In an alternate universe, an exciting Chicago Bulls young core has them fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and putting the franchise in a credible position to get summer meetings with top free agents like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, among many others.
In reality, the Bulls have suffered through a disastrous 2018-19 campaign featuring a lot of injuries, a lot of losses, a lot of drama and a coaching change. With so much negativity surrounding the organization and no tangible steps forward on the court, Chicago recognized it wasn’t going to be a major player in free agency and traded Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis to the Washington Wizards for Otto Porter Jr.
The Bulls are also sending a top-36 protected second-round pick in 2023 to the Wizards, according to Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer.
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Porter signed a four-year, $106.52 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets in 2017, which the Wizards matched, but Washington decided to clear the books a bit with this move in the aftermath of John Wall’s Achilles injury. Parker is effectively an expiring contract because of his $20 million team option for next season, while Portis is set to be a restricted free agent.
Whether or not the Bulls would be willing to take on long-term money was a major question leading up to this trade deadline, and they answered it emphatically by trading for Porter. The 25-year-old’s 15% trade kicker was voided, so he’s owed $27.25 million next season and then $28.49 million in 2020-21, which is a player option he’ll likely exercise. Chicago could’ve realistically opened up around $45 million in cap space if it wanted, but now that number is set to be around $19 million:
— Kevin Anderson (@Kevin_NBCS) February 7, 2019
That amount of cap space will still be useful to fill out the roster, but it takes the Bulls out of play for the big free agents. While it’s a shame this franchise in this market isn’t in a position to make a starry splash in free agency, that doesn’t mean this trade is bad. While Porter is overpaid on his current contract, just think of this trade as a bloated, short-term free-agent signing for a player who should actually help Chicago move forward in its rebuild. Also, don’t forget that the salary cap is projected to balloon all the way up to $118 million in 2020-21, which will make his contract more palatable, and the 2020 class of free agents doesn’t project to be all that strong.
The Bulls had a gaping hole at small forward, and Porter will slide in nicely at that spot as a versatile 3-and-D player. Even in a down season marred by injury, he’s averaging 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 45.7% from the field and 36.9% from 3. He was really good the last two seasons with the Wizards, averaging 13.4 points with a 51.6%/43.4%/83.2% shooting line in 2016-17 and then 14.7 points with a 50.3%/44.1%/82.8% shooting line last season. He was even 13th in the NBA with a plus-4.96 Real Plus-Minus in 2017-18, per ESPN.
Porter is limited in terms of shot creation and playmaking, and there’s concern he might not flourish on a developing Bulls team currently lacking an elite creator like Wall. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton addressed his qualms about Porter’s fit in Chicago:
As for the right situation, I don’t think that’s Chicago. Porter is a solid complementary piece, a capable defender who scores with high efficiency in a limited role. He’s a career 39 percent 3-point shooter who made better than 43 percent of his attempts each of the previous two seasons before dipping to 37 percent so far in 2018-19. There’s little question, it’s true, that the Bulls could use a player such as that alongside Zach LaVine on the wing. Porter is a vastly superior fit to Parker.
The issue is that Porter isn’t good enough to lift a bad team such as Chicago into competitiveness. Acquiring him will work out only if the Bulls’ young talent develops enough over the next two seasons to put him in the right context. In particular, Chicago needs to find a point guard of the future, with Kris Dunn failing to seize that mantle this season.
These are fair concerns, but a healthy Porter (he has been dealing with a recurring hip issue) should improve the Bulls next season as they try to regain respectability and take a meaningful step forward with their rebuild. He may even make them marginally better this season as well, but it shouldn’t be enough to derail their tank plans, especially with the flattened lottery odds. Chicago comfortably holds the fourth-worst record at 12-42, and the No. 4 slot in the lottery holds a 12.5% chance at the No. 1 pick, compared to a 14.0% chance for each of the top three teams. Getting in the top three is also not out of the question.
If the Bulls do get the No. 1 pick, this trade shouldn’t stop them from taking Duke’s Zion Williamson. Yes, Porter, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are all there in the frontcourt, but Williamson is the clear top talent in the 2019 NBA Draft. Chicago could make it work, and there could always be another trade in the future to balance out the roster, or even cash in for a proven star.
If the Bulls don’t get the No. 1 pick but wind up with No. 2 or No. 3, they’ll likely have eyes on Murray State point guard Ja Morant. With Kris Dunn failing to establish himself as the point guard of the future so far, Chicago could take Morant and wind up with a starting lineup featuring Morant, LaVine, Porter, Markkanen and Carter. That’s at least intriguing with potential.
As for the players the Bulls traded away, it just never worked out for Parker in his hometown. He was a disaster to begin the season, and while he picked up steam after his sluggish start, the writing was on the wall when he was removed from the rotation for an extended period of time.
Portis is a tougher loss, and he clearly took the trade hard:
Judging by the short walks they had down the hallway at the UC, Parker was much more prepared to be traded. Portis looked completely shocked and didn’t want to talk. He dropped his Bulls jersey as he walked down the hall. He had been wearing it moments before.
— Maggie Hendricks (@maggiehendricks) February 7, 2019
However, it’s not a total surprise Portis was dealt. While he’s a skilled player who can get buckets, he’s a one-way player who topped out as a third big on the Bulls’ roster thanks to the presence of Markkanen and Carter. Chicago may have initially still been willing to pay Portis as a restricted free agent even after he turned down $50 million guaranteed last offseason, but when this opportunity to acquire Porter and fill a clear need presented itself, it made sense to pull the trigger on this deal.
The Bulls are definitely taking a gamble with this Otto Porter Jr. trade, but given their current standing in the NBA, it’s a reasonable one.