Bulls blew the Jimmy Butler trade, and they’ll pay the price for years

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Jimmy Butler was a one-man wrecking crew.

Now, the Bulls are just a wreck.

A half decade of frustration since Derrick Rose‘s injuries sent the franchise spiraling off course culminated in a lousy trade of the star wing, an intentional blowup after years of unintentional blowups.

The Three-Alphas idea was poorly conceived and predictably faltered. Fred Hoiberg has looked out of his element in the NBA, and his rosters haven’t fit his preferred style. Five straight first-round picks – Marquis Teague, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine – have produced little value in Chicago and stressed the Bulls closer to their breaking point.

But they still had Butler.

Butler has grown steadily as a player, approaching superstardom. Using win shares and teams’ actual wins, he accounted for more than a third of Chicago’s victories – a higher percentage of his team’s wins than anyone in the NBA, save the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. But unlike Towns, Butler actually led his team to the playoffs. Butler could have again single-handedly carried the Bulls into the playoff race this season, which isn’t nothing.

Perhaps, the prospect of another early postseason exit was no longer appealing. Chicago has gone nine years without a losing record, but has advanced past the second round only once since Michael Jordan’s last championship, reaching the conference finals in Rose’s 2011 MVP season. There would have been nothing wrong with choosing to rebuild in aim of something bigger, and Butler – locked into a team-friendly contract for two more seasons – would have given the Bulls a huge leg up.

Instead, they squandered that elite asset.

Chicago traded Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and moving up from No. 16 to No. 7 in the draft. That last aspect is the cherry on top of an awful trade. The Bulls didn’t even get an additional first-rounder! They gave up their own in a deal that still would have been awful if they hadn’t.

LaVine is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February, a troubling injury for someone whose upside is tied to the athleticism he displayed while winning the last two dunk contests. Chicago will have him for only one year on his cheap rookie-scale contract before paying him market value (or so), either with an extension this summer or in restricted free agency next summer. Maybe the Bulls can get LaVine on a discount due to his knee, but they would be assuming real risk.

What did they see in him to make him the centerpiece of their Butler return?

LaVine has garnered attention by upping his scoring average in three NBA seasons – 10 to 14 to 19 points per game. Though LaVine’s efficiency is solid thanks to a smooth 3-point stroke, his heavy workload under Tom Thibodeau – 37.2 minutes per game, third in the NBA – contributed to LaVine’s impressive traditional statistic. He ranked 37th in points per game, but just 69th in points per possession, which is not so nice.

For all his athleticism, LaVine hasn’t really applied it to defending, rebounding or drawing fouls. His injury raises questions about whether he’ll maintain the athleticism necessary to make a jump. Just 22, LaVine still has time to blossom. But it’s worth acknowledging how one-dimensional he is.

Dunn, the No. 5 pick just last year, is actually older than LaVine. A rough rookie year was particularly disappointing, considering Dunn’s age. He has a way to go before his production warrants playing time, though he’ll see the court to develop – especially on this team.

Lauri Markkanen was a fine pick at No. 7, but the shooting big will have to majorly exceed expectations to make this a worthwhile package for Butler.

After surrendering with the Butler trade, Chicago looked directionless in free agency. Quickly securing Cristiano Felicio on a four-year, $32 million contract might have been commendable last year. In 2017 – a tighter market, especially for restricted free agents and big men – it’s a misread. Justin Holiday looks like decent value on his two-year, $9 million contract. Nikola Mirotic remains a restricted free agent.

Getting a second-rounder for paying a portion of Quincy Pondexter was a wise use of resources. Committing to rebuilding sooner and convincing Dwyane Wade to opt out of his $23.8 million salary would have created more room for similar salary dumps. We’ll never know whether Wade would have gone for that, but he might have.

The saving grace of this offseason: Chicago should be bad. Really bad. Maybe worst-in-the-league bad. That’ll net a high draft pick, unlike the Pacers, who are trying to win a moderate amount after their own flop of a star trade.

But the Bulls could also remain bad for years as they try to build back up. Their young core is lacking, and they don’t have a single extra first-rounder.

They never should have been this destitute after starting the summer with Butler.

Offseason grade: D-

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.