During Wednesday night’s slate of NBA action, two players linked by an offseason trade led their respective teams to wins.
Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler finished with a team-high 26 points, while Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen posted a career-high 33 points by way of eight three-pointers, tied for the most in a game by a 7-footer.
It has been nearly seven months since the blockbuster draft-night trade that sent Butler and the rights to the No. 16 overall pick (Justin Patton) north in exchange for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the rights to the No. 7 overall pick (Markkanen). News of the deal was met with proverbial pitchforks and videos of despondent children from the Chicago Bulls faithful. Reporters nearly unanimously considered it a fleecing. That both respective franchises have mutually benefited thus far, then, is unanticipated.
While Chicago’s defense is among the worst in the NBA, Dunn has proven to be a physical, capable cog, quashing would-be drives with lateral adroitness. Among players who have logged at least 500 minutes this season, Dunn ranks No. 1 in steals per 36 minutes (2.5). Pick-and-rolls often implode when he defends them; Dunn ranks in the 70th percentile against pick-and-roll ballhandlers, according to data provided by Synergy Sports, having allowed 126 points on 164 possessions this season.
Markkanen, a 20-year-old with one season of college basketball behind him, has been mesmerizing. Dirk Nowitzki, the greatest European shooter in league history, compared his upside to that of Kristaps Porzingis, considered a unicorn in today’s NBA landscape. The league, though, has never seen a rookie, let alone a 20-year-old seven-footer, knock down this volume of shots from the perimeter on a nightly basis. If projections hold, Markkanen will break the previous three-point record by a 7-foot rookie in less than 42 games. He projects to finish the season with 194 three-pointers, more than any rookie in NBA history.
For Minnesota, after Butler was treated like a tertiary scoring option through the first month of the season, the 28-year-old is leading the Timberwolves in usage rate since December. He trails only Stephen Curry and James Harden in Real Plus-Minus and leads the league in RPM wins (8.08), an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player, using the player’s RPM and his number of possessions played.
Patton hasn’t yet played for the Timberwolves, but is averaging 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 17.2 minutes per contest over his 13-game stint in the G-League. Considering he broke his foot before NBA Summer League, there’s a high likelihood he wouldn’t have contributed regardless of where he was drafted.
Chicago’s most-proven return in the trade was LaVine, who is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament and made his season debut Saturday. While he certainly could prove instrumental in the coming years, the return on investment in the other two pieces, Dunn and Markkanen, has already been exceptional.
In total, both franchises can view this season and their respective futures through rose-colored glasses. FiveThirtyEight’s projections give Minnesota better than 99 percent probability of reaching the playoffs, an 8 percent likelihood of reaching the NBA Finals and a 4 percent likelihood of winning the franchise’s first championship. The postseason almost surely won’t come calling for the Bulls — FiveThirtyEight’s projections peg Chicago’s playoff probability at under 5 percent — but the team is moving in the right direction, as evidenced by its play since getting healthy over the last month.
The Bulls are 16-27; last season at this point, Chicago was 21-22. A five-win regression is easily digestible, considering the team parted with Butler, Wade and Rondo; lost projected starter Nikola Mirotic for the first 23 games of the season; and has played the seventh-toughest schedule in the league. Fred Hoiberg is working with the fourth-youngest roster, and is leading Chicago toward a promising future. It may not be what analysts predicted, but the Bulls and Timberwolves mutually benefited from this offseason trade.
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