Remember when the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and then started the following season 3-20, putting them in prime position to get one of the very top picks in the 2018 NBA Draft?
Nikola Mirotic then came back from getting punched out by Bobby Portis and helped lead the Bulls to a fluke seven-game winning streak. At the end of the season, Sean Kilpatrick, aka Kill-draft-pick, helped the Bulls win some meaningless games to get them to 27-55. With the same odds as Sacramento on lottery night, it was instead the Kings jumping to No. 2 and the Bulls settling at No. 7.
So with numbers 7 and 22 (from the Mirotic trade that season) in the first round, the Bulls wound up with Wendell Carter and Chandler Hutchison.
Carter was viewed by many that night as a safe pick who projected a high floor of being a solid player for a long time. That could very well still be the case, who’s now in Orlando after the Nikola Vucevic trade. Hutchison, also with another team, is pretty much a bust.
These 2021 NBA Playoffs are a painful reminder of just how badly that draft went for Chicago.
Luka Doncic could be the best player in the NBA very soon. Trae Young is the point guard the Bulls have been missing since Derrick Rose. Deandre Ayton is blossoming into one of the best young bigs in the NBA. A healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. is an excellent stretch-big prospect.
While I’m not a big tanking guy, it’s clear that really was the season the Bulls should have prioritized losing as many games as possible and making sure they got high in that draft. They were given a prime opportunity to have the best odds when they started 3-20 and had Zach LaVine returning from a torn ACL later in the season. But thanks to some flukey stuff and flat-out bad luck, the Bulls got screwed.
They then weren’t able to move up. Who knows how hard they actually tried. Plus there were rumors they actually liked Marvin Bagley anyway (shrugs shoulders). [ed. note: I recall this too, though a quick search and it was only Cowley. -yfbb]
But even past No. 7, there are other players making big impacts in the playoffs, namely Mikal Bridges (No. 10) and Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14). At the time, I viewed Bridges as another safe option, but a legit 3-and-D stud at small forward would look good on the Bulls right now. Wings have been an issue for a while.
Porter was a unique situation because of his back issues, and I’ll admit I was worried about taking him even though a lot of Bulls fans were clamoring for him. While he has struggled so far against the Suns because of a back issue, the healthy version of Porter has already developed into one of the best shooters in the NBA. His defense is still a problem, but he’s a special scorer.
Outside of these playoffs, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) sure would look nice next to Zach LaVine in the backcourt. His numbers are way better than you probably realize.
In hindsight, the Bulls were in position to roll the dice on the high-upside perimeter player instead of taking another big man after getting Lauri Markkanen the year before (more on this in a bit). After trading away the perimeter star the year before, doubling down on the frontcourt with Carter instead of taking the gamble on the potentially elite scorer turned out to be very wrong. There are also a number of players drafted behind Hutchison - a player they punted their scouting early for - at 22 who have turned out much better, though that bar is low.
Of course, the 2018 draft isn’t the only recent one that has gone poorly for Chicago. Only getting a swap for in the Butler trade in 2017 was brutal, with their selection of Markkanen now flamed out as a franchise cornerstone and likely out the door. The guys drafted immediately behind Markkanen stink too, but then there’s Donovan Mitchell (13) and Bam Adebayo (14). Oh, yeah, they also sold the No. 38 pick because their draft board was supposedly empty. While Jordan Bell - who was taken at that slot by the Warriors - hasn’t panned out, Dillon Brooks was right there and made sense for them at the time!
Let’s turn to 2019, which is when the Bulls won 22 games and then somehow wound up with the No. 7 slot in the lottery and the No. 7 pick yet again and again not trading up. No Zion Williamson, no Ja Morant. The Coby White pick in that spot is still defensible and I’m not out on him, but it has been a roller-coaster career now at another low as he could miss the start of a crucial third season. The Daniel Gafford pick at No. 38 was a solid one, but he’s a goner now and making a bigger impact for the Wizards.
We can do this type of thing all the time with drafts, but front offices get paid a lot of money to get this stuff right, and the Bulls did not. And it finally got GarPax kicked out of the lead chairs.
This past year, with a new regime actually getting some lottery luck, I can’t fault taking the gamble on the high-upside player in Patrick Williams at No. 4 over guard options such as Killian Hayes or Tyrese Haliburton. Williams was thrown into the fire as a rookie and showed some promising flashes, but he obviously has a long way to go and it could be a bit before he’s making a major impact in the NBA. But while I’m excited for Williams, I still can’t help but wonder how legit those pre-draft rumors of trading up (Carter and No. 4 for No. 2) actually were. I know the rumblings were that it was to trade up for James Wiseman, but LaMelo Ball should have been the choice if that happened and the Bulls would have fixed their point guard problem. Alas.
The Bulls’ plight in recent years can partially be traced to failing to get impact players in the draft since the rebuild began, despite losing all these games. As of right now, the draft hasn’t produced a quality starter for them during the rebuild. White and Williams can change that, but the jury is still out. Carter turned into Vucevic, but it took two additional first-round picks and taking on a bad contract to make that acquisition.
The Bulls are still trying to get out of their rut. They have two All-Stars now, but there’s plenty of work to be done. Watching the playoffs, it’s painful to think what could have been if a few things went in a different direction in the draft these last few years.