Championship or bust has been the motto this past decade in the NBA. As some franchises have loaded up on stars in an attempt to win championships, others have torn their rosters down to the studs in an attempt to land the next big thing. This season has been strange because more clubs than usual find themselves firmly in NBA limbo -- neither bad enough to land a top pick nor good enough to be more than playoff fodder.

Nine teams in particular find themselves in this no-man’s land. We’ll take a look at each of these club’s situations and examine how potential paths forward will affect their organization, the trade deadline and the league itself going forward.

First Up: The Chicago Bulls 

The Path to the Middle of the Pack:

If there’s one obvious place to start in an assessment of the Bulls, it’s their shooting. Or more aptly put, the lack of it. As of now, Chicago is the proud owner of the league’s worst Effective Field Goal percentage, per our own RealGM data. Everything about what the Bulls are and where they are going begins with breaking down how the front office has assembled the worst shooting team in the league. 

Some of this performance, as is often the case, is due to factors outside management’s control. Free agent guard Isaiah Canaan, one of the few offseason moves made with floor spacing in mind, has converted just 26.5 percent of his shots from deep -- well below his career mark of 35.3 -- and is currently out of the rotation (and maybe soon, the NBA). Three-point ace Doug McDermott has missed 12 games this season. And though Nikola Mirotic’s long-range prowess has been mostly theoretical during his NBA career, even he’s checking in below his own middling standards so far this season. Call it variance, bad luck or whatever else you want, those things have certainly contributed to the Bulls being such a lackluster group of shotmakers.

But chalking Chicago’s shooting (and general offensive) woes strictly to the whims of the basketball gods would overlook the fact that most of the team’s issues have been self-inflicted. Signing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo are part of a larger NBA trend of teams being attracted to shiny objects, rather than unglamorous things that actually win basketball games. Trading for Michael Carter-Williams, a Rondo-esque player without the elite passing chops, for Tony Snell also seemed counterproductive to building a balanced squad. It’s just hard to imagine an offseason where a club can acquire three players with well-documented shooting deficiencies and expect an outcome much different than this reality.

After a hot start, mostly fueled by their defense, Chicago has leveled out in large part due to their below average offense -- the team ranked 17th per our RealGM rankings entering Tuesday’s game. A recent uptick in performance coincided with some lineup tinkering -- brought on by the most recent Rondo drama -- by Fred Hoiberg.

Rondo hadn’t appeared in any of the past five games before coming off the bench against the Wizards on Tuesday night and it seems as though management isn’t sure of his future with the team. Carter-Williams has replaced him as a starter with Jerian Grant filling in as the backup (though Grant started against Washington with Butler out). Hoiberg has begun to lean on just one of the Wade/Carter-Williams duo to close out games recently. That tendency has continued to achieve the goal of finding more minutes for the duo of McDermott and Mirotic, the latter of whom is enjoying a good run of form from behind the arc -- 39.3 percent -- entering their game against the Wizards.

It’s snapped the Bulls out of their most recent funk but hasn’t allayed any fears that this roster simply won’t be strong enough to make real noise in the playoffs, if they even qualify. But with Butler’s name popping up in the rumor mill and only a month-ish to go before the deadline, Chicago is going to have to figure out quickly if this recent run is a mirage in the desert or a real oasis in the middle of season derailed by an offensive drought.

In order to get closer to that answer, it’s best to take a deeper look at these recent changes, the most notable being the Rondo benching and its ripple effect on the rotation. For as much flak as he’s received, Rondo hasn't been as damaging to the team as you’d be led to believe -- at least on the court. In fact, Chicago is better with him, positing a positive scoring margin of 1.2 points per 48 minutes when Rondo plays versus -0.8 when he sits, per data.

And to attribute Butler’s recent surge to Rondo’s absence would also be going against the data. Butler’s numbers generally remain consistent with or without Rondo playing alongside him with one exception: his 3-point field goal percentage. With Rondo on the court creating open looks, Butler is shooting nearly seven percentage points higher (37.0 to 30.6) on more overall attempts (73 to 62), according to

That’s why it’s seems like a stretch to think Rondo’s absence has unlocked a more potent Bulls team. That’s especially true when you see that Chicago, despite the recent hot streak, is actually being outscored by 6.4 points per 48 in the 241 minutes current starter Carter-Williams has played while holding a  1.1 points per 48 edge when he’s not - a 7.5 point swing.

