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2 years after the Jimmy Butler trade, the Bulls still don't have a firm grasp on what the core of the rebuild can do together

The Bulls see old friend Jimmy Butler at the United Center on Saturday and again in the April 10 season finale in Philadelphia.

Since his acquisition from the Timberwolves, Butler has played 741 minutes with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and posted a net rating of plus-7. That’s what star quality does. That’s what acquiring a Big Three, which the 76ers added to with Tobias Harris, can accomplish.

The 76ers didn’t trade for Butler until mid-November. And yet he still has played nearly as many minutes with the 76ers’ core as Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen did together with the Bulls this season.

You remember: That’s what this season was supposed to be all about. After knowing they would experience an inconsistent 2017-18 together while LaVine worked his way back from left ACL surgery, the Bulls pointed to this season as the one for growth for the players acquired in their June 2017 trade of Butler.

Instead, Markkanen missed the first 23 games to a serious right elbow injury. Dunn missed the first two games to paternity leave and then sprained his left ACL in his Oct. 22 season debut against the Mavericks and sat for another 24 games. LaVine missed six games to sprains of both ankles and one to illness before his latest issues.

After experiencing fatigue and a rapid heart rate, Markkanen is done for the season. LaVine, battling patellar tendinitis in his right knee, isn’t on this two-game trip and is almost certainly done. Dunn, out with a mid-back strain, said he’s trying to salvage even one game, although his time is running out.

It all adds up to LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen logging 780 minutes together — just 39 more than Butler, Embiid and Simmons. Is now the time to mention the Bulls’ Big Three’s net rating is minus-8.4?

That’s actually a significant improvement from last season’s disastrous minus-20.6 rating in their 255 shared minutes. LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen upped their offensive rating almost 10 points to 105.2 and dropped their defensive rating almost three points to 113.6.

However, to say the Bulls’ core has some catching up to do to the league’s elite would be like saying Jim Boylen has some energy. It’s a massive understatement.

The top three-man lineup that has shared at least 500 minutes together is the Warriors’ Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, who have posted a plus-21.2 rating in 552 shared minutes. Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson are a plus-14.3 in 1,363 shared minutes, including an offensive rating of 119.

But even less heralded threesomes, such as the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, own a plus-13.6 rating in 935 minutes together. Their offensive rating is 117.4.

Heck, the middling Wizards, whom the Bulls face Wednesday, have played Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky and second-round pick Thomas Bryant together 772 minutes together. Their net rating is minus-0.1 with an offensive rating of 111.1 — almost six points higher than the Bulls’ supposed core.

And nobody is calling that group the Wizards’ Big Three.

Beyond the numbers, there is nuance.

Save for the Jan. 4 overtime loss to the visiting Pacers, Dunn’s best games have come with LaVine idle. In that game, Dunn posted 16 points and 17 assists, LaVine scored 31 points and Markkanen added 27 points and nine rebounds.

Afterward, all three players talked excitedly about their potential together.

Instead, Dunn’s lone double-double since — 26 points and 13 assists in a March 20 victory over the Wizards — happened while LaVine watched. And Dunn began playing off the ball more as Boylen shifted to a multiballhandler system, which Dunn said “deterred some of (his) strengths.”

It has been widely reported that the Bulls plan to try to upgrade at point guard this offseason, either through the draft or free agency. Dunn, who remains on his rookie-scale contract, certainly could remain on next season’s roster.

But after the Feb. 6 trade of Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker to the Wizards for Otto Porter Jr., management talked about feeling set at four starting positions in LaVine, Porter, Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Asked specifically about Dunn on Feb. 7, Paxson said the Bulls “still like Kris a lot.”

“We’ve said all along that this process is about learning who fits, who doesn’t,” Paxson said then. “Kris has had some ups and downs in terms of his consistency. But he’s been competitive. He can still defend. He’s playing hard. So we’re going to keep evaluating him.”

With four games to go, Markkanen done, LaVine likely headed there and Dunn maybe, too, the core no longer can be evaluated this season. It also isn’t fully established.

kcjohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcjhoop

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