Jimmy Butler wasn't traded Thursday. But with the Celtics keeping their hoard of assets, that storyline merely gets pushed into June.
By then, the Bulls might have a better idea of whether a full rebuild is warranted or if some of the younger players who will get major dress rehearsals over the final 25 games justify building around Butler and the potential six-year, $220 million extension he might command.
The Bulls cleared the way for Bobby Portis to start at power forward, Denzel Valentine to enter the rotation and Paul Zipser to remain there with Thursday's five-player trade with the Thunder. They sent veteran forward Taj Gibson, disappointing shooter Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round draft pick to Oklahoma City for veteran swingman Anthony Morrow, third-year big man Joffrey Lauvergne and second-year point guard Cameron Payne.
Team officials said Lauvergne and Payne represent the younger and more athletic players they have been seeking since general manager Gar Forman made that infamous comment the day the Bulls traded Derrick Rose and began retooling the roster. Then they signed Rajon Rondo and fell into Dwyane Wade in free agency.
"When you're trying to develop and build a team with young players, you need them to get on the floor," executive vice president John Paxson said Thursday evening.John Paxson on Bulls' trade with Thunder
Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson reacts to the Bulls' trade with the Thunder on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. The Bulls acquired Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne in the trade and sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. (K.C. Johnson/Chicago Tribune)
Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson reacts to the Bulls' trade with the Thunder on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. The Bulls acquired Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne in the trade and sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. (K.C. Johnson/Chicago Tribune)See more videos
The 76ers, Nuggets, Suns, Celtics and possibly more teams engaged in talks centered on Butler, sources said. Whenever the Celtics brought the 2017 Nets first-round pick into play, sources said they added protection to a pick that could be first overall.
The Bulls, who also made clear they need two core players, might have listened more seriously to the Celtics' overtures for Butler if that pick had no protection, sources said.
"If we are ever in a position where we are going to rebuild completely, you have to have a certainty in terms of what you're getting back," Paxson said. "If you're going to go that route, you want draft picks. You want high draft picks. And there has to be a certainty to those draft picks.
"I can tell you there was nothing remotely close to anybody calling us about Jimmy Butler. Jimmy is a top-10 or -12 player in this league. We value him highly."
Do the Bulls value Butler enough to build around him long term?
"Jimmy is on our roster, and Jimmy is under contract for two more years," Paxson said. "He is a terrific player. This league is fluid, and things can change quickly.
"I've always felt this way about team building and a team in general: There are very few guys who you build around. This is a team game. You build with players. We are building with Jimmy right now.
"We think Cam Payne is a guy who can take some of the ball-handling role off Jimmy. He can run a team and do some things that way. But I'm a very firm believer that, maybe outside of a handful of guys who ever played this game, you build with players, not around one."
Photos of Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler.
Despite recent reports of factions — including a Tribune report in June that one decision-maker advocated for a full rebuild and trade of Butler to the Celtics — Paxson insisted the organization is aligned in its direction and stance on Butler.
"I guess I'm most discouraged by the narrative that's out there," Paxson said. "We're an organization. Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf), Gar and I are the decision-makers. You can get behind closed doors and disagree about things, you can debate, you can argue. But when we walk out and make a decision as an organization, we align as an organization. To make the leap from debate to division and saying that Gar and I aren't working together well or whatever, it's wrong. It's a false narrative.
"I care a lot about this organization and want what's best for it. I like the way we work. And the decisions we make, we make as a group, we make always in the best interests of the organization, and when we walk out of the room, we're aligned as an organization. It's as simple as that."
Paxson, who the Tribune reported will be retained along with Forman even if the Bulls miss the playoffs for a second straight season, also said he isn't quitting and will see the retooling process through.
He will do so with Payne, the 14th pick in 2015 who was stuck behind Russell Westbrook, and Lauvergne, a restricted free agent this summer.
"He's a very tough kid who plays hard and (teams) don't like playing against because he's always around the ball and playing hard," Paxson said of Lauvergne.Getty, AP photos
Center Joffrey Lauvergne, swingman Anthony Morrow and point guard Cameron Payne.
Center Joffrey Lauvergne, swingman Anthony Morrow and point guard Cameron Payne.(Getty, AP photos)
Payne suffered an acute fracture in his right foot in September, the same foot on which he had surgery in July to repair a Jones fracture of the same bone. The Thunder said the injuries were unrelated.
"We got all the things we needed to do medically and we're pretty confident about it," Paxson said. "When Cam came out in the draft, we were very, very high on him. We had some real good discussion about even trying to get him in that draft. We see him as a young guy who will develop and get better."
The trade essentially is Lauvergne and Payne for McDermott because Morrow, like Gibson, will be an unrestricted free agent and won't be re-signed. McDermott never met expectations after the Bulls traded up to draft him 11th in 2014.
"Our entire organization was on board," Paxson said. "Our coaching staff pushed very hard for us to move up to get Doug. They wanted him."
And now, like that Tom Thibodeau-led coaching staff, McDermott is gone. Butler remains — for now.
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