John Paxson and Gar Forman like their guys. How often have Bulls fans been subject to hearing this phrase?
The Bulls have been one of the most conservative teams in the league in terms of trading with other teams. Consider that Danny Ainge, nicknamed Trader Danny for his activity, was hired in the same year as John Paxson in 2003. Comparing the Celtics' activity on the trade market with the Bulls, it's difficult to imagine that both teams compete in the same league.
Ainge built a champion by dealing for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and has always been extremely active in team building via trades. Meanwile, Forman and Paxson's biggest trade acquisitions have been John Salmons and Brad Miller in 2009. This is a list of the incoming trade acquisitions that Ainge has received in the past 12 months as compared to what Paxson and Forman have acquired in 12 years:
list courtesy of RealGM
When you exclude technicalities like Carlos Boozer (a sign-and-trade with Utah after agreeing as a free agent) and draft day deals to move up/down for guys like McDermott, Mirotic, and Tyrus Thomas, it's glaring to see the lack of actual playable talent acquired via trade.
In 12 years on the job, Garpax have acquired only 16 rotation players via trade. Of those, only 6 (Salmons, Miller, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Michael Sweetney, Antonio Davis) have been regular starters. The situation was even more dire for ex-coach Tom Thibodeau - he did not receive a single rotation player via trade to help the team in his five year tenure, as Flip Murray is the last rotation-level acquisition by the Bulls and that was months before Vinny Del Negro was fired.
In the last year alone, rival Cavs GM David Griffin has added more talent via trade than Paxson and Forman in their entire careers. While the Bulls were sitting on their team at this year's trade deadline, Griffin made the Cavs substantially better by acquiring J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov to play alongside summer trade acquisition Kevin Love. The Cavs represented the East in the Finals, of course, while the Bulls looked on from the sidelines.
A History of Using Trades for Salary Cap Management Rather Than Improved Talent
Even when making deals, while other teams acquire players to improve their teams, Forman and Paxson usually take on unwanted salary in exchange for future assets or financial flexibility. Or they similarly use the trade market to dump their own unwanted salaries, often receiving little in return beyond various flotsam, a pick, and a (usually unused) trade exception.
The feelings of frustration linger for those remembering trading Kyle Korver for an unused trade exception, and to a lesser extent the Luol Deng deal. There's also the Kirk Hinrich 2010 salary dump (actually costing the Bulls a pick), Ben Wallace for Larry Hughes, and Larry Hughes for Tim Thomas (who was then waived for the second time in his career by the Bulls).
The aforementioned Salmons/Miller deal with the Kings in 2009 (for Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden) was the one trade in 12 years that actually immediately improved the quality of the team.
Building Through the Draft and Free Agency
If you include Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic as Bulls draftees though they were acquired in draft-day deals, the Bulls' entire roster is constructed from players that the team either drafted or signed in free agency. They are the only team in the NBA to earn the distinction of not having a single player on their roster acquired from a trade.
The Bulls reliance on free agency has provided mixed results. Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy have been good veteran players on discounted contracts. The mid-tier trio of Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and CJ Watson in 2010 solidified that bench mob. And they've also done a solid job acquiring minimum-level guys like Nate Robinson and DJ Augustin.
But the team has not been very good at getting their high-level targets to come to the team. The summer of 2010 still haunts Bulls fans, when the team struck out on LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade and was forced to settle for Carlos Boozer. Or Carmelo Anthony in 2014. Even smaller acquisitions like Rip Hamilton as a third place option behind JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford have proven to be a mistake, as Hamilton's contract is still on the books for $333,333 this upcoming season as a result of being stretched in 2012-13.
The front office does deserve some credit for what they have been able to do without having to rely on trades. Forman and Paxson have undoubtedly fielded a very good team, in part because of good drafting and extending their own players to team-friendly contracts.
But could the team be better if management were more open to the idea of giving up some assets for immediate help?
Passing up Opportunities to Settle for Very Good
Because the Bulls' organization is so secretive (another distinct difference with Ainge and the Celtics), it is hard to tell if their inactivity in the trade market is due to a lack of opportunity or if they are just sitting on their players. There have been rumors that the team had chances to make a big splash over the years - the most popular ones being Luol Deng for Pau Gasol, Amare Stoudemire for Tyrus Thomas, and Kobe Bryant demanding a trade and admitting that he wanted to go to the Bulls in 2007. There was also the Kevin Love sweepstakes of last offseason, and though it was never confirmed that Mirotic and Jimmy Butler were in play, if they were it would've been an example of a deal that was best not made.
The Bulls have passed on these and all other major deals, insisting that they liked their guys. Paxson's first rebuild, peaking in 2007, produced a good Bulls team that won 49 games. However, it should have been clear that a team led by Ben Wallace, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Ben Gordon did not have enough talent to be considered a legitimate championship contender.
The Bulls may be repeating history here with the current iteration of its roster. By refusing to add to the team via trade, the Bulls may be stuck in no-man's land again, where they will be a very good team but are still lacking that final piece to turn them into a championship contender.
Paxson and Forman have shown extreme (and even that's putting it mildly) reticence in the past in attacking the trade market. The Bulls have a glut of big men on extremely team-friendly deals, some promising young players, and Sacramento's protected future first-round draft pick in addition to their own first rounders in their coffers. There should be plenty of opportunity to get creative with other teams. With a new hand-picked coach, a roster in the luxury tax, and big pressure on the team, this may be their final chance to make a big move.