By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — On a day the Bulls traded an eight-year franchise stalwart and a first-round pick they moved earth to acquire in 2014 but gave up on less than three years later, it was a deal they didn’t make and a plan they didn’t much explain that resonated most.
As Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline came and went, Chicago dealt veteran forward Taj Gibson and wing Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City while holding onto star Jimmy Butler. Later in the evening, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman emphasized the Bulls have an organizational consensus regarding their plan, but they didn’t reveal much about that path.
What the Bulls did make more clear was that building “around” Butler — a three-time All-Star whom Paxson called a “top 10 or 12 player in this league” — isn’t currently a part of that plan. Building “with” Butler is, for now.
“Right now, today, Jimmy is on our roster,” Paxson said. “And Jimmy is under contract for two more years. He is a terrific player. This league is fluid, and things can change quickly. We have such great respect for Jimmy and his value in this league is extremely high. If people think there’s an opportunity to get him, they have to know that. They can’t come and try to throw something out there that we would never do. I’ve always felt this way about team building and a team in general: There are very few guys who you build around. This is a team game. You build with players. We are building with Jimmy right now.”
Amid a career year in which he’s averaging 24.5 points and under a team-friendly contract through 2018-’19, Butler found himself amid intense trade speculation, specifically regarding Boston’s interest. It never panned out on deadline day, with multiple reports indicating the Bulls and Celtics exchanged proposals without reaching the advanced stages.
Full details remained hazy, but it appeared the Celtics never put the Nets’ first-rounder in 2017 on the table fully unprotected, as the Chicago Tribune reported Boston was adding protection to that pick in trade talks. That Nets pick currently has the highest probability of being No. 1 overall.
The Bulls never received an offer “remotely close” on the 27-year-old Butler, Paxson added before making comments that hinted at the Nets’ first-rounder not being on the table.
“If we are ever in a position where we’re going to rebuild completely, you have to have a certainty in terms of what you’re getting back,” Paxson said. “Especially if you’re going to go that route, you want draft picks. You want high draft picks, and there has to be a certainty to those draft picks. I can tell you, there was nothing remotely close to anybody calling us about Jimmy Butler.”
The Bulls hanging onto Butler but not committing to him as the franchise centerpiece suggests they’ll go through this entire process again leading up to the draft in June. Put simply, they didn’t get a Butler offer that blew them away, so they pushed the timeframe on making a franchise-altering decision four months down the line.
Whether the Bulls make the playoffs before then won’t affect their decision on whether to keep or trade Butler this summer, Paxson said. Chicago is currently 28-29, sitting in seventh in the East.
What is crucial now is developing the young players. The trade of Gibson and McDermott was motivated in part to get second-year forward Bobby Portis and rookie wing Denzel Valentine more playing time, Paxson said. He then went so far as to say the Bulls being “very high” on rookie forward Paul Zipser, a second-rounder, also was a “significant” thought to the trade.
The Bulls’ plan in the short term is to gather as much intel as possible in the final 25 regular-season games about the progress of their young group, which now includes 22-year-old point guard Cameron Payne, who was acquired from the Thunder. What the plan is in the long term remains to be seen, but Forman admitted the roster reshaping will take a “couple years.”
“We’re not going to snap our fingers and all of a sudden get younger and be competing at the highest level,” Forman said. “I think you look in pro sports or the NBA, it takes time, it takes time. That’s why I said part of that is player development, part of it is setting ourselves up as far as the CBA is concerned, being flexible and be able to take advantage of opportunities that are going to come because of how we’ve positioned ourselves. Those things all factor in.
“We didn’t add any long-term salary, so we keep ourselves in a position where there is some flexibility and we can continue to add pieces.”
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.