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Rebuilding process begins for Chicago Bulls after trading away All-Star Jimmy Butler

After two mediocre seasons, Bulls make move to go young in acquiring Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and lottery pick

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO Jimmy Butler’s whereabouts, the object of speculation stretching back more than a year, snapped into focus Thursday night.

So did the Chicago Bulls’ immediate future, which isn’t pretty but is both necessary and overdue.

In trading Butler and the No. 16 pick (Creighton’s Justin Patton) to Minnesota in the 2017 Draft staged last night in Brooklyn, the Bulls got back wing Zach LaVine, guard Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick (Finnish-by-way-of-Arizona stretch-4 Lauri Markkanen) — pieces essential to the rebuild that management had seemed so determined to avoid.

But that noise early in the first round, in between NBA commissioner Adam Silvers trips to the podium, was the sound of Chicago’s front office swallowing hard, trading its most valuable asset (Butler) and accepting the reality of its predicament as one of the league’s “’tweeners.”

No more denial for Da Bulls.

“What we’ve done tonight is set a direction,” said John Paxson, Bulls vice president of basketball operations. “We’ve gone through the past where we’d make the playoffs but not at a level we wanted to. In this league, success is not determined that way. So we’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster. And we’re going to do it through young players we believe can play a system that [coach] Fred [Hoiberg] is comfortable with. And we’re going to be disciplined and patient as we make decisions along the way.”

Having eked into the playoffs this spring with a 41-41 record, on the heels of missing in 2016 with a 42-40 mark, the Bulls were stuck in the league’s proverbial middle: too good to bottom out for a high lottery pick, not good enough to contend for much beyond a first-round ouster. So Chicago meandered through those first two seasons under Hoiberg, who’d been given a playoff-ready roster when he was hired to replace Tom Thibodeau (fired after a 50-32 finish in 2014-15).

That roster morphed this season into a mishmash of old and young, accomplished and inexperienced, with veterans Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo out of synch with younger and unproven teammates such as Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott (traded in February), Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant and Paul Zipser.

Qualifying for the postseason as the East’s No. 8 seed almost was a surprise, before Boston dispatched them in six games. Now, instead of fudging again behind last year’s talk of “retooling,” the Bulls can commit to overhauling and taking the lumps it needs.

“When you do this, you understand it’s going to be difficult,” Paxson said. “And there are going to be a lot of bumps along the road.”

Now, instead of fudging again behind last year’s claim of “retooling,” the Bulls can commit to overhauling and developing the roster.

“When you do this, you understand it’s going to be difficult,” Paxson said. “And there are going to be a lot of bumps along the road.”

Paxson added: “It’s necessary. This is something we felt we had to do at this time.”

It’s a phase he and GM Gar Forman had hoped to avoid, filling the seats at United Center and duct-taping around and after Derrick Rose’s multiple injuries.

It’s a phase that might challenge them now, considering the break they caught in 2008 when Chicago snagged the No. 1 to draft Rose.

It’s a phase that might remind Chicago fans of the ugly post-Jordan/Scottie Pippen rebuild, when the team missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and averaged fewer than 20 victories.

And yet it’s a phase that was inevitable, based on the pieces in place — role players, not especially athletic, with a extreme lack of perimeter shooting — and the franchise’s ineffectiveness at luring A-list free agents.

Suddenly Wade, who reportedly exercised a $23.8 million player option, might seem a candidate for a buyout — though Paxson, knowing the money already has been spent — spoke of the positive influence a veteran such as Wade might have during the tribulations of a rebuild.

“If Dwyane had been really concerned about it, he might not have picked up his option before the draft,” Paxson said. “We talked about a lot of things and we talked about our young players with him.”

Suddenly Rondo, whose $14 million salary for 2017-18 has only $3 million guaranteed, is a possibility to be waived by June 30 — though Forman said no decision had been made yet heading toward free agency.

We needed certainty in terms of jump-starting this thing. When you talk about certainty, you talk about young players, draft picks that give you a leg up on it. That presented itself late today.”

Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson

Speaking of which, don’t look for the Bulls to shop aggressively this summer. Paxson said “patient and disciplined” several times, alluded to even higher Draft picks to come and confirmed that the Bulls had sold off second-round pick, Jordan Bell of Oregon, to Golden State (for a reported $3.5 million).

That shouts “tanking,” not merely “rebuilding.”

Given how significant this crossroads was for the Bulls, it apparently only came about when Minnesota upped its bid for Butler beyond anything it or other teams previously had offered.

“It wasn’t watching anything in the playoffs,” Paxson said. “Really, this is the first opportunity we felt a deal presented itself that made sense. We needed certainty in terms of jump-starting this thing. When you talk about certainty, you talk about young players, Draft picks that give you a leg up on it. That presented itself late today.”

Butler, 27, ranks as one of the Chicago franchise’s greatest success stories. Drafted out of Marquette with the final pick of the first round in 2011, the 6-foot-7 wing worked himself into a three-time All-Star selection. His scoring average improved in each of his first six seasons to 23.9 ppg in 2016-17, and his reputation as one of the NBA’s top on-ball defenders helped him achieve third team All-NBA status.

The Bulls could have chosen to rebuild around Butler, who is under contract for $18.7 million and $19.8 million the next two seasons — except for a few factors arguing against that. First, the cupboard of assets was relatively bare and the Bulls only have their own first-round picks in the coming seasons.

Also, Butler could have been in a line for a super-max, five-year contract in 2019 worth more than $200 million, which would limit salary-cap flexibility. LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen are young enough to buy time — not just for themselves but for Paxson, Forman and Hoiberg.

Butler had been coveted by Minnesota on the eve of the 2016 Draft and became a trade target for Boston as the February deadline approached four months ago. More recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns reportedly had inquired about him, too, with the Celtics and the Timberwolves renewing their interest.

The Wolves outbid the rest with their package of players and the upgraded first-round position. And got it all done Thursday.

Reuniting Butler with Thibodeau gives the coach a player he trusts and can lean on at both ends and Minnesota’s young locker room — built around Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — an established veteran who can help that franchise end a 13-year playoff drought.

LaVine, 22, is a lean 6-foot-5 wing with explosiveness and still-raw potential who won the league’s Slam Dunk contest in his first two NBA seasons. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee last February and underwent season-ending surgery. Reports of his rehab have been encouraging, though Bulls fans are painfully familiar with ACL recuperations that don’t go smoothly (Rose). And the Bulls’ newfound lack of urgency suggests LaVine won’t be rushed back.

Dunn’s potential was what had the Bulls and Wolves talking about Butler a year ago. The four-year player from Providence was projected by NBA general managers and fellow rookies to be a top candidate for Rookie of the Year this season and to push veteran point guard Ricky Rubio for starter’s minutes.

But Dunn suffered a concussion at the Las Vegas Summer League and never got traction as a newbie. Dunn appeared in 78 games, averaging 3.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting just 28.8 percent from 3-point range and 37.7 percent overall.

Markkanen was touted heading into the Draft for his “Kristaps Porzingis lite” potential, a 7-footer who hit 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. Patton is a lanky 7-footer most adept at scoring in the paint (208 of his 296 shots came at the rim for Creighton).

One side element to the two teams’ headline-grabbing deal was the Bulls negotiating with — and in delivering Butler, helping a Timberwolves team headed by — Thibodeau, the headstrong coach with whom they’d had a bitter, public falling-out over the 2014-15 season. After coaching Chicago to five playoff appearances in five seasons (255-139), Thibodeau was dismissed for alleged communication issues with his bosses.

He sat out the 2015-16 season, then was hired by Minnesota to the dual role of chief basketball exec and coach. Thibodeau hired former Utah Jazz and New York Knicks exec Scott Layden as Wolves GM to assist with personnel moves such as this one.

“Does that really matter?” Paxson said. “It was great. There’s no issues with us.

“We got a deal done. If there was something that was between all of us at this point two years later, whatever, we may not have. Everything was fine.”

Thibodeau and the Timberwolves are on their way, getting the best player in the trade and aiming for the playoffs. The Bulls? Headed in another direction entirely.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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