Even with LeBron James out of the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls still have a steep hill to climb before contending for a title. However, a familiar face could be the one to get them over the hump quickly.
Jimmy Butler, who was traded away last summer to jumpstart the Bulls rebuild, is reportedly looking to leave the Minnesota Timberwolves next summer. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Butler is seeking an opportunity to team with Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics seem like the sensible destination for Butler and Irving to team up. The team has decent cap space to add one more star and is flush with young, affordable talent. However, Danny Ainge and company aren’t sold on Irving’s long-term sustainability, and they reportedly weren’t high on Butler when he hit the trade market in 2017.
So it begs the question: Could the Bulls be a potential landing spot for the two next summer?
Butler, who was drafted No. 30 overall in 2011 by the Bulls, worked tirelessly at his craft throughout his tenure in Chicago. When the front office and fan base doubted his value, he became an All-Star and one of the best two-way wings in the league.
His hard work ultimately netted him a five-year, $92 million deal in 2015, and he’s earned three more All-Star selections between his time in Chicago and Minnesota. In the last four seasons, Butler has averaged nearly 22 points, six rebounds and five assists per game and continues to be a top-tier defender.
He might not be the No. 1 option on a contending team, but he certainly has the cachet to attract stars. If bringing Butler means adding a superstar like Irving, then GarPax should welcome him back with open arms.
While it might seem unlikely now, you can’t completely dismiss the idea. After all, 2019 is when the Bulls are expected to start making serious moves.
The team could have as much as $44 million in cap space next offseason, and that’s projecting they exercise Omer Asik’s early-termination option and re-sign Zach LaVine this offseason to a contract worth about $18 million per year. If they let LaVine walk this offseason or trade him by next summer, they could free up enough cap space to sign both Butler and Irving to max-level contracts.
In that scenario, Kris Dunn would either be relegated to the bench or shipped out of town for a young wing player or draft pick. But when you acquire an elite point guard like Irving, you can’t worry about whether Dunn fits in.
Adding those two All-Stars to a core with Lauri Markkanen and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. would automatically vault the Bulls into the top three in the East with the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. They wouldn’t be automatic title contenders at that point, but it makes them much more attractive to top free agents or disgruntled stars looking to win.
Attracting big-fish free agents has been a problem with the Bulls during the GarPax era. They famously struck out on James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010 and again on Carmelo Anthony in 2014.
However, a core featuring Butler, Irving and Markkanen could be enough to attract that final piece of the puzzle. Don’t you think Anthony Davis would be intrigued by the idea of coming home to Chicago in 2020 to contend with that group?
With the salary cap expected to jump from $108 million to $114 million, the Bulls would have around $15 million to spend in 2020, putting them short of a max-level offer for Davis. However, freeing up cap space wouldn’t be a problem, barring no crippling signings occur between this summer and 2020.
For starters, they would have to rescind qualifying offers to Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn (if he’s still on the roster). The next move would require them to ship Carter, which shouldn’t be too difficult if he plays to his expected potential. With both those moves, the Bulls would have a little under $33 million to entice Davis to sign on the dotted line.
A squad anchored by Davis, Butler, Irving and Markkanen would not only compete for the East but also contend for a championship.
Of course, if Butler has that ability to attract stars, then why did the Bulls trade him in the first place? A year ago, the team was so void of assets that the only way to build a young and talented core was by using their best player as bait.
GarPax deserve plenty of blame for putting the Bulls in a situation where they had to part with Butler. Aside from free agency woes, the Bulls missed on draft choices between 2012 and 2014. During that period, the front office chose Marquis Teague, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott over quality names like Draymond Green (2012), Rudy Gobert (2013) and LaVine (2014).
Despite their obvious flaws and shortcomings, GarPax’s recent moves still put the organization in a position to be an attractive destination down the road. Coupled with a young group led by an emerging Markkanen, the Bulls have a healthy cap situation that at least garner consideration from some All-Stars next summer.
And just like his trade sparked a rebuild, his return to the Bulls could light the way to championship contention.