Nikola Mirotic posed for pictures with a fan outside the tunnel leading into the Bulls’ locker room. Bobby Portis spoke with a handful of reporters before wishing Bulls PR personnel a happy week off. Jimmy Butler tossed on a red Jumpman sweatsuit and headed to New Orleans for All-Star weekend.
And just like that, about an hour after the Bulls’ 104-103 victory over the Celtics, the locker room was empty. The next time Fred Hoiberg’s group reconvenes, Wednesday at the Advocate Center for practice, the NBA’s trade deadline will be 24 hours away. And the next time the Bulls take to the United Center floor — Feb. 24 against the Suns — the deadline will have passed.
The group that exited the locker room Thursday night after the team’s second straight victory — pulling the Bulls within a game of .500 at 28-29 — could look different than the one that enters it a week from now. With the franchise at a real crossroads at the trade deadline for the first time since the ping-pong balls fell in the team’s favor in the Derrick Rose sweepstakes, all eyes now turn to the front office.
The Bulls’ recent successes leading up to the All-Star break — wins over Boston and Toronto — won’t make the decisions facing Gar Forman and John Paxson any easier. At 28-29 the Bulls are below .500 at the break for the first time since 2010. And while they haven’t had a record above .500 in more than five weeks (Jan. 7, 19-18) they find themselves seventh in the Eastern Conference. Basketball-Reference projects the Bulls to finish sixth in the East, with a 70.7-percent chance of making the postseason. With the Bucks losing Jabari Parker to another torn ACL and the Hornets in free fall, it’s a safe bet that the Bulls’ current group — barring injury to No. 21 — will be back in the playoffs.
But that’s where Forman and Paxson need to assess the worth of a postseason appearance. Yes, the Bulls are 9-8 against the six teams ahead of them in the East, and they’ve earned a win over all but the Hawks this season. But the playoffs are a different animal, and even the most optimistic Bulls projection doesn’t have this current team advancing past the first round.
And with such a top-heavy conference, the Bulls aren’t the only playoff team dangling pieces. The eighth-seeded Pistons have reportedly made Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond available. Paul George’s name has popped up in trade rumors in Indiana, which enters the break in the No. 6 spot. The Knicks went all-in this offseason, acquiring Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, and months later are looking to deal Carmelo Anthony. Even the Hawks, currently fifth in the East, dealt Kyle Korver and had Paul Millsap on the trading block as recently as last month.
It’s why the Bulls coming up in myriad trade reports shouldn’t come as a surprise. Taj Gibson might have the trade deadline named after him by the time his career is over. Doug McDermott and Robin Lopez were rumored to be on the block in exchange for a first-round pick, though that seems unlikely after Serge Ibaka fetched a late first-rounder and reserve guard Terrence Ross.
Impending free agent Mirotic’s name has popped up in trade rumors, while Rajon Rondo appeared a potential plug-in for the Cavaliers last month. As it does everywhere in the league, the rumors have caused a strain of coaches and young players alike.
“The biggest thing, you can’t concern yourself with it. There’s going to be rumors thrown all over the place. That’s jut the era that we live in with all the social-media things and talk shows and everything that throws a lot of scenarios out there,” Fred Hoiberg said before Thursday’s game. “All 30 teams are talking to each other right now. There’s no doubt about that. That’s just how this thing works. Usually not very many things happen, so (we) just try to stay focused on the task at hand.”
The above names won’t move the needle much in the race for the Larry O’Brien trophy, should they be dealt. None of them would bring back anything substantial in the form of helping the Bulls long-term, though Lopez would fetch more than the bag of Cheetos he said his brother, Brook, wanted to trade him for.
Trading Gibson and Mirotic would give the Bulls some security against losing either to free agency for nothing this summer, but that’s about it. Lopez might return value of substance because he’s an affordable center under contract the next two seasons, but the Bulls might want to keep him for that same reason.
Then there’s Butler. The 27-year-old has transformed into one of the league’s best players and is on a team-friendly deal, given the league’s salary-cap explosion the last two seasons. It seems unlikely that Boston, the only real team linked to Butler at the moment, will pony up enough of their assets — both young players and Nets first-round picks — to make the Bulls consider dealing the foundation of their franchise. On one hand, Butler would yield a handful of assets that would mark the beginning of a massive rebuild, one with plenty of pieces to play with.
But every non-contending team would love to rebuild with a 27-year-old All-Star. Butler isn’t Anthony, an overpaid, past-his-prime scorer. He’s not Ibaka, an upcoming free agent more suited as a No. 2 or 3 option. He has peak trade value, but he also has peak value to the Bulls.
In a best-case scenario: If Forman and Paxson can squeeze out a first-round pick for any combination of role players and the Kings continue winning — forcing them to surrender their first-rounder — the Bulls could have three first-round picks in a loaded 2017 draft. If Dwyane Wade opts out of his contract at season’s end, the Bulls would also have the cap space to sign a max free agent, as unlikely as the prospect of one coming to Chicago seems at the moment.
Or Forman and Paxson get what they want from Boston in exchange for Butler. Kevin Love’s knee injury in Cleveland and Toronto’s deal for Ibaka could force Danny Ainge’s hand, as the East appears as wide open as it’s been since LeBron James began his reign atop the conference.
The Nets’ first-round pick would give the Bulls their point guard of the future — Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball top most mock drafts — and potential return players from the Celtics such as Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder have plenty of room to grow.
We’ll know in less than a week what Forman and Paxson decide to do, or perhaps more accurately are able to do. During Thursday’s shootaround, Gibson was asked about his thoughts at the trade deadline and having his name seemingly pop up every year around this time. Gibson’s answer was true for himself, as well as for most Bulls fans anxious to see the direction of the franchise.
“I’ve been around it for a while,” Gibson said. “It’s a business at the end of the day. You just have to be ready for whatever happens.”