In a vacuum, the Chicago Bulls lost their trade deadline deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. On paper, flipping Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a 2nd round pick for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Anthony Morrow is horrendous. The Thunder got the best player in the deal (Taj Gibson), and arguably the second best in McDermott, but it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Bulls. Without even touching on the trade exceptions and salary cap side of things, this is a step in the right direction. Hear me out.
Gibson is 31-years-old and on an expiring contract. He’s likely going to get paid more than what the Bulls will be willing to pony up which means we lose him for nothing. Add this to the fact the current Bulls aren’t ready to compete with the NBA’s elite teams in a 7-game series and it becomes clear that this was a move the Bulls had to make. I’m not convinced Doug McDermott’s ceiling is much higher than the current product he’s putting on the court now, so I’m okay using him as a trade chip. What hurts the most in this deal is giving away a 2nd round pick when in all honesty the Bulls need to hang on to every pick they can right now.
However, looking at the positives, Cameron Payne joins a backcourt headlined by Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams (Puke). Payne is a prospect I was extremely high on coming out of college, and I haven't changed my tune. People are quick to point out the minimal growth between his rookie and sophomore season, but don’t like to acknowledge that not only was he playing behind the walking triple-double in Russell Westbrook, he also missed the first 37 games of the year while recovering from a foot injury. He’s only suited up in 20 games, checking in at just 16 minutes per game. For whatever reason, a lot of fans seem to expect his numbers to have taken a big jump despite these circumstances. That seems unrealistic to me. This was buying low on a player that I bet will have a much higher price tag at this time next year.
Payne’s per-36 numbers project out just fine (11.9 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG 1.8 3PM). He decreased his TO% (13.2 down to 11.4), and his defensive RPM ranks 20th among point guards. His shooting percentages are down this year, but I think that has to do with him shaking off the rust and an inability to get in a rhythm with Mr. Westbrook demanding the ball so much on offense. Payne was a solid shooter in college, and I think with consistent playing time he will return to form. He is sure to see an increase in minutes per game once he gets acclimated to his new team, and I would be shocked if you don’t see a marked improvement in his numbers across the board.
He’s young (22) and still on his rookie contract, making him extremely affordable and under team control for two more seasons. Even if he doesn’t develop into a true starting-caliber point guard, it gives the Bulls two years to evaluate Jerian Grant and Payne to decide if either are capable of earning minutes on a winning team.
Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne are likely just one-year rentals, but I do think there is a possibility Lauvergne could be a decent bench piece. He’s barely been able to get off the bench for OKC averaging just 14 minutes per game but has returned decent production when called upon. He can step back and shoot it from deep a little bit, and his per-36 numbers are in the same ballpark as Taj Gibson’s.
The most underrated aspect of this trade is what it does for the rest of the power forwards on the roster. This clears the way for Bobby Portis to get some run against NBA-level talent. He’s absolutely feasted in the D-League (G-League? Is that official yet?), and put together several solid games before the All-Star break. I have no doubt his presence on the roster made the move to ship Taj for Cameron Payne easier on the front office. Nikola Mirotic hasn’t developed how a lot of people thought he would, but with Taj out of the picture, there is really no excuse for his up-and-down play anymore. If he can’t get it done, Lauvergne can play a similar role on a much cheaper contract while Portis gets the rest of the year to get some quality run.
The Bulls focus should be improving the young talent around Jimmy Butler so they can try to compete for a title within Jimmy’s prime. Now that Taj is gone, I think there is a good chance Dwyane Wade is in a different uniform next season as well and they need to prepare for that. Butler is going to be the guy, but the Bulls need to find out what they have in guys like Payne, Grant, and Portis. It would be great to make the playoffs to get the youth on the roster some postseason experience, but even then, a first-round exit is the most likely scenario. The Bulls roster isn’t a dumpster fire by any means, they just need a few guys to emerge around Butler. Now is the time to find out if those guys are on the roster or not.