Two teams. One from the East. The other out West. Both are trending in opposite directions. Both are entering a potentially franchise-altering offseason.
In Chicago, the Bulls are eager to reach the next level. A 15-win improvement and first-round exit marked a successful season for the Bulls, who missed the postseason the previous four seasons and compiled the league’s worst winning percentage over that span.
In Utah, the Jazz are coming off their third first-round exit in four seasons. Quin Snyder abruptly resigned as Jazz coach last week, stepping down after eight seasons and setting off questions about where the franchise goes next.
With next Thursday’s NBA Draft fast approaching and free agency to follow, trade season is officially upon us. And if two teams seem like natural trade partners this summer it would be the Bulls and Jazz.
Chicago has a dire need for interior size and improved defense. Utah, which happens to have arguably the greatest defensive center in NBA history, is close to needing a new direction.
There’s an obvious potential blockbuster deal staring each franchise in the face. They see it. We see it. Everyone can see it. The question is whether the Jazz are willing — and ready — to part with Rudy Gobert, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
For insight into the current state of the Jazz and how a deal with the Bulls for Gobert could work for both teams, Jazz beat writer Tony Jones and Bulls beat writer Darnell Mayberry discuss options, fit and what such a massive swap could mean for both franchises.
Darnell Mayberry: From the outside looking in, I can understand why teams such as the Bulls would make calls on Gobert. He’s the league’s preeminent defensive big. He’s in his prime. He’s a game-changer.
More than that, Utah seemingly can’t keep rolling with the status quo. Star pairings have expiration dates. Championship windows close quickly. The Jazz have had five strong seasons led by Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, but they’ve never been out of the second round. One way or another, a breakup is not only likely but expected sooner rather than later.
What is your read on where the patience of the Jazz front office stands regarding their All-Star duo and how much longer they will stay with Gobert in particular?
Tony Jones: I think you read this one correctly. The Jazz seem to realize they need to change the structure of the roster a bit. What they have is one of the best defensive players of the generation, but not a lot of defensive help around him. They have one of the three best centers in the league, and he’s in his prime. They also have a roster that’s becoming a bit overbearing financially and they can use some flexibility.
The choices are hard, but here’s what it’s coming down to. To get a return that makes some sense, the Jazz probably have to part with one of their two best players. But they don’t want to part with Mitchell, so that leaves Gobert. That in and of itself is a hard decision.
Gobert is a game-changer. You are guaranteed a playoff team with Gobert. That’s how good a player he is in the regular season. But, this current core has reached a ceiling it hasn’t been able to punch through. Snyder — a major advocate of Gobert — is gone. Alex Jensen — the top assistant under Snyder and a favorite of Gobert — is a candidate to replace Snyder in the big chair, but that’s not guaranteed. The Jazz organization is changing and changing rapidly. So, those are some of the reasons Gobert, along with much of the remainder of the roster, is up for conversation. Darnell, why don’t you kick off a hypothetical scenario. What offer would you start with?
Mayberry: Sweeping changes within the Jazz organization, from ownership to management and now coaching, is what makes the situation in Utah so unpredictable. The Jazz have established a reputation as a model of consistency. Utah has missed the playoffs only eight times in the past 39 seasons. By comparison, the Bulls have missed the playoffs in half of the 24 seasons since Michael Jordan’s final year in Chicago. A respectable standard has been set in Utah. But that was the old guard.
If the new regime in Utah is ready to usher in a new era, the Bulls can help. If the primary objective for the Jazz in any Gobert discussions is to get off his money while recouping the best long-term assets possible, Chicago can offer Nikola Vučević’s expiring contract, Patrick Williams, Coby White and this year’s 18th overall pick. Vučević could be a one-year stopgap as Utah retools (perhaps trade bait at next season’s deadline) or a buyout candidate if the Jazz are interested in bottoming out. Again, the franchise’s history suggests to me a reboot is less likely than a retool. But you never know.
If I were the Bulls, I’d try to exclude Williams but wouldn’t be opposed to including him if his absence was a non-starter for the Jazz. But if the Jazz aim to dump the final four years, $170 million remaining on Gobert’s deal, the Bulls gain leverage and could drive a hard negotiation. In a nutshell, that’s about as attractive a package as the Bulls can offer.
