It's hard to say when, exactly, the 2016-17 Chicago Bulls hit rock bottom—they still may have farther to fall—but Friday definitely marked a low point, as the Atlanta Hawks turned the team into their own personal punching bag, building a 34-point lead in the game's first 24 minutes. It wasn't a night for optimism, and wound up being Chicago's 23rd loss in 44 tries. Even after a narrow win against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, the Bulls are still below .500, and currently sit eighth in the NBA's Eastern Conference.
Most of Chicago's blowouts have been on back-to-backs, but they had two entire days off before Friday's game in Atlanta. The rest didn't matter, apparently, given that they committed eight turnovers in the first quarter. After the game, All-Star Jimmy Butler was frustrated, and Dwyane Wade tweeted an apology to the fans. It was that bad.
What's happening to the Bulls shouldn't surprise anyone. Despite an impenetrable half-court defense and the emergence of Butler as a top-three forward in the Eastern Conference, everything else about this team is decidedly average. That recipe would have worked wonders five or six years ago, but in today's NBA, when you attempt the fewest threes and are less accurate from beyond the arc than every other team, average is the ceiling.
Accordingly, Chicago has basically a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs this spring, and things stand to only get worse next season if the front office doesn't make any major adjustments. Butler is a gem, but his supporting cast teeters between inadequate and upsetting. When Taj Gibson is your second-best player, that's not a good sign. At 35 years old, Dwyane Wade is entering the Righteous Kill stage of his career, and Rajon Rondo is already thinking about his post-retirement options. Nikola Mirotic is fool's gold.
The Bulls don't have any blue-chippers to trade away for a shot in the arm or to develop as a long-term solution, so what should they do? Tinker around the margins by trading for a shooter (or three) before the deadline? Sell their most productive role players for future assets? Sign Chris Bosh? Auction Butler off to the highest bidder and start all over? Or preserve cap space and ride out multiple one-and-done playoff runs until maybe hometown hero Anthony Davis swoops in to save the day? All of these options carry some amount of risk, and none of them guarantee championship contention anytime soon. That said, some possibilities are richer than others, and at the very least represent a purposeful step in a respectable direction, away from the treadmill of mediocrity the Bulls are currently on.
A trade for more shooting sometime before February sounds logical enough, but then the question becomes, what can the Bulls trade? The Kings owe them a top-ten protected pick, which may actually amount to something this year despite Sacramento's five-game losing streak and Rudy Gay's torn Achilles. But every pick matters, especially in a draft as deep as this one, and Chicago would be silly to surrender any of their own unless the scenario involves securing a top-ten player (a scenario that is all but impossible).
Of the players Chicago already has to sell, Gibson might be able to net something of value from the Boston Celtics or the Toronto Raptors, two teams with no obvious power forward in their starting lineup and in desperate need of defensive rebounding. Robin Lopez seems less promising—the center position is a buyer's market right now, and very few teams need or want them. (The Golden State Warriors would be interested—for Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, and Zaza Pachulia—if Lopez's contract didn't last another two years.) The trade value for everyone else on the Bulls roster is either low or non-existent.
As for the Bulls' reported interest in Bosh, from the perspective of their cap sheet, that plan is low risk with a modestly high reward. Can Bosh, at 33 years old, make the Bulls a better team? Maybe. Assuming he's healthy and can avoid dramatic physical decline, he's an ideal fit beside Lopez and could help space the floor for Butler while alleviating some of the scoring load. Even in the best-case scenario, though, the window for that "core" to even compete for a playoff spot is a season or two. Adding Bosh is really just more of the same for Chicago, and it's certainly not a long-term solution.
Even if the Bulls don't stand to improve their postseason odds with a trade this year, that doesn't mean they should sit on their hands. Trades with the future in mind can also improve this year's draft position. The Bulls could really use a lottery pick, and being bad enough to miss the playoffs wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
And that brings us to the elephant in the room: Should the Bulls trade Butler? When you look at his age, his numbers, and his contract, this question seems laughable, but when you factor in Chicago's cap space and a rudderless front office that has just enough incompetence to waste Butler's prime, exchanging him for a lucrative package of lottery picks and/or max-contract-worthy youngsters (like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, or Devin Booker, to name a few) might be the correct call.
There's no guarantee that any of those talents would ever be as good as Butler currently is. Trade a top-15 player at your own risk. As it stands now, however, with Butler onboard and Wade holding a massive $23.8 million player option over their head, the Bulls won't sniff max cap space this summer, which means next year won't be much better than this. It's hard to project any further out, but it's also hard to see any significant free agents line up around the block to take Chicago's money. (Chicagoans can hold out hope for Davis, but he would have to turn down a ton of money if he leaves New Orleans.)
It's bad in Chicago, but it could be worse. They already have a two-way stud who ranks third in Real Plus-Minus and is under contract through 2019, at which point, assuming Butler qualifies for the Designated Player Exception, they can re-sign him to another lucrative maximum contract if they want. Reshaping themselves as an attractive free-agent destination isn't impossible, but getting there while Butler is still an All-Star won't be easy.
And that's why this is so complicated for the Bulls. The two smoothest paths to championship contention are anything but: either lose Butler, or trade him with no promise of getting another franchise player anytime soon.
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