He’s never been afraid to hold players accountable, and having a player who has internalized all the little things that Thibs preaches at practice means there will be a voice on the floor to echo the coaching staff. Overcommunication is the best way to help youngsters develop, and Butler will play a significant part in that. As far as individual defense is concerned, he will cause a trickle-down effect. He’s one of the best one-on-one defenders we have in this league, and the more time he spends on a primary option, the less time anyone has to watch Wiggins press his luck. Sometimes it’s not instructive to get thrown into the fire; allowing Wiggins to start on a lesser offensive player will give him time to develop the fundamentals required to stay afloat in Thibs’s system. Expectations may have been too high for Minnesota last season, but this is the type of power move that can create a Jazz-like leap in the upcoming season. The 13-year playoff drought might finally be toppled. Glory be.
(Let’s briefly mention Justin Patton. He might have the highest upside of any center in the draft. He is an extremely talented afterthought. I’ve been thinking about this trade for hours and I’m still not sure why the Bulls had to add the no. 16 pick as a sweetener.)
The Bulls are saying all the right things about the deal. "It’s always difficult to trade a player and a person that has meant a lot to the organization and we really watched grow as a player," Bulls executive vice president John Paxson said. "That said, we’ve set a direction. We’re going to rebuild this roster through young players that we believe can play a system that Fred [Hoiberg] is comfortable with. We’re going to be disciplined and patient along the way."
The only issue is, as per usual, the team was several steps too slow in their realization. All of this should have happened last season. Instead, the Bulls somehow were both too soon and too late in trading Butler; they probably weren’t going to be giving their disgruntled star $200-plus million in two years, but in their mistiming of the move, they traded him at the peak of his ability for pennies on the dollar. Last year’s big-splash signings are now hangovers stemming from an extremely miscalculated binge: The Bulls are expected to let go of Rondo before his contract is fully guaranteed for 2017–18; Wade is expected to opt into his contract that will pay him $23.8 million in the upcoming season, which, given the state of the team, will invariably lead to a pricy buyout situation.
Bulls fans are ostensibly getting what they want in a dedicated rebuild, but management has stunningly found the least palatable way to serve it up. Nikola Mirotic is now the longest-tenured Bull, and as a restricted free agent this summer, there’s no guarantee that even he’ll be on the roster come opening day. The Bulls are starting anew, but, as of right now, they’re a collection of players that their fan base seems to have no real connection to. Lauri Markkanen is the best shooter from this draft class, and under the right conditions, he can become an elite weapon. But he doesn’t project to be the kind of cornerstone player that Chicago fans can rally around — especially not when he’ll have to carry the burden of being the Bulls’ centerpiece in the Butler trade.
Paxson’s comments are packaged with the tacit understanding that this team will be bad next season. There will be no weird and delightful falling ass-backward into the playoffs as the everyone knows we’re dreadful, but fuck it, let’s do it live wild card in the 8-seed. And considering their recent decision-making, it’s hard to take the idea of the team being "disciplined and patient" seriously. Chicago will gain a $15.3 million trade exception as a result of the deal, which at this point feels like an ejector seat from any kind of Processesque roadmap if things get too bad before they get better. The Bulls remain rudderless, which begs the question: If a rebuild doesn’t show signs of a hopeful future (or a plan, period), what is it, exactly?
In a trade that felt as personal and retributive as a basketball transaction can possibly be, Tom Thibodeau emerged as the true victor. For a day, he can rest easy in his training-facility-adjacent dungeon annex.