Last Friday, the Bulls played the Timberwolves in their only nationally televised game of the year. That game was scheduled for a reason: Over the summer, both teams radically shook up their present and future outlooks with a trade consisting of Jimmy Butler heading to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.
These types of revenge games make for great television, and Bulls-Wolves did not disappoint. LaVine scored a season-high 35 points, Butler dropped 38, Chicago pulled out a comeback win, and one thing was made abundantly clear: Despite the in-the-moment backlash, this is the rare NBA trade involving a major star that has been an unqualified success for both teams.
The Timberwolves landed a star-level veteran to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Chicago, meanwhile, appears to have the makings of a young core of fun players with room to grow. It also possesses good odds of adding another star in the 2018 NBA Draft to accelerate their rebuild.
There was plenty of reason to doubt the deal from the Bulls’ standpoint, starting with their front office’s spotty recent track record and ending with the uncertainty of every piece involved. Dunn was coming off a terrible rookie season in Minnesota, ranking 63rd among point guards in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. LaVine was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the middle of the season, an injury the Bulls know all too well. Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in the draft, was a polarizing NBA prospect.
That the Bulls also gave up their own pick, No. 16 overall, along with an All-NBA player, made the deal an easy target, especially given the fraught history between Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson and Timberwolves head coach and president Tom Thibodeau.
Trading for Butler was a laughably predictable move for Thibodeau, who oversaw his development from a little-used bench wing to an All-Star over four seasons in Chicago. Coaches with personnel control tend to favor the familiar, and the bond between Butler and Thibodeau was particularly tight.
But in this case, doing the predictable thing was also doing the right thing. Butler is that good, and at the time, it appeared that Thibodeau got him from the Bulls for pennies on the dollar. LaVine still had star potential, but coming off a serious knee injury, the questions about his long-term upside were more pronounced than they had been previously.