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Bulls: Rotation Changes Bolster Paxson’s Tanking Efforts

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John Paxson is the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Chicago Bulls and after many years of relegating himself to the shadows he’s been front and center as the main figurehead of the organization of late. It’s been a welcomed change for a franchise that previously lacked the transparency that the other local tenants regularly provide.

While “Johnny Jumpshot” was likely a huge contributor to the decision making process behind the scenes, General Manager Gar Forman was the contentious front man tasked with the day-to-day operations of the club. It has been an advantageous move to give the senior executive a more prominent role in sculpting and delivering the public message of the organization.

After the trade of Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft night the Bulls embarked on a rebuild and intensified their message unambiguously. It has curried favor with the fans and local media to this point. The front office has set a course for right now in order to enhance their future and it appears to be on track in spite of some initial trepidation. The Bulls started off the season with a record of 3-20 and looked like one of the worst teams in the league. A very high draft pick was expected and intelligent fans were totally fine with that.

Then something changed. The baby Bulls led by coach Fred Hoiberg actually started to play a really fun and respectable brand of basketball. The team is 17-17 since their disastrous (depending on who you ask) start. Lauri Markkanen (15.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG), Zach LaVine (16.9 PPG) and Kris Dunn (13.5 PPG and 6.3 APG) have formed a promising young core that other “tanking” teams just don’t possess.

In addition to the young core pieces, some veterans contributed to the success in the win column as well. Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Justin Holiday have played well at times and have enhanced the club’s chances at winning on a particular night. The Mirotic issue has been remedied and according to Paxson, that wasn’t the lone change for the season’s final jaunt.

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There are 25 games left in the 2017/2018 campaign and the rotations will start to look much different from here on out. Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant are expected to see their minutes decline drastically. Cristiano Felicio, Paul Zipser and Cameron Payne should be afforded some pretty significant clock time too. After the trade deadline, Paxson and Hoiberg both hinted toward a similar plan and it looks like that avenue is about to come to fruition. In discussing these changes with reporters Paxson said, ” For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do“.

It is essentially tanking under the guise of player development but this fan is here for it. This is exactly what the Bulls should be doing. Some are likely asking, what took so long?

In discussing what he’d like to see going forward, Paxson also said, “what you hope for from a player standpoint is they gain some confidence in who they are, get comfortable on the floor and play well. I still think we have a lot of really good young talent.” Paxson’s words haven’t really varied from medium to medium of late. He’s been very clear about their plan and has done an adequate job of transcribing said plan for all.

It should be clear to all that the organization is anxious to see their budding foundation actually play together. “I think the exciting thing for us is for the first time we’re going to have a healthy Zach, Lauri and Kris. They’re obviously the core“. Paxson even reiterated the fact that they want to see the young players more down the stretch and emphasized the seven pieces that the franchise should have going forward. Along with the new big three, the veteran executive has frequently included Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine into his thought process as well the two players that will be added via the draft in June. 

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Source: (Chicago Sun-Times/James Foster)

As is the case in most sports, sometimes it’s beneficial to lose games. In certain situations it is wholly necessary to lose a bunch of games in order to win a bunch of games in the future. The Bulls are trying to win a championship. They just aren’t trying to win the 2018 or 2019 championship. Unexpectedly, the Bulls are almost too good to adhere to the original plan set forth by management. In the race to the bottom, the Bulls have some rather stiff competition. The plan this year was to develop young players while losing as many games as possible to enhance their odds at obtaining a really high draft pick in this year’s lottery. It’s a stellar draft class this year that is loaded with talent and the Bulls will do whatever they can to get in position to land another core piece.

There are currently seven teams worse than the Bulls when looking at reverse standings but they are only 3 games back of having the worst record in the league. In their 25 remaining games however, only 11 will involve teams with winning records. Management has put a plan in place to lose as much as possible down the stretch but there are multiple teams that are just flat out better at this tanking thing than the Bulls are. It should be easier for fans to stomach with some of the veterans on the bench but being upset over unexpected victories turns into mental gymnastics on a semi-regular basis in my household as well. The organization has a solid young core but it’s uncertain if they have a guy on the roster that is a true “win because of” player and it will be interesting to see the lengths that the organization is willing to go to in search of one.

Star players are usually acquired at the very top of the draft. Using this method to acquire this caliber of player was the desired path by Bulls management and choosing this way method may ultimately prove productive. Losing enough basketball games in March and April in order to secure a soft landing in the top 6 of this June’s selection show sounds good but it might be too good to be true. Donovan Mitchell was drafted outside of the top ten this year and looks to be the best player in this year’s class. Others like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo weren’t top 10 picks either. Stars can be found. It’s a much more dubious exercise though. Those players are definitely the exception and not the rule and it would behoove John Paxson and company to lose a lot going forward. The future of the franchise may be at stake.

Watching Chicago Bulls basketball over the next couple of months will be a delicate balancing act for fans. Veterans like Lopez and Holiday will be seen clapping often near the bench while Payne and Felicio will be attempting to carve out a long-term gig. There will be good losses and bad wins along the way but the plan is secure. In the name of player development, the organization is intending to lose as much as they can. The bad news is that they’ve already won 20 games and there are some expert tanking teams in the league. The good news is that Markkanen, Dunn and LaVine will be around the next time the Bulls are in the playoffs and they should provide positivity going forward regardless.

In regards to the day-to-day operation, Hoiberg said, “We’re going to try to put a game-plan together to give our team an opportunity to compete to win. That doesn’t change“. “Hoiball” will still be a thing but Fred understands what the primary goal is for the rest of the season and the memo has apparently been received.

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