As a backup, Grant has mostly been a wash as far as on/off splits. The worrisome part is that Grant’s individual numbers haven’t yet painted a future NBA regular. With 1701 minutes now under his belt, Grant has neither flashed the ability to score efficiently (career True Shooting percentage of 47.9) nor distribute the basketball. While assist rates can be inflated simply by how much a player has the ball in his hands, Grant’s two seasons have seen him post a meager career assist rate of 19.7 percent -- a number currently being outpaced by the season marks posted by centers Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins and Al Horford. 

Pinning the hopes of elite results with a Carter-Williams-Grant duo seems a little overzealous. On top of that, honing in on like-for-like swaps in the traditional positional sense also obscures that the Bulls problems aren’t coming from a specific position, rather an inability to field lineup combinations for 48 NBA minutes that give them an elite edge over opponents. Going back to Rondo, you can start to get a better look at these issues.

As we noted before, Butler’s performance actually improved with Rondo alongside him. As a two-man group, Rondo and Butler actually outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 48 minutes, an improvement over their team total of +0.2 per 48. Those two posted an offensive rating nearly two full points higher than the Bulls’ current season mark. But the smoking gun for the Bulls mediocrity comes when you start adding to the pieces around a backcourt of Butler and a non-shooting point guard.

Take a look at the following three-man lineup combinations:


Total Minutes

Point Differential per 48













If you broke this down by crude player types, the Rondo-Wade-Butler and Carter-Williams-Wade-Butler trios would feature a ball-dominant, non-shooting passer, a ball-dominant, non-shooting slasher/scorer and versatile scoring wing. The Rondo-Butler-McDermott and Carter-Williams-Butler-McDermott groupings replaces a ball dominant slasher/scorer in Wade with McDermott, one of the league’s most respected shooters.

It’s not as though McDermott is generally a superior player than Wade, a future Hall of Famer. It’s more that he simply offers a skill that augments the abilities better than the declining Wade does. And when you survey the landscape of today’s NBA, where spacing is paramount to offensive (and maybe overall) success, it should come as no surprise to see these results (though again, it’s a ridiculously small sample in the latter two combinations’ case). 

A similar effect happens in the Bulls' frontcourt. Given their skill sets, the Bulls essentially start two centers in today’s NBA. Both Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez possess competency in the post -- both rank in the upper third of points per possession, per Synergy data -- and range on their jumpers outside the paint, but not out to the 3-point line. 

There are ways to meld frontcourt players like that into an elite offense, but it essentially comes to playing like the Spurs -- which is nearly impossible to replicate. Partially because of their redundancy of suboptimal skills on offense, the Bulls are being outscored by 0.7 points per 48 in the 792 minutes Gibson and Lopez share the floor heading into last night’s loss against Washington. For a team without a truly destructive lineup to turn to, that’s a huge chunk of time to be leaking points to your opponents.

And it’s not like there are not better frontcourt combinations to turn to more often. Look what happens when you merge Butler with each of the team’s most prevalent frontcourt combinations.


Total Minutes

Point Differential Per 48










These numbers paint a picture that there may be a better version of this Bulls team locked away after all. That instead of competing for one of the final spots in the East, they could challenge for homecourt advantage in the first round of a top heavy conference.

Which brings us to the real question, where do the Bulls go from here?

Reload, Rebuild or Stand Pat?

The most obvious part of this equation is figuring out where the team stands in regard to Butler. Rumors have swirled that the team is willing to move the talented wing for the “right price”, something that seems absurd given Butler’s combination of contract length (signed through 2019 with a player option for the following season) and production. He may not be a traditional superstar on the same level as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, etc., but Butler is a good player. More importantly, he’s a sub-star player whose game would mesh well with other elite talents.

Given the dangers of full rebuilds, Chicago would be wise to hang onto him. Teams like Orlando and Philadelphia have shown what happens when you tank and fail to land a true centerpiece. Even the Pelicans, who hit a homerun with Anthony Davis, have failed to consistency make the playoffs. Taking a step back into the lottery in the NBA certainly doesn’t guarantee a path forward.

