The Chicago Bulls have a point guard problem. This isn’t new. It’s been an issue for almost a decade, and its existence seemingly continues to linger.
Some will disagree, believing Coby White can develop into a quality offensive creator, perhaps as soon as this season. There’s also the upcoming draft. LaMelo Ball or Killian Hayes may have the tools to solve the problem.
Either pathway could end the Bulls’ long-term playmaking woes. At this point, though, both are theoretical, untested options which can only be proven in time.
Trouble is, this Bulls rebuild doesn’t have long left.
Some may view such a statement as bold, unnecessary hyperbole. This is, after all, a rebuild. This is meant to be a long, arduous process. Patience is needed. In years past, fans had the right to wait. And they did.
Now, though, entering year four of the rebuild, the clock is ticking.
Again, that may seem like an outlandish comment, but is it? I don’t think so. Not when you consider Lauri Markkanen is extension eligible this offseason, as is Zach LaVine. Despite the youthfulness of certain members of the franchise, seismic roster decisions are coming soon. Hell, they may already be here.
Moreover, how long can this rebuilding experiment continue without real, substantive improvement? It’s already been three years with no discernable growth. One more bad season and this Bulls rebuild suddenly will be on a similar timeline to the Process-era Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers were heavily maligned for their rebuilding approach. Despite this, they returned to the postseason during the fifth season of a systematic teardown. Jarring as it sounds, should the Bulls put together another forgettable season, that will be four consecutive seasons without any semblance of reaching the playoffs. In such a scenario, the Bulls would be hoping to mimic the Process Sixers, albeit without their own version of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
This is why the upcoming season is so crucial. Now is the time to understand what you have, what you don’t, and what needs to change. And the only way to truly answer such questions is to give this young squad every chance of succeeding. That is only possible by equipping the franchise with that it’s been without for years — an offensive maestro directing the offense.
This need can’t be addressed in the draft. Not immediately, at least. White also isn’t close to being a functional playmaker for others. For the sake of this wayward rebuild and its players, the Bulls need a readymade solution.
Fortunately, a good, realistic option will be available in the trade market, one the Bulls need to seriously explore — trading for OKC Thunder guard Chris Paul.
Why trading for Paul is the move
Any team engaging in a full scale rebuild is set to have a plethora of roster deficiencies. The Bulls are no exception to this rule. While we can point to countless flaws across the team and rebuild to date, the most glaring — yet somehow overlooked — mistake centres around the decision to rebuild around two young big men, only to compound such a move by offering these players zero credible on-ball creation.
Actively choosing to invest time and resources in Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, Cameron Payne etc. as the budding ‘point guards of the future’ was such an obvious malpractice. The cost extends far beyond their own failure.
Really, is it any wonder that Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter have struggled to find their place within an NBA offense when all they’ve known is erroneous guard play?
I’m repeating myself, but this needs to be emphasised: drafting and commencing a rebuild around two young, inexperienced big men — players who undoubtedly need the bulk of their offense created for them — and actively choosing to pair these players with one of the worst backcourt rotations is truly unforgivable. All during a time the league shifted its collective ethos to utilising as many perimeter options on the floor as possible!
Does this reality excuse subpar performances from Markkanen and Carter? Well, no. Not entirely, at least. They should own their shortcomings, of which there are many. But, please, let’s also not pretend the scope of their career looks very different if they were drafted into a program that valued offensive creation.
Mercifully, we no longer have to convince ourselves that Dunn could perhaps develop into a competent offensive initiator. That dance is done. Now we tap our toes in hope that the current combination of Zach LaVine and Coby White can develop into something more than individual scoring threats.
Maybe it happens. Maybe one (or both) of these players develop their ability to read and control an offense. I wouldn’t bet on it. Nor would I wager the development of Markkanen, Carter, and the rest of the team on this chance.
Don’t interpret that prediction as a slight. If the career scope for LaVine and White is as bonafide scorers, that’s entirely fine! There’s value in this archetype of player. That being so, this gives even more credence to the argument: the Bulls really need to trade for Chris Paul.
The Bulls’ lack of instinctive backcourt playmaking is so severe it could derail the entire rebuild. That’s how significant the problem is, and it won’t be immediately solved by promoting White or drafting Ball or Hayes, either.
Are the Bulls prepared to wait for one (or more) of these guards to figure out how to run an offense, at the expense of those around them?
