By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) On Wednesday night, a severely undermanned Bulls team lost 123-92 to the league-leading, star-studded Warriors. Playing without stars Jimmy Butler (heel contusion) and Dwyane Wade (illness), the Bulls stayed competitive for most of the night but simply didn’t have near enough firepower.
The loss dropped Chicago to 26-27, which is good for the seventh spot in the East, one game ahead of eighth-place Detroit and 1.5 games ahead of ninth-place Charlotte. An Eastern Conference that was for so long bunched up has now seen some separation down to the sixth slot, hinting at the Bulls spending the rest of this season fighting for one of the final two playoffs spots.
Of course, there’s another route the Bulls could take: turning their full attention to the future instead of the present.
Whether the Bulls do so remains anyone’s guess. It was just last summer when general manager Gar Forman expressed a desire to get “younger and more athletic,” only to sign a pair of veterans in Rajon Rondo and Wade two weeks later. But as the Feb. 23 trade deadline nears, the Bulls have an opportunity to take a crucial step toward a big-picture approach.
Here’s my blueprint the Bulls should take leading up to June’s draft, to best position themselves for the future.
1) Trade Taj Gibson for an asset
Gibson is as respected as they come in the NBA and has spent his entire eight-year career in Chicago. He’ll also be 32 when he hits free agency this summer and has a history of ankle issues.
Last February, the Bulls made the mistake of hanging on to veteran Pau Gasol ahead of the deadline, only to miss the playoffs and watch him walk for nothing in free agency. They shouldn’t repeat the same mistake with Gibson, whose work ethic, low-maintenance demeanor and quality defense could help any team eyeing a deep playoff run.
In January, the Hawks received a first-round pick from the Cavaliers for Kyle Korver. It’s reasonable for the Bulls to seek a back-end first-rounder for Gibson. Should that fail, adding a young rotation player under contract control for several seasons to come should be the goal.
2) Part ways with Rajon Rondo
It doesn’t appear there’s any trade market for Rondo, who’s leading Chicago’s second unit and has handled his demotion as professionally as possible. If the Bulls can flip Rondo for anything — even a lowly second-round pick — they should do it. More likely, his exit would come in the form of a buyout or by straight out waiving him.
Why do that? Because Rondo is averaging 19.7 minutes per game since returning from his five-game benching, and every minute he plays is one that could be given to Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Denzel Valentine for developmental purposes. The Bulls could also accomplish that by just benching Rondo again, but Rondo has hinted that he wants out if he’s not playing. And the Bulls don’t need more drama.
Knowing that Rondo isn’t a part of the Bulls’ long-term plan, perhaps the biggest reason to keep him right now (insert the “he’s the only one who protects the youngsters” joke here, if you wish) is because his contract could help facilitate a trade in the offseason. It’s worth around $14 million this season but only has about $3 million guaranteed next year, meaning it could help match salaries should there be a deal around the June draft while also serving as a minimal financial burden on the team receiving him.
Still, that’s all a hypothetical. At hand is the reality that youngsters need development in the form of playing time, and having Rondo around makes that more difficult. His exit would also clear any lingering tension between Butler/Wade and Rondo following the well-documented recent controversy.
And if the Bulls were to make a big-money trade in the offseason, it would figure to be Butler and his max-salary contract at the center of the deal, negating the need for Rondo’s contract to be involved.
3) Entertain all offers
Opposing teams interested in Nikola Mirotic? Robin Lopez? Anyone else? The Bulls should be open-minded ahead of the trade deadline, because the current squad has found little consistency.
Mirotic will be a restricted free agent this summer, so any team inquiring on him would be doing so with the belief it can foster his growth and that the Bulls’ approach stunted his development. Lopez is a quality role player under a fair contract for two more seasons.
4) Turn minutes over to the youngsters
If the Bulls part ways with Gibson and Rondo, that opens up more playing time for Cris Felicio, Bobby Portis, Grant and Valentine — four players with three years of experience or less. They need to play consistently, as several Bulls have acknowledged it’s difficult to find a rhythm with changing roles amid coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation carousel.
This would also help Chicago get a better read on Carter-Williams, who will enter restricted free agency this summer. He’s been terrible offensively for most of the season, save for a couple of recent star turns. While his offensive woes make it difficult to see how he’d ever be a key piece for the Bulls’ future in Hoiberg’s system, having two solid months of play to evaluate from him would be helpful.
5) Don’t fret the losses
To date, the Bulls have been reluctant to engage in any full-on rebuild or tank mode, but missing the playoffs and grabbing a lottery pick in a solid draft — notably one with great point guard depth — would be beneficial. So there’s no reason worry about a few more losses that would likely be coming in playing the youngsters more.
6) Make Jimmy Butler the full-time point guard for the rest of this season
Is making Butler the full-time point guard too much to ask of him? Added to his defensive responsibilities, is it an unfair burden that will take away from his efficiency? Perhaps — but every time Butler has been doubted or challenged in his basketball career, he’s taken his game to the next level.
Dating back to his days coaching Iowa State, Hoiberg has often found success with unconventional points guards — think 6-foot-8 forward Royce White in that role full-time and 6-foot-8 Georges Niang as a part-time point forward.
The Bulls are best when the ball is in Butler’s hands and he’s tasked with making plays. It’s why Butler is already the go-to point guard in fourth quarters. It keeps himself and teammates engaged, and Butler has made great progress in his ability to run the pick-and-roll, read the floor and make the right basketball play.
The Bulls have internally discussed the idea of moving Butler to point guard but not yet committed. What would it hurt to try? Any additional intel the Bulls can gather on what works and what doesn’t is valuable for the future. Playing him at point guard also opens up a spot for another shooter on the floor.
7) Make decisions based around Jimmy Butler
Butler has ascended to top-10 player status in the eyes of most given his elite two-way play. The Bulls have yet to publicly commit to him as the franchise centerpiece, which is a major reason why Butler still finds his name amid trade rumors that originate externally. There’s nothing wrong with listening to offers for Butler and pushing the reset button should fair value present itself.
I’m in the camp that two solid young players under long-term contract control and two lottery picks is in the ballpark of fair value, should no other star be involved. It’s simply a guessing game to know if that offer will come, though, so in the meantime, the Bulls need to answer this question in every move they make: Is this in the best interest of Butler and, thus, the organization?
Whether it’s in playing rotations, offensive sets, lower-profile trades, bigger-name signings, draft picks or publicly sending messages to support and push Butler while not enabling him, the Bulls can set this as their new direction: build around their best player.
In a star-driven league, it’s one of the best ways to get out of no man’s land for a team with an uncertain direction and persistent inconsistencies.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.