Kevin Durant Chooses the Warriors and the Bulls are Lost

Nov 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) looks to pass the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) looks to pass the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

On Monday, Kevin Durant announced that he is leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. While this news completely alters the future of two organizations in an obvious way, it also has a significant impact on the future of other organizations, including the Chicago Bulls.

Kevin Durant chooses the Warriors. You can read all about it in his post at The Player’s Tribune.

Well, wow. What else can be said right now about the Kevin Durant news? As little as 24 hours ago, there was almost no way to convince any reasonable person that Durant would elect to leave the Thunder this season. Instead, it made perfect sense that the team who pushed the Warriors to the very limit would have one more go left in them before both KD and longtime teammate Russell Westbrook could depart, either in unison or separately, at the same time in 2017.

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Of course, this news has been documented on several thousand blogs and hundreds of podcasts. There is no nugget of new information shared. So, what about this is worth a thousand or so words to fans of the Chicago Bulls? Well, there is a lot of significance here. The league has permanently changed in a major way and entire economies will change, not just basketball.

This move, coupled with Westbrook possibly leaving in 2017, might be enough to crater Oklahoma’s barely existent imprint on the professional sporting world. Some blame the salary cap, some blame the allure of big markets. Personally, I don’t recall a time when people were clamoring to jump on board with a team that struggled to make the playoffs or to reside in a city that can’t offer any of the glitz of Los Angeles. Maybe the extremely high cost of living is what writers and fans were referencing when they brought up the value of San Francisco as a prime free agent destination. There’s also the salary cap situation, but this is supposed to be about the Bulls so the quick version is this – Thunder held all the cards, but couldn’t produce a championship in their pitch. They could offer the most money, but not a ‘ship. The end.

So, where does this leave the little ol’ Bulls of Chicago? In an even deeper hole than before. Last week, I wrote about two primary options for the Bulls as free agency loomed. Either sit this round out and swing for the fences in 2017 when Durant, Westbrook, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, and Steph Curry are all free agents or host a fire sale and ask Adam Silver for Sam Hinkie’s phone number. Sure, they don’t get at least three of those players, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t make at least two of them work if those players were so inclined. You can, and should, read all about it right here.

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  • In some very brief interaction with people like Sean Highkin on Twitter, I’ve found that people generally don’t think there is any chance that any of those big names would be willing to sign on with Chicago. I’d assume that people such as Highkin know much more than do I. Still, I wouldn’t give up hope that the Bulls could lure in at least two prime free agents on max deals to pair with Jimmy Butler. That is, of course, assuming that we are also insistent on keeping Butler around for the duration of his contract.

    The day after I wrote about Gar Forman being wise to sit out 2016 free agency in lieu of having an extreme amount of cap space and flexibility to chase the biggest names on the market in 2017, I wrote about the only clear alternative – The Process.

    The Process hasn’t finished in Philadelphia, but it has helped set up a middling franchise, that hasn’t been the same since the departure of Allen Iverson, with a future and a mountain of assets in the form of prospects and cap space.

    I understand that I have used a considerable number of words to rehash what we already know, but it has a point to it. This is putting together the pieces of the puzzle, but a puzzle where we don’t yet know what the resulting work will be when revealed.

    The Bulls are already a team in peril. They don’t have ability to challenge in the Eastern Conference. They didn’t even make the playoffs in 2015-16. And that was before they punted on Derrick Rose. Then Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah walked. Both of which are good things, to clarify.

    Again, this is already known information. However, with each free agent that comes off the board, the 2016-17 season focus sharpens just a little more than before.

    "What is the point here? Simple: Durant has shifted the power and potential of the league even further to the West."

    With the current state of the Bulls and of the NBA in general, there is little reason to put any faith in a rebuild on the fly or in Chicago’s ability to seriously engage free agents. If Forman believes he has a team in place right now that compete, why was there never a whisper about meeting with Durant? If the Bulls are on solid footing, why are they not chasing one of the biggest free agents of the past decade?

    I didn’t believe people who said that free agents couldn’t be lured to Chicago. They have the fantastically undervalued Butler on a cheap deal. They have a basket of expiring deals or deals that can be moved into empty space for teams that want to absorb a Dunleavy or take a gamble on Snell. Those movements would provide them with enough cap room to lure the big names at full value to pair with Jimmy and a bench of Dough McDermott, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant. All of these players are on cheap contracts and their defensive woes are of decreased significance in their second-unit roles.

    Again, I’ve laid out much of this plan already.

    What is the point here? Simple: Durant has shifted the power and potential of the league even further to the West. The Warriors are poised to be a conference finalist at minimum for the next five years without exaggeration. If this Golden State team doesn’t make the Finals every single year for as long as they have a core of Steph Curry, Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, it will be a mild shock.

