Chicago Bulls: Revisiting Jimmy Butler trade 3 years later

Three years ago today, the Chicago Bulls launched a full rebuild, trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. How does that move look now?

The Chicago Bulls were in an interesting situation on this day three years ago. They could either try to work things out with their star player, Jimmy Butler, or they could trade him and start a full rebuild.

Fans were split. Some thought it made more sense to try to find a way to make it work with Butler, hoping the Bulls’ front office could do a nice job of building around him. Others thought that was impossible, that the Bulls had capped out as a middle-tier team and a rebuild was the way to go.

Even now, we don’t fully know what the right decision was. We know how the rebuild has gone for the last three years, but we don’t know what would’ve happened if they kept Butler. Let’s look back on the details and try to arrive at a conclusion.

Chicago Bulls: Revisiting Butler trade 3 years later

For starters, here’s a reminder of how the trade looked:

Bulls Get
Kris Dunn
Zach LaVine
7th overall pick
Timberwolves Get
Jimmy Butler
16th overall pick

I said this at the time, and I’ll say it until the day I die: It is absolutely absurd that the Bulls got talked into including the 16th overall pick in the deal. When you’re giving up the star player — the crown jewel of the trade — you shouldn’t have to include a first-round draft pick. That’s a pick the Bulls could’ve used to help jump-start their rebuild.

Some notable players who were on the board at 16:

  • John Collins
  • Harry Giles
  • Jarrett Allen
  • OG Anunoby
  • Kyle Kuzma
  • Derrick White
  • Josh Hart

Does anyone really believe the Wolves would’ve backed out of the deal if Chicago refused to throw in the 16th pick? That’s an indefensible front-office move by Chicago. It’s a fireable offense.

Now, let’s shift our focus to the other key parts of the trade.

I was high on Kris Dunn during the 2016 NBA Draft. I thought he had the makings of a franchise point guard. Clearly, the Bulls felt the same way. He had a couple disappointing seasons in Chicago before figuring out his role as a defensive monster this last season. He’s a valuable asset now.

At the time of the Butler trade, Zach LaVine was still rehabbing his torn ACL. He was on the rise as an offensive force, but nobody knew what he’d look like coming back from a serious knee injury. The Bulls took a gamble and thankfully, it paid off. LaVine doesn’t look like a guy who had knee surgery three years ago. He once again looks like one of the most athletic guys in the league.

Lauri Markkanen is the most interesting piece of this trade. The Bulls got killed for picking him seventh on draft night. He had a lot of flaws in his game. Then, during his rookie and sophomore seasons, Markkanen made critics eat their words as he looked like he was on his way to becoming one of the brightest young stars in the league — as long as he could stay healthy. And as we found out this last season, staying healthy is a difficult thing for Markkanen to do. The worst part? Even when he was healthy, he regressed in nearly every aspect of his game during his third season. Things aren’t looking great for The Finnisher.

So we know what the Bulls got from the Wolves, but what did they give up (besides the 16th pick)? They gave up a perennial All-Star — one of the best two-way players in the league — in Jimmy Butler. How does that look now? Again, it’s hard to say.

Butler had a nice first year with Minnesota, leading them to their first playoff appearance since 2004. But then, he went nuclear in the locker room and lost a lot of respect around the league. He was traded to Philly after only 69 games in Minnesota. He was alright in Philly for the final 2/3 of the season, but he never looked like he fully settled in. Now, after one (almost complete) season in Miami, Butler finally looks happy.

Ultimately, the question Bulls fans have to ask themselves is: Could Chicago have built around Butler the way Miami did? The answer: We’ll never know. But after watching the front office make decisions over the course of the last three years, it’s hard to believe they would’ve had any success with Butler.

So how does this trade look three years later for the Bulls? It looks okay. It sucks that they gave up on one of the league’s best players in his prime, but that’s a bigger indictment on the front office’s incompetence — not Butler.

The truth is, there are still a lot of question marks surrounding this trade. Butler has a lot of his career left to play out, and the Bulls have a lot of rebuilding to do. We’ll have a better answer in 2022 — five years after the trade — when all of the moving pieces have finally settled into place.

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