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) June 12, 2022
Jones: For these reasons, I see a successful deal with the Bulls hard to come to for the Jazz. There are several issues at play, here. The Jazz do not want to take a step back within the Western Conference. So trading for Vučević stands in the way of that, given how leaky the rest of the roster is defensively.
The expiring deal is good and all, but the Jazz would almost have to have Williams included in the deal. The 18th pick in this draft can probably net Utah a nice piece. But White is utterly useless to Utah. There’s not a single reason for the Jazz to trade for him. He’s a ball-in-hand guard who doesn’t defend at a high level, who wouldn’t have the ball in his hands in Utah (because the Jazz have two of those much better than him in Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson). So, he’s even a worse fit than Vučević would be.
So, what are we left with? Williams has a very high ceiling, would fit into what the Jazz want to do and would fit Utah’s criteria of a young wing with length and athleticism who has a chance to be a star. But is he and the No. 18 pick of this year’s draft worth one of the top three centers in basketball? Because that’s what Gobert currently is.
If the Jazz did that trade, do you know what happens? Chicago becomes a potential 55-win team with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan still on the roster. The Bulls become maybe the best defensive team in the league because Gobert would be surrounded with more help defensively than he’s ever had at any point in his career. In short, the Bulls would be a monster. The object of a trade is for both sides to emerge as a winner. I think it would be extremely difficult for Utah to emerge as a winner here.
If Utah has to take back Vučević, Williams would have to be in the deal. For me, Alex Caruso or Ayo Dosumnu would have to be in the deal. Multiple first-round picks would have to be in the deal. If I’m the Jazz, if I’m turning Chicago into one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference — which is exactly what a roster with Gobert and LaVine and DeRozan would be — there has to be significant compensation in return. What would you counter with, Darnell?
Mayberry: Did I dial the wrong Utah number? Danny Ainge, is that you? Do you want Benny the Bull and the 1998 NBA Finals back too?
But you raise an interesting question, Tony, and that is what is the market for big men? More specifically, what’s the going rate for defensive big men? We haven’t seen a ton of movement with the game’s best big men, and it’s been forever since we’ve seen the return for a big man with hyper-specific, elite skills like Gobert. Jonas Valančiūnas and Steven Adams aren’t great examples, but they essentially were traded for each other (along with a lot of filler) last summer. Anthony Davis yielded New Orleans a hefty ransom back in 2019, but he is better as a two-way player than Gobert.
There’s also the fact Gobert turns 30 a week after Father’s Day and the lingering reality that the Jazz are stuck being good yet far from elite with him. Couple Gobert’s limitations with the massive amount of money remaining on his contract and I’m not so sure the Jazz hold all the cards in potential negotiations. You want to play hardball, Danny, err, I mean Tony, cool. Hang onto Gobert and have fun with another 45-to-50 win season and second-round exit — if everything breaks well for you!
Or, you can start with the shell of the deal presented and we could look to a third team for additional pot sweeteners. The common denominator in the aforementioned Davis deal and Adams-Valančiūnas swap was both trades included three teams and multiple players. My hunch is when the day comes that Gobert is traded, it’ll be a third team involved to make everyone happy.
Jones: Valančiūnas and Adams aren’t close to the players Gobert is, nor are they essentially one-man top 10 defenses like Gobert is. Davis is certainly not a better defender than Gobert. The Jazz were a 49-win team this season not because of their talent, but because their locker room was in shambles. They should have won 55 games rather easily. But, all of that is neither here nor there.
Here’s the bottom line. The Bulls have perimeter defenders the Jazz don’t have. What they didn’t have was the best rim protector and one of the best offensive vertical threats in the league. Gobert is a final piece for Chicago. You have to pay for the final pieces. I don’t think the Jazz are afraid to keep Gobert, especially for next season.
Sources have told me there is a world where the Jazz keep most of their top-seven core with the hope that a new coach energizes them. So, the Jazz aren’t going into this thinking they have to take 20 cents on the dollar for Gobert. The risk with Gobert isn’t next season. Or even the season after or the season after that. It’s when he’s 33 or 34 that his contract has the risk of getting ugly.
Gobert has been very durable to this point, and this past season he was as good as ever. He was easily the best defender in the league, despite voters’ insistence on not giving him what should have been his fourth DPOY. If you are the Jazz, you can’t give the Bulls as formidable a big three that LaVine and Gobert and DeRozan would be without getting a significant return. The question would be is there any middle ground?