    In the East, the Celtics took a step to get better, but they aren’t all the way there yet. Similarly, Charlotte is poised to stay about where they were last season, perhaps moving up a few games in the standings. Toronto should still be a top four team in the conference. None of these teams is a threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It would be shocking for a team like the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, or Detroit Pistons to put even one or two games over on the Cavaliers. For any of those teams to eliminate Cleveland, they would have to play the best basketball of their lives while LeBron sat out the entire series. They would also have to buy a very rare and expensive book, the only copy in existence, that extensively details the specific blood ritual required for basketball teams to achieve the impossible. I can’t say more about said text other than the fact it calls for several thousand toads, a kiddie pool and 25 animal style double-doubles from In-N-Out Burger.

    With the exception of the Orlando Magic, every team I mentioned in the previous paragraph is in the Eastern Conference and finished with a better record than the Bulls last season. The Bulls are behind all of those teams. And that was with Derrick Rose, who may not be his old self but is vastly more upside than Jose Calderon and probably still considerably ahead of Rajon Rondo.

    "The Bulls are behind all of those teams."

    So, again, the significance of Durant to the Warriors? The Bulls can’t beat them and won’t have the chance. The list of Chicago sports writers who understand the value of Butler and why you shouldn’t trade him or any player of his skill level on such a team friendly contract is very long. And I’m not here to say they are wrong.

    But, I think it is possible that they are wrong. The Butler must kept sentiment includes some of my own cohort’s here at Pippen Ain’t Easy.

    On Monday, Morten Jensen wrote about a very similar sentiment for Today’s Fastbreak. His piece focused on how the Bulls are entering a window of opportunity to extract the maximum value of the Butler contract from the Boston Celtics. This is indeed a good option.

    Jensen has been a forerunner of the movement to rebuild the Bulls. I can’t tell if the movement is gaining steam, but it should be.

    First, acknowledge that the Bulls are not a primary free agent destination at this point in time.

    Second, acknowledge that Gar appears to not be pursuing top free agents and has yet to indicate he has any type of plan in place for where the organization goes from here.

    Third, acknowledge that the Bulls aren’t poised to dethrone the Cavaliers. And finished behind the Raptors, Pistons, Pacers, Celtics, Hornets and Heat last year. Only one of those teams may have depreciated since last season, Indianapolis. Part of this acknowledgement is that the Bulls have made the New York Knicks better than they were last season via trade and that the Milwaukee Bucks are, talent-wise, much better poised to take a major step forward than is Chicago.

    Fourth, acknowledge that the Warriors just went nuclear on the rest of the league. From top to bottom, they are the pinnacle of the league now, and for as long as they have Durant, Green, Curry and Thompson together and in good health, they will continue to be that pinnacle.

    If you have been able to stay with these four steps of reasonable logic that are all grounded in reality, you can easily reach one solid conclusion: The Chicago Bulls are not a contender for the East and will not win a title with Jimmy Butler as their best player at any point during his current contract.

    If that is true, then Butler is only a very valuable asset and nothing more.

    Butler has four years remaining on his current, extremely team friendly contract. He is worth every single penny. And yet, as the best player on the Bulls roster there is still no hope of being a contender. Four years would be a very long time to toil as an also ran, middling each season and racking up draft picks in the Nos. 11-17 range where very few prospects that even project as a starter remain.

    In 2019-20, when Butler is in the final year of his current deal, the Bulls will not be able to retain him without giving him a max deal. Everyone needs to be thinking about that right now. Even with a max deal, there is no reason to believe that Butler would want to stay in Chicago, where he would hypothetically continue to be the cornerstone. That team isn’t winning the East or a championship. A better team also isn’t winning. That’s how far out of it the Bulls are right now.

    Chicago Bulls
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    Chicago Bulls

    By the time the Cavs relent, some combination of Orlando, Philadelphia and Boston will likely be pushing themselves back to the top of the conference. But, that is still conjecture at this stage. Sticking with what is known is probably more worthwhile.

    The Warriors are poised to dominate the league, even if they don’t win every title, for the next several years. The Cavaliers are still in a similar position on the other side of the conference divide. The Bulls don’t have enough in any type of team that is centered around Butler to challenge the Cavs and even if that miracle happened, Jimmy’s contract will be over by the time Golden State’s reign comes to a close.

    It’s time to rebuild in Chicago. Look at your neighbors in Milwaukee, where the former team owner valued making the playoffs at any cost more than building a true contender. Pushing for a playoff berth isn’t what the fans of the Bulls want and shouldn’t be what an excellent front office strives for.

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    The true and enormous value of Butler and his contract should be leveraged for assets while it is a seller’s market. That could look like a trade with the Timberwolves, a trade with the Celtics or some other trade that is not yet apparent. Whatever move Chicago makes, they should take the Durant decision as a wake-up call.