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For the Bulls, there’s no single blueprint to build a contender

Draft, trade, or free agency?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls have transformed, somewhat. After an offseason of front office and coaching change, the same roster has gone from a slow unwatchable mess to a intriguing, high paced group that sprints the line between disaster and greatness any given night.

While its enjoyable to watch, we Bulls fans are still left with a looming question: where is this franchise ultimately going?

The current Bulls ‘success’, while acknowledged as entertaining, is still largely driven by the veteran players that likely aren’t long for Chicago, rather than their young core leading the charge.

So what can the Bulls do in achieving loftier goals? Is this all that pointless and they really need to tear it down again?

To answer, let’s first take a look at the anatomy of a how championship contenders are born. Spoiler: there is no single system to build a great team, and any method will always require plenty of luck along the way.

Having the best player in the league

Three of the top teams in the league (and title winners) in the past decade were the top team because they had LeBron James on it. I’ll discuss his individual situations below but effectively if there is an absolute dominant player in the league, 29 teams will have an uphill battle vs the one team that has him. It’s worth calling this out separately because the choices and desires of the very few absolutely elite talents have disproportionate impact on the league and aren’t predictable into the future.

Tank commanders

primary: 76ers, Clippers (Griffin), Thunder (Durant, Westbrook, Harden)

secondary: Cavaliers, Lakers

The 76ers systematized “the process” by trading good players for picks to consistently stay extremely bad until they felt they had star players. The Cavaliers and Lakers weren’t straight tank jobs as LeBron was the primary piece in both cases, but without tanking neither team had the assets to get their other pieces to win a title and convince LeBron to come.

Let someone else tank for you

primary: Celtics

If you can acquire enough picks, you don’t need to tank but can hope the basketball gods frown upon some other franchise. This type of strategy with the protections typically put on picks today means you need to trade star players in order to implement and then get lucky. The Thunder, Pelicans, and Rockets are now building in this direction while the Celtics are the only team to pull it off recently after heisting the Nets years ago.

Drafting without a tank

Primary: Warriors, Nuggets, Bucks, Jazz, Blazers, Spurs (Kawhi), Bulls

Secondary: Heat (Butler era)

The draft builds great teams more often than any other approach, but most teams built through it do so by simply getting the surprise talents or lucky lotto ball bounces rather than tanking.

Free agent domination (Key players arrived via free agency)

Primary: Heat (LeBron), Clippers (Kawhi), Lakers, Nets, Cavaliers

Recent history has shown superstars control their destination more than ever. For a team to pull of the free agency plan, they need talent, money, and a desirable market. Chicago is probably a strong enough draw to bring in talent if the first two things are there.

Working the trade market (Key players arrived via trade)

Primary: Rockets, Raptors, Heat (Butler)

Secondary: Lakers, Clippers (George), Clippers (Paul)

Only the Rockets and Raptors legitimately traded their way into contention without a player demanding to go to their specific team. Though trading for your secondary star after acquiring the first is fairly common.

What does this mean for Chicago? Don’t tank, and you have time to figure it out later.

The Bulls shouldn’t be scared to exit the realm of cellar dwellers. Awful teams rarely luck their way into becoming title contenders, and it’ll be rarer with the change in lottery odds and might even moreso when high schoolers are allowed back in the draft.

Chicago can hope for lucky lotto ball bounces and needs to draft well to improve, but destroying roster quality to move from 6% odds to 14% isn’t a winning philosophy especially given the #1 pick in the draft is a franchise changer only once every few years. The only way this plan is remotely on the table is if Chicago gets worse while adding massive draft assets.

Chicago can build towards a direction similar to the Clippers or Nets. Before the 2019 off-season, those teams were middle of the pack teams with good role players, money, and a quality market. The Bulls have improved the reputation of the coaching staff and front office, and if the team on the court ascends to mere mediocrity, the overall situation may be intriguing enough to draw the curiosity of top players.

Something else they can immediately do is determine if possible contract extensions for Lauri Markkanen (restricted free agent) and Zach LaVine (eligible for a raise using cap space) can have value. If both players continue to improve, long term contracts may increase their trade value on the market to teams that aren’t free agent destinations. If they don’t think this can happen, the decision on Lauri should be made immediately.

Yes, ultimately this approach can be boiled down to “get average and figure it out”. It’s not uniquely brilliant but requires good execution: draft well, make strong moves around the margins with short term veterans, and make good early decisions on young players that may not be part of the future. It’s a difficult line to walk, but a more likely chance of success than being as bad as possible and hoping the next LeBron falls into your lap.