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Lauri Markkanen, Kristaps Porzingis

Five Questions: Are The Bulls Better Off Without Jimmy Butler?

A year ago, the Chicago Bulls front office decided to trade franchise player Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves; closing the book on an era straggling along with a low ceiling to start from new foundations. The move, while heavily criticized in both timing and execution, was well past necessary.

The Bulls got back Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the seventh overall pick in the draft, selecting Lauri Markkanen from the Minnesota Timberwolves while also stupefyingly sacrificing the 16th pick in the deal despite giving up the best asset in the trade.

Fortunately for the Bulls, the talent returned proved greater than anticipated. Markkanen’s gifts were apparent the moment he hit the NBA floor, becoming the quickest player to hit 100 e-pointers (41 games) in NBA history. Dunn, whose career was left for dead in Minnesota, improved dramatically in his first season with the Bulls, especially on the defensive end to emerge as a viable rotation player. LaVine saw 24 games worth of action after coming back from an ACL tear, which mostly was a mixed bag.

Heading into the summer, the Bulls hold the seventh pick in the NBA Draft and have plenty of cap flexibility to play around with.

Executives Gar Forman and John Paxson have been criticized and questions at every turn over the past few years. The first core it assembled around an MVP-level Derrick Rose fell apart due to injuries, with the front office compounding matters with one troubling move after another.

During this rebuilding process, all eyes are fixed on their decision-making while millions of fingers across the globe are hovering above keyboards, waiting to grade their efforts.

5.What are the Bulls trying to become?

jimmy butler nikola mirotic

Cameron Browne/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls were originally designed as a defensive juggernaut with Derrick Rose supplying the offensive firepower it needed. By necessity, Butler emerged as a two-way star; eventually allowing the Bulls to jettison the injury prone Rose.

They envisioned themselves as contenders, burning draft picks on seniors like Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine, who were both thought to be immediate contributors at the cost of having lower ceilings.

Chicago hired Hoiberg to run a motion-heavy spread offense, making use of McDermott and Valentine’s talents, only to change course mid-summer and bring in a Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. In doing so, they stocked their roster with offensive pieces used incorrectly while simultaneously losing the defensive culture Thibodeau created.

The team stumbled upon Butler as a franchise player and never picked a direction to build around him.

It’s now 2018 and Chicago has been stripped of its entire identity. The Bulls are in asset collection mode, waiting to see what comes of its young pieces. For now, they lack a culture setter who can make an organizational imprint on everything he touches. Until they find that person, be it player or coach, they should remain flexible.

4. Who should the Bulls draft at No. 7?

Wendell Carter Jr.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Chicago’s first shot at grabbing a culture setter this summer will be with the seventh pick in the draft. There are a few candidates the Bulls are circling at this point and, given a need on the wings and the front office’s draft profile–which favors players from winning programs who are thought of as polished and NBA-ready–the most notable candidates are Michael Porter Jr. and Mikal Bridges.

However, the player who might make the most sense for them from both an immediate, and long-term, perspective is Duke center Wendell Carter Jr.

Carter Jr. measured out well at the combine, registering the seventh widest wingspan, the eighth highest standing reach, and checking in at 251 pounds, slimming down from the listed playing weight of 260 he played at Duke.

He not only has a game built for the NBA, he brings the right approach. When teammate Marvin Bagley re-classified in order to join Duke, Carter Jr. checked his ego at the door, ceding touches to form one of the most effective and dangerous big man combinations in the nation. Throughout the whole season Carter Jr. sacrificed shots to fellow freshmen Gary Trent Jr, Bagley, Trevon Duval, and senior Grayson Allen while focusing on defense, rebounding, passing and opportunistic scoring.

Carter Jr. did so while arguably having one of the most robust set of skills in the entire draft. Since the 2009-10 season, only two freshmen have had seasons with a REB% above 18, AST% above 13, and a PER over 28: Carter Jr. and Rookie Of the Year favorite Ben Simmons.

Carter Jr. even canned 41.3 percent of his 46 attempted 3-pointers on the year, while knocking down 73.8 percent of his free throws, drawing a FTr of 52.7 percent.

Selecting the Duke center would instantly give Chicago its front court for the next decade, with Markkanen and Carter Jr. complementing each other greatly.

