Why Bulls trading Thad Young could be perilous proposition

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K.C. Johnson
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Why Bulls trading Thad Young could be perilous proposition originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bulls are 15-16 and on pace to finish 35-37, far ahead of preseason oddsmakers’ over/under victory totals.

Such a record would almost guarantee a spot in the NBA playoffs, which the Bulls haven’t tasted since their 2017 first-round exit that preceded the Jimmy Butler trade and previous management regime’s decision to plunge into a full rebuild.

Not unrelated: It’s one month until the NBA trade deadline. Do you know where Artūras Karnišovas is?

The trade deadline thrusts all lead basketball executives into the spotlight. You know, the people who must balance both the short- and long-term view of the franchise.

With just minor tweaks to the roster that Karnišovas and Marc Eversley inherited from John Paxson and Gar Forman and a major change to the coaching staff, the Bulls, now led by Billy Donovan, are trending upward. They project to possess significant salary-cap space this offseason. They own all their first-round picks.

And a roster that Karnišovas said underachieved last season is now overachieving, if preseason prognostications -- including one from this author, who predicted a 27-45 finish -- are your guide.

So what to do?

The impression surrounding this organization is that this season is largely one of evaluation. Karnišovas didn’t extend qualifying offers to Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison and replaced them with first-round pick Patrick Williams and free-agent signing Garrett Temple.

Otherwise, he left the roster intact. Attempts to reach a long-term extension of Lauri Markkanen’s rookie contract, which actually would’ve been at a lower salary-cap number than his cap hold, failed. Markkanen, who is injured again with a sprained shoulder, will be a restricted free agent.

Perhaps Exhibit A for what the new regime values will play out in the case of Thad Young. A strong argument could be made that Young is having the second-best season on the roster behind Zach LaVine.

But with his high production, dependable veteran status and team-friendly deal that features a partial guarantee next season, Young almost certainly will draw trade interest. ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote Thursday that his straw poll of league executives on who beyond Bradley Beal could change the playoff landscape if moved produced the unanimous response of Young.

Unless the return is a lottery pick or a promising young player, trading Young might be a mistake. This kind of production -- career-high assists average, a plus-7.1 net rating when he’s on the floor versus a minus-5.3 net rating when he’s off it -- no longer falls into the category of “get any asset” for him.

It’s easy to scoff at the concept of chasing mediocrity and perhaps landing a seventh or eighth seed only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. Particularly when Young, in his 14th season, probably won’t still be here if and when the Bulls enter a championship contention window.

However, there is value in tasting playoff basketball. Especially when Zach LaVine, in his seventh season, never has. Neither has Lauri Markkanen in his fourth season, Wendell Carter Jr. in his third, Coby White in his second and on down the line.

The Bulls have wandered in the wilderness for three seasons since the Butler trade. They're finally starting to emerge. Even before his All-Star selection, LaVine’s ascension this season has placed him, in the perception of three rival executives that NBC Sports Chicago talked to, not actively in the trade market.

And if you’re wondering about Young’s impact on LaVine, well, the Bulls’ net rating with LaVine and Young on the floor is plus-8.3 with an offensive rating of 120.2. With LaVine on the court and Young off, the net rating plummets to minus-8.2 and an offensive rating of 108.5.

"Thad has been, for me personally, the MVP of the team," LaVine said on Feb. 15. "He does a little bit of everything."

"Not only am I a teammate, we consider ourselves brothers," Young said of LaVine after the latter earned his first career All-Star selection.

When Karnišovas and general manager Marc Eversley took over, both executives hammered home the theme of player development. There is inherent player development in participating in playoff basketball. There is player development in Young’s leadership style.

If Young makes LaVine better both on and off the court, that's not insignificant.

This isn't to say Young should be kept at all costs. As previously mentioned, lead executives always must keep in mind the big picture while tending to the season at hand.

But the Bulls’ approach to the trade deadline regarding Young should be simple: Walk away unless the return is a significant asset. Now, if you want to talk the expiring contract of Otto Porter Jr...

NBC Sports Chicago's Rob Schaefer contributed to this report.

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