When the Chicago Bulls traded Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow at the deadline, it appeared Bulls management had decided to start over. But a look at Chicago’s young players in increased roles since the All-Star break hints that the Bulls’ front office had a plan more nuanced than “blow it up.”
“[We’re] building with Jimmy,” Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson told The Associated Press. While some observers considered a Jimmy Butler trade the inevitable next step in an impending rebuild, Paxson insisted that Chicago is determined to put the right pieces around the team’s star.
At first blush, the trade was absurdly lopsided. After all, Chicago gave up its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer in Gibson, and second-leading three-point shooter in McDermott for three players on the fringes of OKC’s rotation. Payne missed time due to a right foot fracture. In only 320 minutes this season, the Thunder were outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Payne on court, a team-worst net rating. Morrow is a career journeyman, and Lauvergne has yet to crack an NBA rotation.
So how is the trade defensible? How could anyone possibly ascribe a rational thought process to Chicago’s front office? The answer lies in both changes in role and an overall commitment to a new style of play. While Gibson was productive throughout his time in Chicago, his inability to connect on shots away from the basket allowed defenders to sag in the lane and clog potential driving lanes. With Chicago ranking dead last in three-point percentage — and with noted slashers Butler and Dwyane Wade on the roster — Gibson’s inability to knock down midrange shots was incompatible with one of Chicago’s main strengths.
In the modern era, teams are often successful when they surround a single interior player with four teammates that can hit from outside. Looking at the numbers, within 8 feet of the basket, Gibson has been efficient, hitting 231 of 382 shots (60.5 percent) this season. From eight to 24 feet, Gibson has shot just 61-for-178 (34 percent).
So the big decision for Bulls management was whether to continue to pair Gibson with Robin Lopez, another player who produces primarily on the inside. With Gibson entering free agency, Chicago knew it would have to make a significant financial commitment this summer to keep Gibson in a Bulls uniform. The deciding factors were likely Lopez’ contract status (signed through 2019 for a reasonable $14 million per season) and the comparative diversity of his shot profile.
Inside 8 feet, Lopez has connected on 178 of 342 shots (52 percent), a far less efficient clip than Gibson. However, Lopez distinguishes himself in the midrange. From eight to 24 feet, Lopez has shot 106-for-243 (44 percent). Neither percentage is exceptional, but both are respectable. This means you have to guard Lopez at more spots on the floor than Gibson. And that appears to be the decision that Bulls management made. They made a lopsided trade in terms of production, but it opens up driving lanes just as Al Horford’s arrival in Boston has done for Isaiah Thomas.
While moving on from Gibson isn’t going to suddenly make the Bulls a competent three-point shooting team, the organization made a commitment to spacing that is forward thinking. In addition to this shift in philosophy, Chicago also committed to an expanded role for its young players. While a five-game sample since the All-Star break is too small from which to draw firm conclusions, Thursday’s upset of Golden State combined with Saturday’s loss to the Clippers provided an interesting glimpse at both the potential and limitations of Chicago’s youth movement.
Payne opened the second quarter against Golden State with three straight floaters — the lefty’s preferred shot — hitting two. Payne also had a nice shovel pass to Paul Zipser in semi-transition for a layup, part of a 10-2 Bulls run before halftime. Overall, Payne’s on/off numbers in 52 minutes as a Bull have been just as bad as they were in OKC. But the Bulls got a prospect on a rookie scale contract rather than seeing Gibson walk in free agency without compensation.
Zipser, a 23-year-old rookie from Heidelberg, Germany, showed control with a single bounce to keep from traveling on Payne’s assist. Later in the second, he faked a three to get Klay Thompson in the air, then hit a pull-up from just inside the arc. Zipser showed nice body control again as he recovered a ball Pat McCaw knocked loose from Wade, fired it back to Wade, then cut to the basket for a double-clutch layup.
The greatest beneficiary of Gibson’s exodus is Bobby Portis. As Brent Barry noted on the broadcast, Portis has spent over 51 percent of his minutes this season at center. With Gibson gone, Portis will now platoon with Nikola Mirotic to give the Bulls a pair of stretch four options. Portis scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting with six rebounds in the first half of the win over Golden State.
The second half featured a 10-0 Bulls run in the third quarter which included a pair of midrange jumpers by Lopez. This restart for Chicago also appears to have rejuvenated Rajon Rondo, who took advantage of the improved spacing to slash to the basket while also igniting the fast break. Mirotic had a corner three off a feed from Rondo, then drove to the basket and dropped it off to Cristiano Felicio for a dunk that put the Bulls ahead 84-79 with 7:19 to play in the third.
The fourth quarter showed both Chicago’s newfound commitment to spacing and the mixed results the team will likely continue to see. The Bulls shot 1-for-9 on threes in the fourth as Golden State briefly retook the lead at 85-84. But the Warriors missed nine straight threes in the quarter as Chicago added a win over the Durantless Warriors to its previous post-All Star win over the LeBronless Cavaliers. The most interesting thing was Fred Hoiberg’s lineup in the final three minutes of a back-and-forth game: Wade, Felicio, Butler, Zipser, and Portis.
The loss to the Clippers showed not only the limitations of Chicago’s youth movement at its current stage, but the limitations of the veterans the Bulls added during the past offseason. Although Jamal Crawford would punish Zipser in the second half with one of his non-guardable games, it was the inability of Wade and Butler to fight through screens and guard J.J. Redick on switches that kept the game from being closer than it could have been.
And while Chris Paul repeatedly picked on Jerian Grant — the promising point guard who leads Chicago in three-point percentage — Rondo looked a lot less poised against the Clippers. After trusting the youngsters with the GSW game on the line, Hoiberg opted to go with a veteran-heavy lineup with Portis joining Wade, Butler, Rondo and Lopez after Hoiberg pulled Grant six minutes in. The substitution patterns appeared to work, as Chicago led 61-55 at halftime with 23 points from the second unit. L.A. entered the game with four losses in five games since the break and appeared a step slow on the second night of a back-to-back.
While the Bulls lived on second chance and transition buckets in the first half, the Clippers tightened their defense and elevated their energy in the second. Chicago’s platoon of point guards was obviously no match for Paul. And while Portis shows promise, starting opposite a healthy Griffin is a reality check for any power forward. Mirotic and shooting guard Denzel Valentine had nice moments toward the end of the game but it was too little, too late. Of all the young Bulls to benefit from the post-trade minutes’ redistribution, Valentine has made the most of it. His +10.5 net rating after the All-Star break leads the team and is almost six points better than Butler, who is second at +4.6. It’s only a five-game, 110-minute sample for Valentine, but he only played 401 minutes through 32 games before the All-Star break.
The Gibson trade wasn’t so much hitting the reset button as reimagining what the Bulls can be. Chicago is building, not rebuilding. With Lopez and Butler under contract for two more seasons and numerous developing options at point guard, power forward and on the wing, look for the Bulls to be players again in free agency this summer. If Wade declines his option, Chicago could have the cap space to court current Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap. If not, the Bulls could make a play in 2018 for potential restricted free agent Rodney Hood. So back down off that ledge, Bulls fans. The future looks brighter than almost anyone suspected.
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