The Bulls have some young prospects on the roster in Denzel Valentine (23), Paul Zipser (22) and Bobby Portis (21). There is obviously some merit to giving those three a chance to show what they can be, especially since the first two share the same position as Butler. Valentine in particular has posted some impressive stat lines in the two games he’s received meaningful minutes.

Yet aside from those three, the thought that Butler (27) is blocking some youth movement overlooks the fact that Grant (24), Carter-Williams, McDermott and Mirotic (all 25) aren’t developing on a drastically different timeline than Chicago’s best player. And though Mirotic is a restricted free agent next summer, a team-friendly situation, there’s no guarantee he’s even considered part of the team’s core going forward given his middling production.

If Chicago decides Butler is part of the solution, it makes their decision-making in regards to the deadline much more straightforward. The key will be for the team to use the next month to re-jigger their rotation and evaluate the results. The first step will be addressing the “point guard” position.

Even if Rondo is “reinstated” on a permanent basis, the team would probably be best served for the duration of this season to move Wade into that spot instead of any of the current options. Starting two non-shooters in Wade and Rondo/Carter-Williams along with the struggling Gibson-Lopez frontcourt is essentially spotting opponents points to open games (The early returns of the starting unit with Carter-Williams don’t dispute that as the team is -4.2 per 48 in the 57 minutes they’ve shared the floor).

That move would also open a spot for McDermott in the starting lineup, a good choice considering he has the best plus/minus splits on the team aside from Butler, which, again, is mostly due to the fact he possesses a skill the team desperately craves. And as ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently wrote about, the league in general is figuring out that more teams are trending toward offense-first (only?) players like McDermott -- something everyone witnessing the D’Antoni revolution in Houston are experiencing firsthand.

This move hasn’t happened yet because of obvious defensive concerns. Leaving McDermott and Wade as the non-Butler defensive options gets a little dicey. Asking Wade to track point guards like Isaiah Thomas, Dennis Schroder, Jeff Teague, et all isn’t something that is going to make the 34-year-old overly happy. Hoiberg can get creative and cross-match some assignments, like swapping Butler in for some of those matchups, but that obviously comes at a physical toll for the player Chicago will also be using as their bellcow at the other end of the floor (“Aggressive” rest for Wade would alleviate this issue in the regular season).

Still, NBA teams tend to be more reactive than proactive and a middling team like the Bulls would be best served trying to find ways to get their best five-man units on the floor as often as possible. Starting McDermott, even if it causes lineup headaches and smart minutes management with Butler, is better than rolling with an inferior player with a clashing skillset in Carter-Williams or the mercurial Rondo.

The tinkering with the starting lineup shouldn’t stop at just McDermott. Hoiberg needs to swallow hard and swap Lopez with the underwhelming and inconsistent Mirotic. This is a hard sell given Mirotic’s season numbers are mostly miserable (38.7 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from 3) while Lopez possesses the traditional NBA size that’s still sometimes needed against teams with physically imposing bigs capable of scoring in the post (Think Detroit, Atlanta, San Antonio, etc). But this is where the NBA is at these days, with threat of shooting outranks the threat of size.

These moves will also open up bench minutes for Valentine and Portis -- perhaps the two most intriguing youngsters on the Bulls roster (Portis also went 3-of-4 from 3 against Washington last night). Those minutes would come at the expense of playing time for Carter-Williams and/or Grant, but given their respective career arcs, it should be a developmental trade off Bulls management should be fine with.

The evaluation part will come in mostly with how Gibson and Lopez fare in their new roles. With Portis lurking and Cristiano Felicio already appearing in 30 games this season, thinning the frontcourt isn’t a real risk if it brings shooting at other positions. Lopez and Gibson -- whose contract expires this summer -- could be moved at the deadline in order to fill more pressing needs or, if packaged with a youngster like Zipser, perhaps find an upgrade over Mirotic to plug in at the 4.

None of these moves will make Chicago jump into being a championship contender, but it should get them closer to the top half of the conference. In comparison to the plights of other teams that have failed to jump back to respectability following extended tank jobs, a 50-win, quasi-contender isn’t a bad destination for the Bulls. By keeping Butler and making some smart decisions with personnel around him, it’s also not that far away from where the franchise is now.