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Are the Bulls Better Off than they Were a Year Ago?

Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson said last week that the team was in a better position than one year ago, so we explore the numbers behind that claim to see if Paxson is correct.

I, like many of you, am cheering passionately for former Bulls Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau, and the Minnesota Timberwolves in this year’s NBA playoffs. Just seeing them play their hearts out last Wednesday to earn a playoff berth in front of a raucous crowd made me jealous. Very jealous.

Sure, Minnesota is the eighth seed and will likely get knocked out by The Beard and Co. in the first round of the playoffs. But at least they have a chance. And as fans, it’s impossible not to feel excitement when your team has even the slimmest of chances to win a championship.

Of course this doesn’t mean I am envying the T-Wolves because I think they won the Butler trade. Quite the opposite in fact. But seeing their success, a team composed of so many ex-Bulls and centered around Jimmy Buckets, makes me ponder the 2017 Bulls.

How good were they really? Could they have earned an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, had Rondo not gotten injured? Were the first two wins in the Boston series indicative of something bigger?

All these reminiscent thoughts really just converge to one main question. Your initial thought might be that I’m questioning the trade of Jimmy Butler. Wrong. No, the summation of a reflection on the 2017 Bulls is that the current Bulls are a vastly different team in so many ways. Therefore, the question is whether or not Chicago is, as a whole, better off than they were at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign.

The important distinction is that it’s not all about the Butler trade. Ask any Bulls fan about my inquiry, and they’ll launch into their analysis of the Butler trade. Most likely they’ll ramble on about LaVine, Markkanen, and Dunn, and forget to discuss everything else that has changed with the team.

Of course the cornerstone of Chicago’s rebuild is the Butler trade, which I’ll analyze. But to truly evaluate the progress, you have to dig deeper.

Butler-related changes

Facebook is presently on trial for delving into users’ data, and I’m happy it’s not Twitter. Why? If they looked, Twitter would unearth multiple direct message conversations from early 2017 in which I argue to hold on to Jimmy Butler.

Even as I was typing, I found myself fairly convinced by the other side, so vehemently defended by our James Fox and others. Looking back, it was the right move.

The sad reality is that the Bulls didn’t possess the conventional means to turn a 41-41 squad into a championship team. Signing one big name, about all Chicago could pull off, is almost certainly not enough to topple the super-teams of today. Instead, something drastic was needed—a rebuild geared towards the days of tomorrow.

That rebuild started in the form of Markkanen, Dunn, and LaVine coming over from Minnesota. One tank season later, John Paxson and Co. are looking at two more heralded prospects to add to their roster via first round NBA draft picks in June.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – OCTOBER 27: Jimmy Butler #23, Karl-Anthony Towns #32, Andrew Wiggins #22, Jeff Teague #0, and Taj Gibson #67 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on October 27, 2017 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s hard to compare Butler to the Bulls’ return apples to apples style, because Chicago is gaining a lot from the tanking resulting from the deal. Dunn and Markkanen performed well by all standards in their first year in Chicago. Conversely, LaVine struggled a bit, but it’s hard to blame him coming off an extensive injury. Each player demonstrated improvement and Butler’s production should be, at minimum, equalized by the trio in the coming seasons.

Add that outlook to the potential of the Bulls’ draft picks, and it’s clear that management secured a return that’s at minimum good, at maximum, amazing.

Examining just the Butler trade, the Bulls are certainly better off than they were last year.

Other changes

Amid the intrigue surrounding Chicago’s core trio all year, other stories received little attention.

Bobby Portis really stood out to me this season. Accounting for the increase in minutes, the big man still improved in points, assists, steals, blocks, and rebounds, accompanying a noticeable rise in confidence. If he played 36 minutes per contest, the Arkansas grad would be averaging 21.1 PPG.

His free throw percentage spiked over 100 points to 76.9%, and his three-point shooting jumped to a 35.9% mark. Advancing those aspects of his game were huge reasons for Portis’ success and consistency.

Now, Chicago has a damn good backup power forward to work with. We can debate if it’s wise to shift him or Markkanen to center in the long run, or perhaps go big with him at small forward. What’s not for debate, though, is that the Bulls are definitely in better shape than last year when it comes to Portis.

On the topic of players with pedestrian rookie years, enter Denzel Valentine. The second-year SG/SF didn’t really turn heads in 2017-18 with the Bulls, but still developed nicely.

Valentine too made strides in his per minute stats, including a respectable 10.2 PPG. Importantly, the former Michigan State Spartan raised his shooting percentage to 41.7%, while boosting his  three-point shooting, his main weapon, from 35.1% in 2016-17 to 38.6% for 2017-18.

While slightly less promising than Portis, Valentine’s outlook is definitely brighter than it was a year ago, and in turn, Chicago’s is too.

Niko Mirotic was stellar in his stint with the Bulls this season, but Paxson and Co. still pulled the trigger on a trade with New Orleans for their first-round pick and some attachments in January.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that neither team got as valuable a return as they wanted. The Pelicans went on a tear without DeMarcus Cousins and ended up fetching Chicago the 22nd pick, who were expecting something closer to 15. Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic returned to Earth in the Big Easy. Though the Pels’ appreciated an uptick in rebounds from Mirotic, they were undoubtedly frustrated with his greatly lower 33.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc and a simultaneous drop in PPG.

In the end, Mirotic was causing a logjam at the power forward spot in the Windy City, so his loss didn’t mean much to the Bulls, especially considering his recent play. Though choosing at 22 wasn’t the original hope, Chicago is happy with another first round selection. All things considered, the Bulls are in slightly better shape on the Mirotic front than they were a year ago.

What else? Fred Hoiberg now coaches a team that much better fits his approach. David Nwaba turned out to be a solid add in free agency. Antonio Blakeney flashed a lot of potential with his G-League dominance. Cameron Payne played better than expected. GarPax seem to be making somewhat better decisions, though my fingers are still crossed.

In total, it’s hard to find areas where Chicago is worse off even outside the Butler trade, especially considering the situation the franchise is in. Cristiano Felicio was disappointing, trading away Jordan Bell was bad, and the Bulls lacked veteran leadership without Wade and Rondo, but those are still minimal hits.

I reason that the Bulls are easily better off than they were a year ago on the non-Butler side of things.

In total

It turns out that digging past the beneficial Butler trade, things still look improved for the Bulls. There’s definitely a long way to go, but the roster and path to a championship are much brighter.

So, yeah, I’m still a little sad to watch the 2018 NBA playoffs from a distance, cheering on a Minnesota team who sports some of my favorite players. And sure, last year’s team won a lot more and gave us fans some postseason excitement.

But this is a franchise revered for championships, not playoff appearances. When you look at it from that perspective, Bulls fans have every reason to be happier than they were a year ago.

Round one might provide some nostalgia now, but my eyes are ultimately fixed on the NBA Finals down the road.

Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Photo


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