Franchises stumble out the gate every NBA season, and that leads to a cacophony of voices making the case that it is time to blow it up.
That reaction can be correct, or at least more correct than the team staying where it is. Yet it is important to differentiate how and why those decisions should be made while also acknowledging that true teardowns happen far less in reality for a variety of reasons.
This exercise will focus on the Chicago Bulls, a playoff team from last season that currently sits 21-24 and 10th in the Eastern Conference. The concepts, however, apply to other situations.
Typically speaking, there are two primary benefits to a sell-off for an NBA team: The assets they get from trading away contributors and improving their draft picks. There are other potential positives, such as opening up time to evaluate young players, and owners can appreciate lower costs but better draft capital. What they acquire in trades are the major selling points from a team-building perspective.
The Bulls are a particularly intriguing test case for the second selling point because of their existing obligations. Typically, I analyze this component with the question, “How bad would they be the rest of the way?” But since Chicago owes its first-round pick to the Orlando Magic (unless it ends up in the top four), a better question may be, “What would they gain draft-wise for this year if they sell off?” The Bulls are three games under .500 with a negative point differential, below their expectation but still well ahead of the weakest teams in the league.
Beyond that, there is the matter of that protected pick. Thanks to the NBA’s lottery reform, even the team with the league’s worst record only has a 52.1 percent chance of securing a top-four selection; that drops to 48.1 percent for the fourth-worst record and more sharply after that.
Furthermore, the Bulls trading away enough players to get down there and then retaining their pick weakens the roster enough that it becomes more likely that they send Orlando a strong selection in 2024 when the pick is top-three protected. (Note: If the Bulls retain the pick in both 2023 and ’24, they instead trade the Magic two second-round picks; that’s a big drop-off.)
A significantly reduced draft incentive is only part of the equation, though, and the other side is fascinating for the Bulls since they have three different players who have made All-Star teams in the last three seasons: DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević.
• DeRozan’s situation is the most straightforward. While the midrange maestro is already 33, he earned an All-NBA selection last season and makes a team-friendly $28.6 million next season. But the question is more how strong the haul would be for him rather than whether or not he is tradeable. What keeps that away from a truly premium return (think Jrue Holiday, Rudy Gobert or Donovan Mitchell) is DeRozan’s age, though that could make him more interested in an extension to secure a contract well ahead of 2024 free agency.
DeRozan’s value also reflects well on Artūras Karnišovas, the Bulls’ decision-maker who negotiated that now team-friendly contract via sign-and-trade in 2021. Karnišovas has gotten wonderful production from DeRozan and likely would bring back a stronger return than the one first and two seconds he gave up to acquire DeRozan in the first place. While not every other decision has gone as well, betting on DeRozan has been an unmitigated success for Karnišovas and the Bulls.
• LaVine is a far more challenging concept for a few key reasons. First, unlike DeRozan and Vučević, the 27-year-old LaVine could be young enough to be a part of strong Bulls teams even after a theoretical 2023 deadline sell-off, which makes retaining him a reasonable choice.
Second, and the bigger question mark, is LaVine’s left knee. Normally, an All-Star in his 20s hitting the trade market generates significant interest, but LaVine battled through a knee injury last season before having surgery after the playoffs. Those knee issues did not end with the procedure, and LaVine has missed time this season and began it well below the level of his last two All-Star campaigns with drop-offs in drawing free throws and finishing around the basket, which can be indications of reduced athleticism. But, LaVine has looked much better over the last month or so both in terms of athleticism and production and has at least toned down those early season concerns but probably not eliminated them.
Considering the Bulls and LaVine agreed to a five-year, $215.6 million contract last offseason, some potential suitors may be a little risk averse, though I’m sure plenty of front offices would still roll those dice if the opportunity presented itself. The key question Karnišovas, the front office and the medical staff have to answer is whether they expect LaVine to bounce back sufficiently and reliably enough to propel the next great Chicago team. If not, it is better to take some egg on their face now than deal with a more perilous situation later. The other big question: Considering LaVine is 27, is it reasonably possible to sell off and fully rebuild before the end of his prime?
