The Bulls have always been always straddling the fence when it came to actual contention this year. The inactivity going on 2 seasons now indicated that the Bulls felt the 'we like our guys' all-stars were enough on their own to go for it. At least, with the idea that a still top-light conference means having a puncher's chance isn't so bad.
So when it came to thinking about this year's trade deadline, you could be of two minds. Well, actually, you could be of the proper mind that the Bulls' front office is too ineffectual to make a real trade so why bother thinking about it at all. But if you instead enjoy letting delusion to distract you a bit, you could figure each of the following:
1) This team was a win-now move away from at least knocking off Cleveland, and then in The Finals who knows (and really, just going to the Finals would be pretty awesome).
2) This was more a transition year where they brought in an empowered and expensive new coach, and the roster will be churned eventually in accordance with that.
The idea of internal improvement was enough to keep that first option as a viable dream, and I confess I still had it. That could mean making a move on the margins to shore up wing depth, adding to what already is a luxury-tax-inducing veteran roster. Or instead using one of their big men to acquire a starter-level player to play alongside Butler and Rose while having that depth then fill in the bigs rotation.
But with Joakim Noah's season-ending injury, both of those 'win-now' options are out the window. The diagnosis was almost good news in it's finality: Noah's season is over, and thus so are the Bulls. No trade can be made that will strengthen them enough to more than make up for the loss, and the loss of Noah itself means there's no chance for that internal improvement to be what brought this team over the hump. It's a scenario more often discussed when it comes to Derrick Rose's situation, in that the Bulls need him to be better for the team to be at their best. But it also was true for Noah, and thus since if Rose went down for the year it'd feel like this season was a wash, I think the same holds true (if to a lesser extent...but still true) with Noah.
It's certainly true that this version of Noah wasn't much to lament over, and maybe the Bulls will even look better now than they did when he was playing. But that's not the point. For the Bulls to be at their best in the playoffs they needed Noah to be a lot better, either for this team or to sell to another (rumor had it Noah was the one the Bulls pushed most in trade talks). With the trade deadline a month away, there was still time.
And perhaps that just wasn't going to happen, as Noah regressed after offseason knee surgery the season prior, saw a stark decline in his offensive ability, and had an even worse beginning of this season. There are other potential factors like his diminished role in Fred Hoiberg's new reign, but if you can't convert enough layups or get to over 60% at the free-throw line you're a liability. However it was a liability with the hope of turning into an asset by the trade deadline and into the postseason. One can differ on how likely a Noah resurgence was, and he was picking things up before the shoulder injury happened. But with the injury now that definitely can't happen, and that's the difference.
So what now? Nick Friedell has been thinking what I have: the chance at true contention is over, so might as well see if you can get something for Pau Gasol.
Friedell has always been more pessimistic than me as to the Bulls chances with a fully-actualized roster, but now that they have no chance to reach that status we find ourselves on the same page:
- The Bulls, who for all we know are going to beat the Warriors and Cavs this week, aren't going to the NBA Finals with Noah's loss affecting the defense and rebounding plus so many other question marks with this team.
- Gasol was already playing too many minutes as it was, and in Noah's absence that should only increase. And this should be scary enough:
Gasol is playing through a sore shoulder and Achilles: "I like to push it until the wheels fall off. Hopefully, it won't get worse."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 17, 2016
- Gasol is going to be a free agent, and will be 36 at the start of next season.
- He's still playing quite well, enough to where there should be takers.
While as a potential buyer perhaps the Bulls couldn't get much for Gasol, I think as a seller they can line up more with other teams to make a mutually beneficial deal. Because in this post-Noah-injury world the Bulls are now a team looking to get younger and more athletic (and Hoiball-ian, if that's still a thing), either through draft picks or at the least guys on rookie-scale contracts. With the cap exploding this offseason, the alternative of retaining Gasol's bird rights are fairly inconsequential compared to acquiring pretty much any young and cheap player.
Losing Gasol would undoubtedly be a serious blow to the team's competitiveness this season. But while I've seen in plenty of places that the Bulls are 'fine' without Noah, being 'fine' really isn't a goal. I won't go into the sad-sack mindset of thinking championships-or-bust, in that I'm also not advocating a full teardown. Thinking of Gasol trades is more just pragmatically looking at a player likely out the door anyway than saying rip it all down to the studs.
But it'll be curious to see if the Bulls feel this way. Fred Hoiberg said 'there's nothing serious out there' but hopefully that's just Org-speak. Friedell brings up a couple past failures of the Bulls letting players go for nothing, but at least in the case of Omer Asik the Bulls didn't want to lesson their contending run that year. His other mention was Kyle Korver, but that was more luxury-tax dodging and them not knowing the intricacies of the salary cap. The Luol Deng trade was an example of the Bulls actually punting on an upcoming free agent (though one where his bird rights were potentially more useful), but the asset they received was immediate tax relief at the expense of talent/assets, and hopefully that isn't the route they take in any Gasol talks.
Those talks should start with playoff teams in the West, and, yes: even a team you're competing with in the East, and see who can use a big man who can still really play. I don't believe the idea that a mere 'rental', especially a good one like Gasol, is worthless on the trade market. It actually seems to be a good time to be a seller, and though you can't expect a high lottery pick there should be some young talent to be had.
[I am saving actual trade speculation for a different post. But it's not hard to get creative. You can even think of ways of getting a replacement-level big man back to where you don't totally crater in the frontcourt. Friedell kind of lost me when he mentioned added playing time for Felicio and Bairstow.]
Because getting something young, cheap, or both won't hurt to have in the offseason. It's more valuable than a couple million in cap space, anyway, which is all you can expect after both Gasol and Noah are off the books. Unlike Chris Terzic's post earlier this week, I'm agnostic on re-signing either Noah or Gasol, either is fine if the price and role is right. But having more assets in the offseason, especially on Draft Day, will be a more prudent path to use Gasol than chasing playoff wins.
Competing is better than not, and I'm usually all in favor of going for it when possible. But doing so at this point is more illusory than ever, and hopefully the Bulls don't feel pressure to make their new coach seem more successful. It wouldn't be based on reality, as as the last real chance for a title run, as unlikely as it seemed, literally went out the tunnel in the United Center on Friday.