Markkanen is mostly a spot-up shooter who relies on finesse on his occasional ventures into the post. Carter Jr. is a bruiser who’ll generate free throws and score near the rim while occasionally stepping outside to spread out the defense. Both players are adept passers (Carter Jr. more so), suggesting an effective high-low component.

Furthermore, selecting Carter Jr. means giving Markkanen a shot at better improving himself. A selection of Michael Porter Jr. or Trae Young, combined with Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis on the roster, would mean fewer shots to go around. Carter Jr. won’t be asking for 15 shots a game, allowing him to slide in effortlessly to a team that already has plenty of offensive components.

3. What is a fair price for Zach LaVine?

Zach LaVine, Jimmy Butler

LaVine is a hot topic amongst NBA opinion makers and fans. Some expect him to sign for near max money, while others are hesitant to hand him more than $15 million annually. The latter group has more ammunition to make their case, in particular when gauging the lack of money being available in July.

LaVine is coming off an ACL tear, likely making him a candidate to seek long-term financial security as opposed to a one-year qualifying offer. The Bulls should start low in their negotiations with LaVine with a max price they want to go to depending on the length of the deal. LaVine is a young, athletic marvel with some serious scoring chops. But there are legitimate questions surrounding his defense and approach to the team, given his expectations of becoming “the man” with the Bulls.

A plan of attack could be to offer LaVine $40 million over four seasons, a deal his representatives would undoubtedly decline initially, and let him find more money on his own. If LaVine doesn’t find takers and comes back offering a two-year deal worth $30 million, Chicago would be on the hook with that deal for just two seasons, allowing themselves flexibility in the long-term while allowing LaVine to prove himself worthy of more. A wrinkle to such an idea would be to include a third non-guaranteed year, allowing both parties to benefit if they deem the relationship stable.

An improved LaVine could then fetch a significantly higher total amount of money ($45 million if the deal follows the route of $15 million annually) over a three-year period if he steps up his game, compared to a fully-guaranteed four-year deal of $40 million. If things goes south, the Bulls could cut bait after two years and shell out $30 million instead. Loading LaVine’s contract with incentives could also come into play as additional bonuses can reach up towards 15 percent of the overall compensation.

Whichever direction the Bulls go in, it’s crucial they don’t end up bidding against themselves. LaVine was brought as the centerpiece of the return for Butler, suggesting the Bulls could be willing to spend additional money on his new deal for the mere purpose of saving face – a practice they’ve become experts in.

2. Should the Bulls be players in free agency?

Mario Hezonja

ClutchPoints

The Bulls should be players in free agency, but not in the sense that most would think. Instead of going out and signing some 32-year old veteran who’ll take away essential development minutes for the current players, it should all be about finding young players under the radar.

Last summer, the Bulls grabbed 24-year old David Nwaba off the waiver wire and he became one of the five best players on the team last season. Such signings are home runs, even if the player doesn’t become an All-Star caliber player. This year, it’d make sense to let the Orlando Magic feel the pain of not picking up the fourth-year option on Mario Hezonja. The 23-year old swingman is an unrestricted free agent and the Bulls have a hole at small forward with plenty of cash available. While Hezonja broke out this season, he did not explode into a star, making it possible for the Bulls to get him on a value contract.

It would also make sense for the Bulls to take on bad long-terms deals for draft picks, seeing as they’re in no rush to add win-now players. If the Bulls play it smart, they could do both.

1. Is Fred Hoiberg the guy moving forward?

Fred Hoiberg

It’s always difficult to grade and analyze coaching, partly because player influence means a lot more. Hoiberg is no different.

The Bulls signed him to a five-year deal after firing the most successful post-Phil Jackson head coach, an unpopular choice at the time that till this day still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth due to the way Thibodeau’s firing was handled. The Bulls remain one of the most stubborn franchises around. Expecting Hoiberg to be fired before his contract runs out is a long-shot.

Chicago finally deciced to try to maximize Hoiberg’s strengths as an offensive-minded coach, bringing in players who would actively shoot the three and play outside-in basketball. For Hoiberg, this was a welcome change after having to deal with a trio consisting of Butler, Wade, and Rondo.

Should the Bulls walk away this summer with Carter Jr., Hezonja, and acquire a future first-rounder for taking on bad money, it’d be a home run off-season for the Bulls, and it’s been a while since that term has been associated with their franchise.