Would that not be an ironic dose of history repeating?
The Bulls need an experienced, creative pick-and-roll operator. Without one, it will be virtually impossible for Billy Donovan to maximise Markkanen and Carter within a halfcourt offense. That needs to happen as soon as possible, preferably before the Bulls look to make long-term financial commitments to either player.
On some level, the same is true for LaVine and White. While both guards have little problem netting their own score, it’s not fair to ask these players to be the catalyst of an entire offense if they’re not naturally built for it. Furthermore, their development will be stunted if asked to do too much, as will their perception and value around the league.
LaVine perfectly illustrates this point. To some, he remains a maligned talent, someone who can never be part of a winning team due to his affinity for getting up shots while doing little else. Of course, that’s complete and utter horseshit, but that perception exists.
Know how to change it? Yes, you guessed it.
By adding Paul — someone who can orchestrate the first 16 seconds of the offense for everyone — it allows LaVine to focus on finishing offensive possessions rather than initiating one. Doing so would entirely change his narrative. Additionally, it would also allow more time to hone his offensive craft more so as an off-the-ball threat, something he’s had no real chance to do during his time in Chicago.
And why would he? Is it really feasible to ask LaVine to give up the ball and fly around screens in a Klay Thompson-esque role, only to have Dunn, Grant, Payne et al. aimlessly dribbling the leather off the ball?
Of course not.
Last season, almost 40 percent of LaVine’s offense was generated from pullup jumpers, a figure that is more than double his attempts on catch-and-shoot opportunities (14.8 percent). Moreover, 59 percent of his three-point attempts came after at least one dribble.
So much of LaVine’s offense is generated during ball-pounding, isolation-heavy sequences. That isn’t uncommon for most versatile offensive weapons. Still, it’s hard to ignore what could be if more diversity entered his game.
Some will blame that on LaVine, suggesting he is too egotistical to share the ball. Again, I call bullshit. The truth: it’s entirely a product of the garbage teams he’s played on, with so little talent and support around him.
Trade for Paul and watch LaVine adapt. He can because he has so much untapped potential as either a stationary catch-and-shoot weapon or, perhaps more devastating, as an athletic, offball threat who creates gravity with swift movements without ball in hand. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we ever get to see this version of LaVine if he remains the most credible pick-and-roll option the Bulls field on the floor.
Adding Paul would greatly alter LaVine’s role and shooting distribution, and would only enhance his offensive ability.
The above logic is applicable to White, too, given the similarity and crossover between their natural offensive tendencies. More relevant, though, White already shares a bond with Paul that extends beyond the court. Given this connection, who better to mentor White as he progresses through his sophomore season? Who better for White to study point guard artistry than Paul? This is how you teach young guards to be a playmaker. The Thunder did exactly that with Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Paul and Donovan relationship also matters here, too. Their bond as point guards and basketball junkies was obvious throughout the Thunder’s unexpected success. Continuing that dynamic in Chicago would allow Paul to carry Donovan’s message on the floor, forcing the rest of the young Bulls to follow.
Schematically, too, the Bulls and Thunder share several synergies. Like the Bulls, the Thunder had few credible options on the wing. They overcame this flaw by relying heavily on 3-guard lineups — the 3-man combination of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder led the league in net rating.
By reuniting player and coach, the 3-guard principle could easily be transferred to Chicago by casting LaVine and White as facsimiles to Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder, with Paul reprising his role as the lead creator.
Would the Bulls’ 3-guard iteration lead the league in net nating, just as it did in OKC? Probably not. But that shouldn’t detract from the efficacy and potential of this unit. Taking this thought experiment one step further, Markkanen and Carter acting as the Bulls’ version of Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, respectively, also makes a lot of sense.
Beyond the obvious comparisons that exist between the Bulls and Thunder, the true worth in adding Paul is the significant boost in on-court execution during crucial, fourth quarter moments.
To this point, notably, no team posted a better fourth quarter net rating than Thunder. Meanwhile in Chicago, the Bulls ranked 22nd in net rating during the final period. Drilling this down specifically to clutch moments within a game, again, the Thunder led the league in net rating, while the Bulls languished in 25th.
Attributing all of the Thunder’s late-game success to Paul wouldn’t be fair, but there’s no denying his influence. It’s also no surprise that a young Bulls team coached by Jim Boylen, with no real quality playmaking options, faltered so heavily when it mattered. Now, throw Paul and Donovan in the mix, and suddenly this proposition could mean a material difference.
