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.
The move was a no-brainer for Minnesota, and Butler has been every bit as good as advertised. The Timberwolves have the NBA’s third-best offense, behind only Golden State and Houston, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
And as was the case in Chicago, Butler’s on-court impact has been astronomical in Minnesota, the difference between and contender and a bottom-feeder. When he’s on the floor this season, the Wolves outscore opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions; when he’s on the bench, they’re outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions.
Along with fellow Chicago holdover and Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson, Butler has brought an edge and intensity to what had been a young group in search of its identity. He’s been exactly the do-it-all, go-to perimeter scorer he was for the Bulls.
After two disappointing seasons following Thibodeau’s departure from Chicago, the Bulls needed a fresh start. Butler had clashed repeatedly with first-time head coach Fred Hoiberg, and some questionable roster construction, like the ill-fated Rajon Rondo/Dwyane Wade “Three Alphas” experiment, had prevented the coach from running the kind of uptempo offense he wanted.
So the Bulls pulled the plug, trading Butler to Minnesota for what at first looked like an underwhelming return. Thus far, it has been anything but.
Markkanen looks like a future star. He’s started all 51 games he’s played in his rookie season for the Bulls, and the three-point range he flashed in his freshman season at Arizona is there. He’s shooting 35.4 percent from deep on 6.3 attempts per game at age 20, with a quick release that’s allowed that skill to translate.
Further, his rebounding and shot-creating ability are further along than anyone could have expected this early on. With his shooting ability at seven feet, he’s the ideal power forward for Hoiberg’s offense, and the early results have been revelatory. If he isn’t a franchise player, Markkanen is at least a second option on the contender the Bulls hope to one day become.
LaVine has been predictably up-and-down in his 14 games back from the injury, but he’s rounded into form in February, averaging 22.4 points per game while shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range. And as he showed in the game against the Timberwolves, he’s exactly the kind of big-moment shot creator the Bulls were lacking before his return, the type of player that most great teams have.
Dunn has been the real revelation, following a rookie season he himself would admit left a lot to be desired. Before suffering the concussion that kept him out for 11 games, Dunn had made strides on both sides of the ball.
Without him, Hoiberg has been forced to rely on the likes of Jerian Grant and Ryan Arcidiacono at point guard, which has both helped them in their lottery efforts and made clear Dunn’s value. He still doesn’t project as a star, but after his rookie season, being on track to be a solid rotation player is a win.
The Bulls’ unexpected December winning streak may have temporarily hurt their lottery odds, but it also gave their young players an opportunity to taste success and build real chemistry and continuity, which may matter more in the long run for a rebuilding team than a few extra lottery balls in what looks to be a loaded draft class.
What the Bulls do with this core the rest of the year won’t matter much. After trading Nikola Mirotic, re-inserting Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio into the rotation and teasing Cameron Payne’s imminent return to the lineup in recent weeks, they are fully in tank mode. The race to the bottom of the standings is a tight one with Phoenix, Sacramento, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Orlando and the Lakers also in the mix.
The Bulls are still focused on landing a coveted top pick in the draft, and they have the personnel to accomplish it. But what their young core has shown this year is that they won’t have to struggle for too much longer.
It’s impossible to say from this vantage point whether any of the Bulls’ young players, or the one they will select in June, will ever become as good as Butler. It’s unlikely, but Butler took several years to develop into the player he is. The Bulls are banking on that kind of development again, while the Timberwolves are reaping the benefits in the present. Both sides should be happy with their end of the bargain.