By Jesse Blanchard
On draft night, NBA teams have five minutes between picks to make a decision they hope will shape the next 10 years of their franchise.
The draft remains the best means of building a team with rookie contracts capped well below the best players’ value and giving teams control over players for an extended period of time; owning the first four years of a career with the ability to extend a qualifying offer that restricts free agency and virtually locks him into a second contract with the team.
Still, even though a team owns the rights to a player for more than half a decade, the span of time in which a team truly controls its own destiny is decidedly shorter.
Years of consequences are packed into the five minutes an NBA team is on the clock, yet the pressure still pales in comparison to the true countdown that begins once a coveted draft pick is selected.
A roster is never more fluid than in the moments after a team lands its franchise player. Timelines and plans reset, affording a front office the luxury of shaking loose everything that doesn’t fit moving forward. Most rookies aren’t good enough to immediately transform a team on their own, giving front offices one or two more shots at a lottery pick.
Costs for young franchise cornerstones are controlled, with many rookies who last with the team at least outplaying their contract. But like a new car driving off the sales lot, the value depreciates with every mile.
Three or four years into the life of an assembled core of players, rosters become rigid and the paths to improvement get harder to navigate. Contract extensions come due, decisions get tougher. Without prime draft picks and dwindling cap space, retaining ancillary pieces gets expensive as lesser players leverage a team’s lack of options into contracts above market value.
Superstars are rare. Teams can spend years lost in lottery mediocrity seeking a player who gives the team identity and direction. Once a player talented enough to fit the bill is found, teams are reluctant to part with them. But for all the impact and talent one player may have, if a team fails to find the right foundational pieces before the proverbial cement dries, it is probably better to move on, even if the opportunities to find an equally talented player are exceedingly rare.
Last Thursday, the Chicago Bulls traded their All-NBA franchise player, sending Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick, which the Bulls used on Lauri Markkanen.
The Bulls’ inability to build around Butler is a cautionary tale of botched draft picks and trade mistakes. But, in fairness to John Paxson and Gar Forman, it’s also a story of bad timing and unfortunate circumstances beyond a team’s control. The circumstances surrounding the rise of Jimmy Butler provided a very narrow margin of error that even good front offices would struggle with.
Butler was a late first round pick joining an Eastern Conference Finalist, working his way from defensive specialist to All-Star and, finally, All-NBA.
The Bulls, when Butler arrived, featured Derrick Rose, who, at 22 years old a season earlier, was the youngest MVP in NBA history. Tom Thibodeau was Coach of the Year after his first season as a head coach, designing defensive schemes that would change the NBA landscape.
Joakim Noah, with All-Defensive Second Team honors, and Luol Deng, a burgeoning All-Star, were 25 years old and just entering their primes. Taj Gibson, 25, was a revelation as a defensive role player; and the team, with Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik and Kyle Korver, appeared to have the requisite depth to challenge LeBron James for Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come.
We know the history. Rose suffered a series of injuries he never recovered from and Thibodeau seemed intent to cram a decade’s worth of contention into the span of just a few years, wearing Noah and Deng down to the nubs.
In July of 2012, the Bulls jettisoned its effective bench. Names like Asik, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer don’t inspire in hindsight, but Korver was sent the Atlanta Hawks for cash and a trade exception that was never used. For an over-the-cap team to let go of rotation players in cost-cutting moves without returning assets to replace them is negligence.
(As is declaring yourself fa rebuilding team, drafting Jordan Bell in the top 40 and then selling him to the Golden State Warriors for cash).
Butler’s Bulls were born old and bloated. The first year they had impactful draft assets (picks 16 and 19), they traded them to the Denver Nuggets to take Doug McDermott at 11 in the 2014 NBA Draft, seeking to replace the shooting they let go in Korver a few years earlier. Their lone lottery pick of Butler’s tenure, taken last summer, was Denzel Valentine at 14.
Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris, the two players the Nuggets took with the Bulls’ picks, would have at least offered the Bulls enough promising young talent to warrant holding onto Butler a little longer; or trade assets to find more immediate help.
The first time the Bulls had any bit of cap flexibility during the Butler era, they used it on poor fits in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. During the season, they traded Gibson, McDermott and a second round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow.
Butler was supposed to be an addition to an elite team. Instead, he became a life raft. And though the circumstances were far from ideal, Paxson and Forman made a number of below the water line mistakes that would sink most front offices.
Though the trade left the Bulls with far less than they began with, it gives the front office a chance to step back and start building from a more stable foundation—not unlike the Timberwolves did when they moved on from Kevin Love with the Andrew Wiggins trade.