Mayberry: Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Jazz are in a position to be concerned about helping build an Eastern Conference contender. They have plenty of issues of their own to iron out, and if a deal can accomplish their goals even while improving a rival they have to look at it. As you said, the goal is to find a win-win.
Maybe the Bulls would be open to including future draft capital. I cringe at the thought of how far the Bulls might go. But they own a 2023 lottery-protected first-round pick from Portland, and they could get wild and send Utah picks in 2026 or ’27. Chicago sent San Antonio its 2025 first-round pick as part of the DeRozan deal.
The Bulls would effectively mortgage their entire future if including Williams and any combination of those future selections. All for a two-year run powered by LaVine, DeRozan, Gobert, Ball and Caruso. It’s a tremendous start to a potential championship core. But a costly one, leaving little room to round out the roster with complementary talent. The Bulls’ window would be small and their margin of error smaller. Chicago would need to fill out its roster with additional shooting and come up with a functional offensive scheme that includes Gobert.
Without a stable of promising young players at their disposal, would a bevy of future Bulls picks, coupled with Vučević and Williams, bring Chicago closer? And what do you make of Gobert’s well-documented offensive limitations? A valid question for the Bulls — or any interested team — is why sacrifice so much for a player who at times can’t stay on the court in the postseason?
Jones: If the Jazz are getting Vučević and Williams and effectively 3-4 firsts, I think that gets the two sides a lot closer. For the Jazz, I want the future firsts to be as far into the future as possible. A 2023 or ’24 first will be in the deep 20s because the Bulls would be an elite team in those years.
This is what Gobert can and can’t do offensively. He is maybe the best screener in the league, and he’s gotten Mitchell a ton of open looks because of that. He’s such a good screener that Snyder based his offense around Gobert’s ability to do just that. He’s a terrific lob threat and an elite finisher above the rim. Once he catches, he dunks or he gets fouled. His gravity as a roll threat down the lane created some of the best spacing in the league in Utah, which allowed the Jazz to have the best offense in the league two years ago.
What he can’t do is punish a switch by posting and finishing. Not at a playoff level. And that’s one of the things that have sunk the Jazz in the last three or four seasons in the playoffs. They run into a team (James Harden-led Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks) that switches everything, and it kills Utah’s offense in that series. It’s his one weakness and it’s been fatal to the Jazz over the years.
I also think that weakness is a lot more masked in Chicago than it is in Utah. The Jazz had one elite playoff-level isolation creator. The Bulls have two, in LaVine and DeRozan. That means it’s a lot harder to switch everything against Chicago because there is more than one player who can attack a mismatch.
Is there risk involved for Chicago on a title level? Yes. Gobert with the other two all but guarantees multiple 50-55 win seasons. But Gobert’s one true weakness is his inability to attack switching mismatches. The narrative that he’s played off the floor defensively is garbage and has always been garbage. That offensive narrative at a playoff level, that’s real and has always been real. It’s also ironic that one narrative is talked about a lot more than the other.
I think the sweet spot in a potential deal here is Vučević and Williams and the picks package. But the picks would have to be there. The Jazz would then have further flexibility down the road, or even in this offseason. They would have a potential star in Williams. They would gain financial flexibility with Vučević.
The Bulls would make themselves one of the best teams in the league for the next 2-3 years.
Mayberry: The hope for the Bulls has to be a weak market for Gobert. Only so many destinations make sense. Contenders don’t need him and won’t drastically alter their rosters to get him. Rebuilding franchises also have no use for him and won’t squander current and future assets to acquire him. That leaves fringe contenders like the Bulls who are trying to go from good to great.
Chicago can’t bid against itself and mortgage its future, and I doubt Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas will. But the Bulls also didn’t come this far to turn back now. After pushing in chips to accelerate the process, they now have just two years left to contend with DeRozan. This summer could reveal how committed Chicago is to capturing another championship. The easy route is to run it back and bank on continuity and improved health bringing better results. The smarter play perhaps is to build out the roster with less costly acquisitions. The bold move is swinging big for a game-changer like Gobert.
This is the path the Bulls chose when they kick-started a win-now mission 15 months ago. Their window of title contention is open for the next two seasons. Gobert undoubtedly improves their chances.
But at what cost?
(Photo of Gobert: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)