The Bulls’ front office swears it has a plan.
That’s not an easy sell for many after what took place Thursday.
With the 2 p.m. trade deadline ticking down, the Bulls agreed to deal Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for point guard Cameron Payne, big man Joffrey Lauvergne and forward -Anthony Morrow.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler stayed, despite the Boston Celtics’ efforts to pry the three-time All-Star from the grips of vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman.
The Sun-Times has reported since the draft in June that while the Bulls were open to taking calls on Butler, they never were shopping him. According to a source, that remained true during the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, with the Bulls asking for the world from the Celtics. That included multiple picks and core players, which would have crippled the team’s foundation.
Paxson downplayed the offers for Butler, and he wouldn’t commit to the two-way standout for the long term.
“Right now, today, Jimmy is on our roster,” Paxson said. “This league is fluid, and things can change quickly.
“I’ve always felt this way about team building and a team in general: There are very few guys who you build around. This is a team game. You build with players. We are building with Jimmy right now. Maybe outside of a handful of guys who ever played this game, you build with players, not around one.”
That’s where Payne — who was the 14th overall pick in the 2015 draft — comes in, according to Paxson. The 22-year-old played behind MVP candidate Russell Westbrook the last two seasons, so minutes were hard to come by. But even so, there were some red flags with the 6-3 playmaker coming out of Murray State.
The knock on him by several scouts was he was quick “but not real athletic.” He has been an inconsistent outside shooter in the NBA (32 percent on three-point shots), and he has broken his foot twice.
So why the head-scratching?
The Bulls’ best three-point shooter was McDermott, who was hitting 37 percent from the outside this season and 39 percent for his career. Coincidentally, they gave up two first-round picks to acquire McDermott in the 2014 draft.
The other concern with this deal is the loss up front. The Bulls’ strength was the physical play of the frontline with Gibson and Robin Lopez. The Bulls somewhat lessened that by removing Gibson. Yes, he has an expiring contract, but he always played the good soldier and was open to returning to the Bulls in free agency. More importantly, Gibson helped establish what remained of a dwindling culture.
Morrow and Lauvergne can be free agents this summer, so the Bulls can at least take that money off the books.
But for the immediate future, with Gibson out of the picture, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic will compete for minutes. Neither has shown he can be a consistent NBA starter. Gar-Pax swore there was a plan, but it needed “time.’’
“We’re taking steps to get better, and we’re trying to do it in a way that’s, maybe it’s methodical, but we’re not going to try to reinvent things,” Paxson said. “We’ve got a plan in place, we talked about it last year.
“And now we’re going to get some of our young guys minutes to play and see if they can grow as a team. And we’ll see if they can make significant impacts and become a better basketball team.”
Paxson added that not only was his job safe, but so were Forman’s and coach Fred Hoiberg’s.
As for Gibson, he remained the ultimate professional.
“Just being able to put on a Bulls jersey and every day I came to the locker room and saw my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true,” Gibson said.
He also didn’t rule out returning this summer.
“I’m open to coming back at the right price,” Gibson said. “The NBA is going to be open this summer. It’s going to be a huge number of teams looking. But at the same time, Chicago’s going to be in my heart.”
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