To trade or not to trade: Thad is the question

With 30 games in the rearview and just over 30 days until the trade deadline, it’s a good time to reflect on this Bulls season and think about how Artūras Karnišovas should approach his first trade season as the lead decision maker for a team.

As of this writing, the Bulls’ 14-16 record is good enough for 9th in the bunched up Eastern Conference; they trail the 6th seeded Boston Celtics by a game in the loss column, and have a one game advantage on the 11th place Hawks. They are clearly a cut above the Pistons, Cavaliers, Wizards, and injury plagued Magic. They need to outplay just one of the Hawks, Heat, Knicks, or Hornets to finish within the top ten of the conference and secure a spot in the play-in tournament, which seems likely!

Likely that is, unless Karnišovas decides to trade away Thaddeus Young before the March 25 deadline.

Despite not making a start this year and averaging just 25 minutes per game, Young has been the second most important player on the Bulls after Zach LaVine. Young is second on the team in Win Shares and Box Score plus/minus (if you ignore Cristiano Felicio’s 38 minutes played). The Bulls have a positive net rating of +6.7 points/100 possessions when Thad is on the court, and a -6.8 net rating when he’s on the bench. Of the Bulls five man lineups that have logged at least ten minutes on the court together, Thad is a member of nine of the top ten in net rating.

It seemed like Young’s career was headed into its twilight phase a year ago, miscast as a shooter in Jim Boylen’s unimaginative offense. But with new responsibilities allotted to him by Billy Donovan, Young has proven he has plenty to contribute to winning basketball. Stephen Noh wrote before the season began about how Donovan’s system in OKC allowed Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel to operate from the high post and log assist numbers they hadn’t sniffed under other coaches. While the article’s intent was to hype up potential development in Wendell Carter’s game, the way it’s really manifested itself thus far has been through Young’s playmaking.

Young is averaging 4.3 assists per game, after never averaging more the 2.5 in his previous 13 NBA seasons. He is second on the Bulls in assist percentage at 25.4%, which is more than double what he’s ever finished with for a season. “THADGIC JOHNSON” is the fun thing to tweet this year after a sweet pass for a bucket, but the way Young has taken advantage of disadvantaged defenses should have people calling him Thraymond Green. When teams have tried to trap LaVine and force the ball out of his hands, Young has made them pay by catching near the foul line and picking out cutters and shooters as the Bulls operate with a 4-on-3 advantage.

If the Bulls were to trade Thadeus, not only would they be losing a fulcrum of their offense and one of their better defenders, they would also be forcing inferior players into roles they’ve not shown to be capable of handling. Daniel Gafford didn’t show much promise during his run as starting center while Carter was injured. Billy Donovan exhumed Luke Kornett for a few nights before being swiftly returned to the depths of the bench, where he belongs. Young is the Bulls’ best option at backup center on the roster, and has closed games well at the five even on nights Carter is available, giving the team a small-ball element that’s been sorely lacking in years past. Moving on from Young would shoehorn the Bulls into more traditional lineups who have traditionally put up poor results.

Having Young keeps the Bulls respectable. Solid. Not a joke. Is that really why we invest ourselves in a team? So they can hopefully rise to the ranks of “not that bad, I guess”? Yes, trading Young could cause the bottom to fall out on this season, but would that be the worst thing?

Young certainly has value as a trade target. The 32 year old has just one year left on his contract at $14 million, and could be bought out and waved for just $6 million. A team looking to free up $8 million in cap space could send the Bulls back $14 million worth of bad salary and some draft capitol, enjoy the fruits of his labor for the stretch run and save $8 million on their 2021-22 books.

What would the Brooklyn Nets be willing to part with to add a capable interior presence to their potent offensive group? Could Denver see Young as a serious upgrade over the production they’re getting from JayMychal Green? Does Milwaukee really want to count on Bobby Portis in the postseason?

All of those teams could offer up a mix of second round picks, or possibly a well protected first rounder in the future. Thad isn’t going to fetch a high caliber prospect, but it’s possible a team would be willing to part with somebody young they don’t consider a part of their core. These could be assets used to bulk up the Bulls when they eventually have a chance at contention, a time that will not happen before Young’s value on the court has dramatically diminished. Trading Young before the deadline would also do wonders for the Bulls’ own draft pick this season. Are all of these potential benefits to a trade really worth it to keep the dream of squeaking into the playoffs for the right to be sacrificed in the first round?

A few years ago, I would have emphatically said yes. Winning is a Process, and there are clear steps to follow. But after three years of dreck and drudgery, I’m starting to sing a new tune. I’m actually enjoying Bulls basketball! There is value in not being a dumpster fire, building a competitive culture throughout the organization, and staking out the Bulls as a rising team that appeals to future free agents.

Young’s impact is easily quantifiable on the court, and he seems to be making an equally large one off of it. Is whoever the 48th pick of the 2023 NBA draft going to contribute more than Thad is to the growth of Carter, LaVine and the rest of the young team? I’m skeptical!

The Bulls have a lot of big decisions ahead of them. LaVine’s next contract will be a defining moment for this team, and what the front office thinks of the long term upside of Markkanen, Carter and White are all decisions I’m glad I don’t have to make. But the choice for whether or not to hold onto Thaddeus Young for the remainder of the season looks much simpler.

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