Amid rampant speculation surrounding a potential Jimmy Butler blockbuster, the Bulls instead made a smaller rebuild-oriented move before Thursday’s trade deadline. Chicago traded longtime frontcourt stalwart Taj Gibson and 2014 lottery selection Doug McDermott to the Thunder in exchange for another former lottery pick in Cameron Payne, along with Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow. The Bulls also sent a 2018 second-rounder in the deal. The trade was first reported by The Vertical’s Shams Charania.
Who won the deal? Let's grade both sides.
After balking at a reported PauGasol deal with Sacramento one year ago, Chicago ensured it would get something in return for Gibson, a well-respected, hard-nosed power forward who went through plenty of playoff battles with the Thibodeau Bulls teams of old. He averaged 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds on a guard-heavy Bulls roster in his age-31 season. With his contract set to expire and the Bulls mostly headed nowhere, finding a deal for their most fluid trade piece felt sensible. Chicago was reportedly hot after Andre Roberson, but the Thunder intend to keep the defensive specialist in free agency. The Bulls made a deal anyway, if in unspectacular fashion.
At the center of Chicago’s return is Payne, a 22-year-old lottery pick in the 2015 draft best known for being Russell Westbrook’s pregame dance routine partner. He missed two months this season with a broken foot and has struggled to make a serious impact off the bench for the Thunder. Some were high on his upside out of college, pegging him as the backup point guard OKC had searched for as the Westbrook-Durant era waned. But he has yet to deliver on that promise either as a scorer or playmaker, and has not been a consistent three-point threat. Chicago inherits Payne under a few years of cheap team control, but adds him to a glut of uninspiring young point guards amid what remains a half-baked rebuild.
The deal makes sense philosophically, but fails to move the needle for the Bulls, who surrender another struggling former lottery pick in McDermott and a future second-round draft asset. It’s flawed logic, but still worth pointing out that the team surrendered two first-rounders in the 2014 draft just to land the small forward, who’s had successful spurts (and shot 42% from three last season) but failed to make the immediate impact Chicago hoped from a dominant four-year college player. If anything, it again sheds light on the front office’s recent struggles on the scouting and draft fronts. Lauvergne is a decent rotational big man and Morrow a serviceable shooting specialist, and both will come off the books next season.
Save for Payne emerging as Chicago’s most promising long-term guard, the Bulls continue to tread water. Gibson, a beloved locker-room presence, is gone. Jimmy Butler, and to a lesser degree, Nikola Mirotic (who Chicago also tried to move) are the lone leftovers from the Thibs era. The Bulls’ onus now moves to the off-season, where they’ll again be faced with the possibility of a Butler trade come draft-time. For Chicago, this line of action puts the future on hold yet again.
Oklahoma City comes out the winner from this deal, with clear places for Gibson and McDermott in their rotation and netting a draft asset, to boot. They did this while hanging onto Roberson, one of the league’s better perimeter defenders who’s made improvements to his shooting and adds toughness to a playoff-bound team. Gibson will be great in the locker room and lessen the pressure on rookie DomantasSabonis, particularly with EnesKanter still injured. Pair him with Steven Adams, and you’ve got the defensive-minded frontcourt pairing they’ve lacked. He’s on an expiring deal and can in theory be re-signed at a reasonable price. McDermott can still help with his shooting and should naturally benefit from all the defensive attention on Westbrook.
As the Thunder push forward around Russell Westbrook, they’re sending the right signals about their mindset as a franchise, even in a competitive West. They’re likely still one star away from returning to the upper echelon of the conference, but are positioned to perhaps steal a first-round series and go from there. The added depth helps short-term, the cap flexibility is a clear plus, and they surrender next-to-nothing in the process. Perhaps it was early to give up on Payne, but the logic is perfectly sensible. Doug McDermott may not dance, but something tells me Westbrook and Payne might stay on speaking terms.