• Vučević presents another different negotiation because of his expiring contract. If Karnišovas decides to do a teardown, Vučević should be a part of it, but the Bulls can let his contract expire if the offers are weak, which feels unlikely. While offense-first centers are not for everyone, there are typically enough general managers who appreciate how an efficient big can credibly space the floor and open up their offense. And Vučević’s lack of a long-term contract combined with Bird rights will work better for some suitors than a locked-in multi-year obligation.
What makes the Bulls’ deadline decision even more daunting is that all of these individual negotiations affect one another in a variety of ways. After all, moving one of those three players while keeping the other two weakens the Bulls for this season but not enough to make it likely they keep their pick. It presumably makes sense to sell hard or keep it together, with the possible exception of Vučević depending on the offers.
Another notable wrinkle is that the collective bargaining agreement’s rules for salary matching give the Bulls latitude as deals involving their three biggest names could involve players making 25 percent more or less than their outgoing stars’ salaries — which is $5.5 million for Vucevic and over that for DeRozan and LaVine. That means Karnišovas could take on salary in one deal for a stronger return and shed salary in another if ownership wants to stay under the luxury tax for this season.
The Bulls have far more players in limbo than just their three biggest names. Alex Caruso has been another Karnišovas triumph and could yield some assets either in his own deal or as a sweetener in a larger one, especially since he is under contract for under $10 million through the 2024-25 season. It would be hard to move Lonzo Ball considering his health issues but seemingly every other Bulls player could be at least up for discussion, though Derrick Jones Jr. can veto a trade since it would wipe out his Bird rights thanks to a collective-bargaining agreement nuance.
Along those lines, a key evaluation for the front office is, if they are going to change their timetable of contention, when are they going to prioritize? A LaVine-led squad will need to bounce back to playoff contention faster than one relying on Patrick Williams and players not drafted yet, and that changes the approach for negotiations on Caruso at the deadline and Ayo Dosunmu this summer when he hits restricted free agency. Franchises do not need to put all their eggs in one basket on this front, but a clear vision makes success more likely.
What would I do?
I often use the term “defining success” because there are different priorities that completely affect team building that can and often are different for different franchises.
Everyone would love to win a title every year, but very few franchises can be in that rarefied air at the same time, and even fewer can stay there for years on end. Typically, this is more of an ownership-level decision since they sign the checks, but if I’m running the show, a key threshold is whether a group has a credible shot of winning multiple playoff series in the same postseason. Others can and do value a consistent playoff team without real championship upside, but that is not my personal preference; I don’t value making the playoffs without a strong chance of even the conference finals.
Even though injuries can level the playing field somewhat, my read is that there will consistently be enough teams in the Eastern Conference with a higher talent level than these Bulls. It’s unlikely Chicago makes it out of the first round with the possibility that below-average health makes it more of a fight for the Play-In Tournament.
In a normal circumstance with that evaluation, I would work hard to find a new home for DeRozan and Vučević while listening on LaVine, but the protected draft pick adds an element that makes an immediate sell-off much less appetizing. Instead, the question becomes whether I can get more for DeRozan and Vučević now than in June/July. That answer is very likely, yes, but it is less urgent without the draft incentive. My instinct is that trade partners would much rather have DeRozan for two playoff pushes and also gain a window for negotiating an extension, strengthening offers at the deadline compared to the offseason.
In mid-December, trading LaVine too looked like a more obvious play given his early struggles, but the last month has been truly encouraging and significantly increased my excitement about retaining him. But I would listen to offers because $215.2 million over five years is a massive commitment, and I have real concerns that there is enough time to overhaul the roster to make it competitive during LaVine’s prime. Holding onto LaVine at this deadline makes sense even if the intention is to move him eventually because a strong second half allows the Bulls to evaluate his fit with their remaining players and convince other general managers that LaVine’s knee issues are in the past.
Finally, the looming prospect of a big national TV deal (and eventual increase in the salary cap) starting in the 2025-26 season would motivate me to get my ducks in a row ahead of time, meaning straightening out the roster and ideally having a young core assembled or at least getting close when the landscape changes. If the Bulls identify that before other front offices, there could be some massive opportunities a few years from now.
(Top photo of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević: Dale Zanine / USA Today)