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NBA AM: The Bulls Should Explore Trades

With Bobby Portis proving he’s ready for rotational minutes now, Chicago may need to explore a frontcourt trade.

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Bobby Portis is good, and Taj Gibson is expendable. That’s the lesson we’ve learned from watching the Chicago Bulls throughout the preseason this fall.

It isn’t as simple as that, obviously, as very few rookies (especially rookies outside of the lottery) step into their first NBA season ready to take the league completely by storm. However, the Bulls had arguably the deepest frontcourt rotation in the league even before the draft. Now, with Portis in the mix too, one has to wonder how much depth they really need there.

To be clear, Portis could in no way immediately replace Gibson, who for the last two seasons has averaged over 10 points per game and six rebounds per game while playing roughly 27 minutes a night. While Portis is averaging a preseason double-double with 12.2 points and 10.4 rebounds (fifth and first among rookies, respectively), that comes with both Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol playing fewer than 20 minutes per game and Gibson playing fewer than 10 per game. Still, it’s impressive that Portis has posted these numbers while averaging just 24.8 minutes per game himself.

Obviously, those same minutes won’t be there for Portis when the regular season starts, but his dominant and efficient play for Chicago during the preseason certainly has raised some questions about how much playing time he should get, despite being the fifth-best guy in the big man rotation.

Even Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has said publicly that Portis is making rotation decisions challenging. Especially considering the team’s thin swing rotation, it could be worth exploring whether Gibson and his extremely reasonable contract are worth cashing out for something a little more useful to the team. Gibson’s deal is for two more years, paying him $8,500,000 this season and $8,950,000 next year.

Long before the 2015 preseason got underway – and even before the 2015 NBA Draft – there was reason for the Bulls to consider trading Gibson. After a season in which rookie Nikola Mirotic averaged 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 three-pointers made behind starters Noah and Gasol, it was obvious by the spring that he would need a bigger role in the year that followed.

Now, Portis is demanding minutes of his own and Gibson looks like he could be the odd man out. This year, Chicago has over $36 million tied up in their backcourt of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose and while Noah might not make $13.4 million again next season after exploring free agency, the team will very likely consider bringing him back. Meanwhile, Gibson and Gasol don’t face free agency until the summer of 2017 (assuming Gasol declines to pick up his player option worth just shy of $8 million, which could potentially happen if he plays at an All-Star level again this season). Mirotic is clearly around for the long haul, so this isn’t a one-year problem. This logjam could conceivably exist for the next two seasons.

All of that waiting seems like a waste not only of Portis’ talent but of Gibson’s as well, though that’s nothing new for the latter.

When Gibson was initially given his four-year, $38 million extension back in 2012, the idea was that he would help bridge the gap at power forward between the end of the Carlos Boozer era and the ascent of Mirotic, who hadn’t been signed yet at that time. Inking Gasol last summer changed that trajectory and kept Gibson in a rotational role, so now he’s 30 years old and facing a few injury concerns. If he’s ever going to have his shot at being a productive NBA starter, now is the time for him to be given that chance.

Now might also be a good time to pull the trigger on a deal because a year from now, there may be significantly fewer reasonable contracts out there for which Gibson could fairly be traded. Or maybe Chicago will decide that a player of his talent and fair price tag is too strong an asset to ship away just because some rookie is lighting up his preseason appearances. The Bulls have no idea if Portis is for real, no matter how many signs exist that he is, and with Noah facing both injury concerns and free agency, perhaps he’d be the more logical trade option.

Whatever happens, something has to give with this Chicago frontcourt. Gibson was a value draft selection and absolutely should not have been passed over for a lesser talent at a more convenient position, but it puts Gar Forman in a weird position of trying to figure out what to do with his five capable NBA big men. It’s a talented and versatile group, but with a depleted swing rotation and a starting point guard nearly guaranteed to miss 30+ games for some ailment or another, the Bulls have other needs they have to address. A man can only amass so much jelly before he needs to look into getting his paws on some peanut butter.

With all of this being said, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Chicago to stand pat with this rotation and let Portis play sparingly as he earns his stripes as a rook. Gibson and Noah are coming off seasons in which they battled off a number of different ailments, and with all the minutes Gasol played last year and this summer in international play, he can’t be counted on at his age either. Maybe the Bulls will need both Gibson and Portis to keep that rotation as strong as it has been, but “maybe” is a hard thing to count on when a championship window is closing.

That’s why the time is right for the Bulls to explore trading a piece of their frontcourt. Even without Portis it was something they could have considered, but with the depth they have now, it looks almost like a necessity.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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