With about a week before the NBA Draft lottery, the Chicago Bulls are embarking on what could be a major step toward creating a contender. The team is expected to land anywhere between the No. 6 and 8 overall pick, barring the lottery ball doesn’t take an unexpected bounce.
If everything goes according to plan, they should be able to pick a difference maker or, at the very least, a solid prospect. Alongside the No. 22 overall pick received in the Nikola Mirotic trade, the Bulls are in a good spot heading into the future.
But no matter where the Bulls land in the lottery, it’s important for VP John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman to remember that the summer shouldn’t be about spending on a mediocre or aged free agent. The pursuit of winning 40-45 games and clinching a low playoff seed is fruitless.
Their sights should be set much higher in order to build a contender, and that means a bit of patience. This summer really is about setting up for a strong offseason next year. That is when the Bulls can change the course of their franchise moving forward.
The 2019 free agent crop is expected to be loaded with game-changing stars like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and former Bulls first-round pick Jimmy Butler. Outside that group are some other intriguing names like all-star Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton, who continues to elevate his game each season.
Based on early projections, the Bulls should be in a healthy cap situation next summer. Depending on how much money they give Zach LaVine this offseason and what contractual options they decline or exercise that year, the front office could have between $40-65 million to spend. That’s plenty to land a difference-making star and even extend a key role player like Bobby Portis.
But landing superstars has been a problem under GarPax.
Their 15-year tenure has been filled with mediocrity. If you need complementary pieces on your team, they’re the front office to call. Many GarPax squads feature a plethora of gritty role players or borderline all-stars most teams look to assemble around their stars.
If you think about it, the only two stars they acquired – Derrick Rose and Butler – fell into their lap.
The Bulls won the 2008 Draft lottery with a 1.7 percent chance and picked Rose No. 1 overall. He ascended into top-five status by the time he won MVP in 2011, but his superstar-level career unraveled after tearing his ACL in 2012.
Butler was the team’s No. 30 overall pick in 2011, and the organization expected him to be a defensive stopper at best. However, the self-motivated Butler emerged into a star-caliber player by the 2015 season, starting a four-season streak of averaging 20 or more points per game.
Aside from those two, GarPax have failed at drafting or signing stars. The front office swung and missed on many “big fish” free agents over the years, including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (in his prime and not the washed-up version from 2016-17).
Those shortcomings are why many Bulls fans have grown apathetic over the years. Why trust a front office that can’t seal the deal on a seventh championship?
Whether we like it or not, Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf have no plans on turning over the front office any time soon. Fortunately, there seems to be a slight shift in philosophy since last summer, and it could create the perfect roadmap heading into the summer of 2019.
By pulling the trigger and trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, the front office finally sold high on a an asset and wisely picked the direction to start rebuilding. The draft-night trade brought back young pieces like Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen.
Each player in the trade package showed plenty of flashes in 2018, and their performances in the 2019 season can help set the table for attracting a star via free agency.
Markkanen played above the expectations that many fans and analysts set coming into the 2018 season. The 7-foot forward averaged about 15 points per game and over seven rebounds while shooting around 43 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range. His shooting and scoring were inconsistent in stretches this season, but that’s common for a rookie who is only 20 years old.
What’s very encouraging is that he still found ways to contribute when his shot was off, whether it was helping get defensive stops or battling for rebounds. With another offseason to work on his game and a year of NBA experience under his belt, Markkanen has the potential to be a near 20-point/10-rebound per game player as soon as next season.
Dunn and LaVine also showed signs that they could be key pieces moving forward. Dunn struggled to get minutes as a rookie under Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau, making him a sweetener in the last summer’s deal. When given minutes under Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, Dunn not only played with pace and developed a decent mid-range shot, but he also proved to be a lockdown defender.
LaVine, who returned in January after missing almost a full year with an ACL injury, still had that explosive first-step that’s made him difficult to guard since entering the league. His offensive game has improved since he came into the league in 2014, seeing spikes in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting in his first three years.
However, he saw regressions in each category this season, especially from 3-point range where he saw over a 4.5 point drop in his shooting percentage from the season prior. Still, a 24-game sample size is way too small to start worrying. His dip in stats might’ve been linked more to rust and inconsistent playtime throughout the year.
All three players only played 12 games together in 2018, and their time on the floor resulted in a dismal -21.8 plus/minus collectively. That certainly isn’t a fair sample size to reach any definitive conclusion, and it’s why the 2019 season should focus on getting these three pieces to gel together along with the Bulls’ top draft pick.
Paxson said in his season-ending press conference that he didn’t want to go through another rebuilding effort.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interest of the Bulls,” Paxson said April 12. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again. It goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in. But it’s the way the system is set up.”
The fear in that quote is that the GarPax will take a shortcut to get more wins next season instead of being patient. Trying to throw the farm at names like Demarcus Cousins or Paul George this offseason would be very foolish. While they’re All-Stars, neither has proven to be a leader on a title contender.
The only free agents worth exploring this July are young, prove-it players. Guys who have high upside but won’t cost a ton of money moving forward.
It’s very possible that we might be too pessimistic when dissecting Paxson’s quote. He might believe that a team anchored by the LaVine-Dunn-Markkanen trio and the lottery pick could do enough to win enough games to enter the playoffs as a low seed.
That wouldn’t be a terrible scenario, and it could help lure one of those superstars in the summer of 2019. But there should be no reason to actively seek mediocrity. Let the young players do it organically without help from a piece that won’t be part of your core two or three years down the road.
Signing the next version of Wade, Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol or Carlos Boozer is like indulging in empty calories. Sure, it’s delicious, but there are no redeeming effects long term.
Why tie up cap space in a player who might take you as high as a fourth or fifth seed? The regular season success can be indulging, but the end result just leads to more mediocrity and no chance at a championship.
The only way to deviate from the script would be if a star player, such as Leonard, unexpectedly hits the trade market. Then you have to consider altering the plan to acquire a top-five talent. But that scenario remains to be seen.
If the roster anchored by four ascending, young pieces shows significant growth, that should help open eyes leaguewide.
And if you’re worried about GarPax selling Chicago to a star free agent yet again, relax. The situation has a good chance of selling itself.