By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — As they made a couple low-profile moves at the margins Thursday before the trade deadline passed in the afternoon, the rebuilding Bulls turned their attention not to the acquisition of any noted player or asset but rather their focus in the season’s final 29 games.
“Again, so much of this is about the young core we have and their growth and development,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “That’s going to continue. We have four games before the All-Star Break, we have 25 games after, and there will come a point after the All-Star Break where we more clearly get an evaluation on some of the young guys that are currently on our roster. They’re going to have to play more significant minutes. That’s the whole process.”
The Bulls made their big move last week when they traded Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans for a first-round pick. They then entered Thursday with a handful of veterans who were still on the market, but they found a taker for just one. That was 35-year-old guard Jameer Nelson, whom they sent to the Pistons in exchange for center Willie Reed, whom the Bulls quickly waived, and the right to exchange second-round picks in 2022. The Bulls had just acquired Nelson in the Pelicans deal last week and hadn’t even let him take full contact at practice.
Notably, the Bulls hung onto center Robin Lopez and wing Justin Holiday, for a couple reasons. They highly value the leadership of each. Beyond that, no offer reached their standards in a market in which first-round picks have been hard to pry away.
“We value Robin and Justin in terms of who they are as people in part of this culture,” Paxson said. “Our young guys love them. And they’re both under contract through next year. If we get to that point ever, there will be opportunities moving forward. It’s not being in a rush to make a deal just to make a deal for something we didn’t like.”
Paxson confirmed the Bulls did have discussions about taking on bad multi-year contracts with other assets attached, but they preferred to maintain their flexibility. The Bulls recently took on bad money in acquiring Omer Asik’s contract in the Mirotic trade, but after a hefty 2018-’19 payday, his guarantee is only $3 million for 2019-’20.
“A lot of what we received was years out,” Paxson said. “When we did the Niko deal, we took one deal we were comfortable with for next year. To add more to next year and maybe take away some of our flexibility, Gar (Forman) and I talk about this all the time, we still believe all the one-year deals going forward, they used to be valuable until the (cap) spike. They’ll become valuable again. So it goes back to patience.
“So did we have conversations? Sure, (Lopez and Holiday are) valuable guys around the league, teams like them. But at the end of the day, we didn’t feel now is the right time.”
With the Bulls below the salary floor, the time was again perfect for Chicago to absorb a little more salary. They did that in receiving 22-year-old power forward Noah Vonleh and cash in a trade with the Trail Blazers, who made the move to squeak below the daunting luxury tax threshold. Chicago sent the rights to 32-year-old center Milovan Raković, who’s in Europe and has never played in the NBA, back to Portland.
Vonleh was the No. 9 pick in the 2014 draft by the Hornets, for whom he played one season before being traded to the Blazers. He’s never found his footing or consistency in the NBA, averaging 3.9 points in 210 NBA games.
Shortly after the deadline passed, Paxson couldn’t yet speak directly to the acquisition of Vonleh because the trade wasn’t official, but the Bulls’ thinking is that he represents a low-risk flier. Vonleh will have two-plus months to prove if he can fit alongside the current young Bulls and be a rotation member in the long term.
If he does, the Bulls can extend him a $4.7 million qualifying offer this summer to make him a restricted free agent, a status in which the team figures to hold some leverage in a market that will be short on salary cap space. If Vonleh flops in Chicago, the Bulls can let him walk with no harm done.
In that way, Vonleh symbolizes the bigger picture for the Bulls now. Paxson has mentioned that youngsters Cris Felicio, Paul Zipser and Cameron Payne will be in the regular rotation after the All-Star break, even if that means cutting into the playing time of more established veterans.
Because, after all, the goal is to obtain a top-five lottery pick and learn as much about the young roster as possible.
“This direction that we’re headed and the pieces we have in place now, we’re really happy with and we know that we’re going to add to that as we go on,” Paxson said.
“We look at it this way: We got the three young guys we made the (Jimmy Butler) trade for last year, we’re going to have two picks most likely in this draft, and we’ve got Bobby (Portis) and Denzel (Valentine) as young guys. That’s seven young pieces, and we just need to continue develop them, grow and make the smart decisions, not get in a rush.’’
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.