Minnesota built a base of talent with Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins and LaVine without rushing the process. They were then proactive in consolidating some of their assets before the roster became expensive, cashing in for Butler.
Like players, front offices can have different strengths and weaknesses. Paxson and Forman struggled to maneuver out of a tight spot and even took steps that hurt the team, but we’ve also seen failed executives succeed when given an opportunity to step back and learn from mistakes.
After a disappointing stint in Toronto, Bryan Colangelo deftly cashed in the 76ers assets to move up and grab Markelle Fultz with the first pick. The 76ers still have a few years before the roster solidifies, meaning there’s still time to consolidate players and picks into better talent.
On the same night the Bulls ended the Butler era for pennies on the dollar, the Sacramento Kings showed how much a front office can improve when its not backed into a corner trying to salvage a failed core.
The Kings had a player with top 10 talent in DeMarcus Cousins. Still, years of blown lottery picks (Jimmer Fredette, Ben McClemore and Nik Stauskas), expensive middling acquisitions (Rudy Gay, Rondo) and general ineptness frittered away the window for building around Cousins.
At last season’s trade deadline, Vlade Divac and the Kings finally relented and traded Cousins (along with Omri Casspi) to the New Orleans Pelicans for struggling Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and the Pelicans’ 2017 first (10) and second (34, from Philadelphia) round draft picks. The odds of landing a player as talented as Cousins are slim, but there are now more paths towards a better team now that they’ve taken a step back.
Here is our own Bryan Toporek on the Kings’ draft:
In terms of selections alone, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… the Sacramento Kings. De’Aaron Fox (No. 5) is a dream fit alongside Buddy Hield, as they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly. Hield is a sharpshooter who won’t lock down opposing guards, while Fox is the second coming of Patrick Beverley defensively but needs to improve his shooting stroke. Trading the No. 10 pick to Portland for Nos. 15 and 20 was a risk with Malik Monk still on the board, but grabbing Justin Jackson and Harry Giles with those two picks gives Sacramento a young, intriguing starting five for the post-Boogie era. Getting Frank Mason at No. 34 overall was the icing on the cake. Kudos to the Kings for having a clear vision to pursue a youth movement in the wake of February’s DeMarcus Cousins trade.
The autopsies of Butler’s Bulls and Cousins’ Kings are important to the Pelicans, who have struggled to build around one of basketball’s most unique talents in Anthony Davis.
Since drafting Davis in 2012, the Pelicans have made the playoffs one season and have none of their own lottery picks to show for it; having traded their 2013 lottery pick (Nerlens Noel) and 2014 first round pick (10, Elfrid Peyton) to the 76ers for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson.
Cousins possibly represents the Pelicans’ last meaningful opportunity to cash in on top 10 picks in the Davis era.
The Pelicans missed on each of their big spending items (Holiday, Asik, Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson), wasting its cap flexibility while Davis was on his rookie contract. After losing Anderson and Gordon for nothing last summer, they used what cap space they had on Solomon Hill and E’twaun Moore.
Davis is locked up long term with the last year of his contract being the 2020-2021 season. But Cousins can walk after next season, so success next season is imperative. For the Cousins trade to matter, the team must retain Holiday, who is an unrestricted free agent.
New Orleans owns Holiday’s Bird rights, so they can go over the cap up to the max to re-sign him. If he leaves, the cap space ($13.8 million according to Real GM) it opens up isn’t significant enough to bring back a similar quality player or enough depth to offset the loss.
Holiday is one year removed from being a perpetual injury risk, which means he’s still an injury risk. The Pelicans have very little leverage in terms of dollars or years, and retaining Holiday in itself isn’t enough to guarantee success on the level they need to convince Cousins to stay next season.
The Pelicans could conceivably max out Holiday, eating precious cap flexibility, and still find themselves in the same position the Bulls were in before the Butler trade: with an All-NBA talent rendered irrelevant on a team with few avenues to improve.
Further pressuring teams is the super max extension the NBA created to help teams retain young, All-NBA talent.
The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a similar position to the Bulls in that the team was a powerhouse built with the expectation of having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and now must reconfigure around a solo Westbrook without lottery picks or cap flexibility to quickly overhaul the roster.
If Westbrook signs the extension, it becomes harder for the Thunder to improve. It will be expensive just to retain the talent it has on hand and, with Westbrook already 28, there likely isn’t much time to rebuild a new core with him at his peak.
Butler, Cousins, Davis. All three are talents that take teams years to acquire, yet two of the three were moved and the third could be one free agent decision away from being on the clock himself.
Five minutes on draft night can come and go in the blink of an eye for a general manager; but if the Bulls with Jimmy Butler have proven anything, the next five years can fly by before they even know it.