For instance, think about all the times the Bulls routinely were blown out in second halves last season. Now, add in the few games they remained close late into the fourth, only for them to crumble when it mattered.
It’s hard to confidently say how many games the Bulls realistically lost due to late-game execution, so let’s just roll with “a fucking lot.” Take those same scenarios, add in Paul, and push the rest of the young Bulls roster into roles which require less responsibility and nous. It wouldn’t be a leap to suggest many outcomes favourably change. And in a often weak Eastern Conference, that can be the difference between sneaking into the postseason and finishing 12th.
This is how you develop players, by supporting them with professionals during key moments within a game. That is what a Paul trade represents: a legitimate opportunity for growth in games that matter. It would also be the first real step forward in rebuilding the credibility of a once storied franchise.
The perceived opportunity cost
If you haven’t picked up on it, then allow me to admit it here: I have a deep affinity for Chris Paul. Still, even I can admit that there are legitimate risks in trading for a small, ageing guard who is owed $85.6 million over the next two seasons. Perhaps that would be a more severe risk if Paul had a noticeable decline last season. Instead, the future hall of famer landed a spot on an All-NBA team. It’s hard to imagine he falls off hard anytime soon.
Sure, there are legitimate concerns surrounding Paul’s contract. For many, however, this issue extends beyond how much Paul will be paid, and more so the ramifications it will have on a team’s cap position.
There’s true franchise-altering talent potentially available in the 2021 free agent class. Fortuitously, as currently constructed, the Bulls have a relatively easy path in creating enough cap space to entice at least one max-level free agent. With additional, calculated moves, two max-level slots could theoretically be generated.
Playing the free agency game has traditionally yielled little for the Bulls. That will likely remain the case in one years time. It also could work. Unlikely, but maybe it does. We won’t know until we do.
Something we do know: Paul has a $44.2 million player option for 2022, one he most certainly will opt into. Doing so drastically diminishes any chance of the Bulls creating max space. Add in the guaranteed contracts already on roster and the task becomes implausible.
Despite being one of the greatest point guards of all time, those that are vehemently against acquiring Paul during the twilight of his career aren’t wrong if they believe in the pursuit of grandeur. That dream disappears with Paul. As such, that is the opportunity cost — risk landing a prize via free agency for a player closer to retirement than his prime.
On the surface, it’s a good argument. But how big a risk is this, really?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the recruit. He changes the scope of any team he joins. You don’t trade for Paul if you’re confident you can sway Antetokounmpo in free agency. But let’s be serious and objective for one moment. Why would he choose Chicago? This team isn’t remotely close to contending. Meanwhile, there are viable championships threats all over the league already manipulating their salary structure to have enough cap space to lure the reigning two-time MVP?
At present, the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, and Dallas Mavericks are all clearly positioning themselves for a play on Antetokounmpo. All three can create max space. Of course, all of this assumes he will be a free agent. The Milwaukee Bucks and their supermax deal may ice these plans.
The Bulls will not beat any of these teams for Giannis’ signature. No chance.
Anthony Davis is set to be a free agent during this offseason period. He will most likely sign a new deal that contains a two-plus-one term, which allows the Chicago-born product to hit the free agent market in 2022 when he’s eligible to sign a max contract which pays 35 percent of the cap. Scratch Davis off the list.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have opt-out clauses within their deals. Should they do so, opting out will make both headline acts during free agency. Whilst it’s hard to predict what either will do given the calamitous ending to their playoff run during the Bubble, the Clippers still remain a viable championship threat. Should they get close to — or even win — the title next season, would either really agree to leave their home state to come play for a rebuilding Bulls team?
Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Bam Adebayo may technically be free agents in 2021. Practically speaking, though, all three are receiving max extensions from their incumbent team. Lock that in now.
All of the names noted above are the caliber of player the Bulls so desperately need. For that reason, I understand why playing the free agency game has its appeal. The counter, however, is that none of these players enter free agency, and if they do, much better options exist outside of Chicago.
Should such a scenario materialise, the Bulls would be left with millions to spend on soon-to-be fading veterans such as Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward, Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake Griffin. That, or choose to overpay for Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, or Kelly Oubre Jr.
