For the first time since 2017, the Chicago Bulls are competing for a playoff spot—currently sitting one game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s not often that a team with a losing record (10-14) instills hope in a fanbase, but with a clear vision from the front office and a surging Zach LaVine, a return to the postseason is well within reach.
This isn’t to say that no improvements need to be made as the March 25 trade deadline approaches. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., two core big men, have once again found themselves sidelined due to injury, impacting an already-bad defense and leaving questions about their futures with the team.
The front office regime is yet to make a trade since taking over last spring, and with a few glaring issues in the roster, these trades could lead to significant strides that elevate the Bulls’ chances of returning to postseason glory.
Back-up big provides rebounding and rim protection
Chicago receives: JaVale McGee
Cleveland receives: Chandler Hutchinson, Luke Kornet, 2021 second-round pick
While this seems like a loss on paper for the Cavs, none of these players are currently seeing the floor for their respective teams. Since Cleveland acquired Jarrett Allen from Brooklyn in the James Harden trade, McGee has seen his playing time dwindle, recording eight DNPs in Cleveland’s last 12 outings.
With Wendell Carter Jr. set to reenter the starting lineup within the next two weeks, McGee can provide necessary rebounding and shot-blocking off the bench for a Chicago team that ranks 27th in points allowed and 26th in blocks. In 18 appearances this season, McGee has averaged 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in only 15.6 minutes per night.
Before Carter’s injury, Daniel Gafford served as the primary backup center, and while he's provided energy on both ends of the floor filling in as a starter, both players tend to be mismatched against dominant centers. McGee, who stands at seven-feet, brings necessary size into a rotation that so desperately needs it. All season I’ve been yelling that Chicago needs someone tall.
McGee’s size and rim-running abilities will help in the short-term goal of reaching the playoffs, and even though he’s on an expiring deal, his veteran presence and championship pedigree will assist in the development of the young roster. Otto Porter Jr., Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky, and Garrett Temple have been an excellent veteran second-unit thus far; McGee will only add to it.
2017 top-ten picks swapped ahead of restricted free agency
Chicago receives: Lonzo Ball
New Orleans receives: Lauri Markkanen
Both Ball and Markkanen failed to reach extensions on their rookie contracts with their respective franchises; it might be in their best interests to receive fresh starts with new franchises. Ball has recently been the subject of trade rumors, with Chicago reportedly being a top suitor. Markkanen, who is averaging 19.1 points and 6.1 rebounds, has been great offensively, but his future in Chicago has seemingly been up in the air since he was drafted.
New Orleans currently ranks 25th in three-point attempts and 24th in three-point makes—something that Markkanen can improve, as he's making 39.6% of his 7.2 attempts from deep. While the Pelicans would be giving up a once-coveted asset that helped facilitate Anthony Davis' arrival in Los Angeles, Markkanen is the same age and has shown his upside (when healthy).
Since Ball appeared in the rumor mill, he's been playing his best basketball of the year, averaging 18 points (50/52/89), 6.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists over his last five games. For Ball to truly succeed, he needs to be in the right system. He's currently surrounded by a lot of non-shooters, hindering his ability to effectively run the offense. Ball would fit Billy Donovan's system perfectly and provide a boost to the starting lineup. While Ball's arrival in Chicago would likely move Coby White to the bench, it might better serve White's strengths as a score-first guard. Ball is a certified playmaker and would create increased scoring opportunities for White and LaVine.
Chicago's offense puts up the fourth-most points per game and plays at the third-highest pace, fitting Ball's ability to run the floor and effortlessly toss full-court passes. How fun would a Ball and LaVine fastbreak be? Pretty damn fun, I'll say. Chicago's offense would not only improve with Ball at the helm, but also run more efficiently—lessening turnovers and creating shots for a team that already ranks tenth in three-point makes.
It's no secret that Chicago's defense is bad, as they allow the seventh-most points and rank 22nd in defensive rating. Ball is one of the best defensive guards in the league; his size allows him to guard multiple positions. He's a tenacious perimeter defender and grabs boards at an above-average rate for guards (career 5.9 per game). Ball on the Bulls is simply a match made in Heaven; while he doesn't make them a Finals contender, he brings improvements to every area Chicago needs to fix.
Struggling Magic cut cap space and look to the future
Chicago receives: Nikola Vucevic, Gary Clark
Orlando receives: Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., 2021 first-round pick
If this is stupid, please feel free to tell me. I was toying around with the ESPN Trade Machine trying to find an All-Star player to put on the team and this worked.
Zach LaVine has blossomed into a bonafide star, leading Chicago to the cusp of a playoff spot. If Chicago wants to speed-up the retooling process and (almost certainly) guarantee themselves a trip to the postseason, then why not add another All-Star?
For the last two seasons, the Orlando Magic have slipped into the playoffs, only to be bounced in the first round. They currently sit at 9-16 (10th in the East) and have lost eight of their last 10 games. Orlando's franchise center, Nikola Vucevic, has been with the team since 2012 and is in the midst of a career year, averaging 23.3 points (48.1/41.7/80.3), 11.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks. At 30 years old, the Magic won't be able to build around Vucevic much longer and provide him with the opportunity to compete for the playoffs during his prime.
The addition of Vucevic instantly makes the Bulls a playoff lock. As one of the league's best offensive bigs, Vucevic's ability to stretch the floor and hit threes at an elite rate would only improve an already-stellar Chicago offense. LaVine has been the focus of opposing defenses—especially when his teammates are struggling—but the presence of Vucevic would allow both players to operate without constant double-teams and pressure to give the ball up. If the Bulls want to become serious contenders, LaVine needs an All-Star partner. The upcoming free agent classes don't have many franchise-altering talents—especially in their prime—and Vucevic has three years remaining on his contract at $26 million per year. For an All-Star talent putting up Vucevic's numbers, that contract would be a steal for the Bulls.
Orlando needs to rebuild (again) and Wendell Carter Jr. is a young asset with high upside. Before getting hurt, Carter was coming into his role as a rebounder and interior defender, playing with much more confidence and consistency. As for Otto Porter Jr., his $28 million deal comes off the books this season, leaving Orlando with cap space to retool their roster in free agency. Chicago and Orlando are headed in opposite directions, but this trade fast-tracks each of their paths.