That’s the fallback position. It’s also the most likely scenario. Is that worth passing up on a trade that sends Paul to Chicago?
The actual opportunity cost
For a moment, let’s assume the Bulls largely keep things as is, doing little during this offseason to limit the impact on their cap position for 2021. In such a scenario, the Bulls would essentially be taking the same roster from last season — plus their No. 4 pick draftee — and hoping it can be freed by simply replacing Boylen with Donovan.
I overwhelmingly supported hiring Donovan. It was the right move. And whilst I believe he will be a massive upgrade over the Bad Bald Man, I’m not expecting his presence alone to solve the structural flaws of the roster should the status quo remain.
Don’t get it twisted. The Bulls will be better under Donovan. But by how much?
Will it be enough to change the perception of this floundering rebuild? To regenerate the value of once notable trade assets? To entice a marquee free agent to choose this young Chicago roster over better, win-now situations?
Despite the positive momentum gained by hiring Donovan and new lead executives Arturas Karnisovas and Mark Eversley, at present, the larger, holistic roster questions still remain.
Despite this, we should expect the Bulls to take steps forward next season. But it will be capped. Without an experienced leader guiding the offense, winning 31-34 games and missing the playoffs is a realistic outcome. This isn’t acceptable after three years of painful rebuilding.
Collecting young players who have proven nothing and hoping their potential is enough to court a free agent is a faint way to mount a legitimate bid in free agency. If that doesn’t work and the end result nets nothing substantive in the player market, another wasted rebuilding season is the real opportunity cost in passing up on a trade for Paul. Ironically, such a scenario is reminiscent of the GarPax tenure.
Sure, trading for Paul is the conversative, risk averse move. It also means less leverage in free agency. That is hard to deny. So is this: Every single player on the roster will be better by playing with Paul, a fact that will dramatically alter the course of this rebuild.
That’s hugely important. The entire arc of Markkanen’s career can be defined by being paired with the right backcourt partner. It could legitimately shape the decision surrounding his next deal, be that with the Bulls or otherwise. As noted above, the perception of LaVine can dramatically shift. As future pillars for the Bulls or as valuable trade pieces, all of this matters.
The only way to truly know how good the youth of this team can be is to place them in the best possible situation. Playing with a legendary guard, albeit one who will be declining, is exactly that.
Let’s make a deal
Many teams will be hoping to land a marquee free agent in 2021. The Bulls have an opportunity to add an All-NBA caliber player now. More importantly, they have the necessary pieces to make a deal happen.
Despite Paul having an impressive season for the Thunder, his contract status negates his value, as does his age. That will limit what OKC can expect in trade. At this point, with the Thunder likely to enter into their own rebuild, let’s assume Sam Presti would settle for a nominal draft concession and cap relief — such a scenario looked unlikely when they acquired Paul prior to last season.
The Bulls are well positioned to pay the price if this is all it will cost.
To make the money work, it all starts with Otto Porter Jr. opting into the final year of his deal. This is the only plausible way to match Paul’s incoming $41.4 million salary. Porter, who has a player option on the final year of his deal, stands to land a $28.5 million paycheck next season. Due to his recent injury history, it’s safe to assume he will bank guaranteed coin.
The delta between the money owed to Paul and Porter is $12.9 million. Bulls forward Thaddeus Young is conveniently owed $13.5 million next season. He also happens to have a partial guarantee on the final year of his deal, thus providing the Thunder even more cap relief in 2021.
Combining the value of Porter and Young’s expiring contracts ($42 million), the Bulls would be sending out slightly more than Thunder ($41.4 million). This isn’t an issue, as the trade easily falls within the league’s salary matching rules.
The dollars align. All that’s left to haggle over is draft concessions.
Should the Bulls add Paul, their No. 4 pick, and whoever they sign with the mid-level exception, there’s a legitimate chance that squad pushes toward the playoffs. In such a scenario, adding a lottery-protected first-round pick (2021) is something the Bulls should be confident in parting with.
In the above proposal, should a Paul-led Bulls squad miss out on the playoffs next season, they keep their 2021 pick. However, if things break right and the Bulls reach the postseason, the pick conveys to the Thunder, likely in the 16-to-19 range.
At that point, this question must be asked: is a middling first-round pick worth Paul, a postseason berth, and the best possible chance to fully assess what this roster can be with the leader and creator it so desperately needs?
This opinionated CP3 stan says yes.