Chicago Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson met with the assembled media last Thursday Morning, but the annual post-mortem felt a little different than in year’s past.
First of all, General Manager Gar Forman was not present which has been a familiar scene this season. Paxson has returned as the leading front office face of the organization this season, and it doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Additionally, Paxson confirmed that Forman has been doing a lot of behind the scenes work in a scouting role and that is likely the best course of action for all parties at this point.
Paxson also reiterated that he was happy with the job that head coach Fred Hoiberg and his staff did during the season and he stated that Fred would be returning as the club’s head coach.
Prior to this season, Paxson had been largely in the shadows since May 2009 when he strategically relinquished his day-to-day duties to Forman. The long-time front office member can be acerbic and hasn’t always played nice with certain members of the local and national media. It was necessary for him to re-establish himself as the main voice that will steward the direction for the Bulls in the immediacy however.
Paxson has been much more generous with his time of late, and has been willing to outline the organization’s newly established direction. It is an easy thing to do when you aren’t expected to win though. There were some noteworthy quotes from the scrum with the scribes, and I will delve into some of them below.
“I think we’re in a better place today than we were at this time last year.”
After the 2016-2017 season, the franchise was firmly planted in basketball hell with a triumvirate of veterans and no viable path back toward legitimate contention. Forman was still involved in a public manner and the organization was at a crossroads. Rajon Rondo was allowed to walk, Jimmy Butler was traded and Dwyane Wade was cast aside. A direction was chosen over the past year and while the 27-55 Bulls aren’t close to winning a championship, they are in fact much closer than they were at this same point last year.
“This is as important of a summer as we’ve had in a really long time”.
I wouldn’t expect the Bulls to add much in free agency this off-season. Paxson even reiterated the fact that the club wouldn’t be pursuing veteran additions to fill roster holes. It’s an important summer because it could set the stage for what occurs in future years. Some of what happens will be determined by luck and some will be by hard work. Some of the players that the organization has identified as building blocks need to get better this summer. The Bulls also need to land two players to add to the organization in June’s Draft. Paxson said that the front office is confident that they will find two players they like.
On Friday, it was determined that the Bulls would receive the 22nd pick that belonged to the Pelicans. It was also established that they would be 6th in the pecking order as far as the draft lottery is concerned. We will get into some of the potential players that the Bulls could add to their roster after we know where they are officially picking on May 15th. Paxson is correct that it’s a huge off-season though. He has mentioned the seven young players that the club is planning on building around. Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine all came over in one trade. Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine are former 1st round picks as well. The Bulls will add two more players to that mix in June. A game changer could be on the way but it’s just too early to determine at this juncture.
“Don’t make poor decisions that bind us long-term.”
Nikola Mirotic was traded during the season and the Bulls took on some money in the form of Center Omer Asik. They received a 2018 first round pick for their trouble though. Similar deals could be made over the next year due to the precious cap room that the squad has accumulated. The Bulls will not make a trade that saddles them with a long-term cap commitment at this point. It’s a huge reason why guys like Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez are still employed in Chicago. Management just couldn’t find a deal that made sense for the club financially.
In reference to Lopez, Paxson said, “Robin is part of our future. We know what we have in Robin.”
Lopez is in the roster and is technically part of the future in the Windy City. I wouldn’t be shocked if Lopez is elsewhere prior to the season however and I’d be stunned if he finishes the 2018-2019 season in Chicago. His expiring contract should have some value and his veteran leadership will be courted by another club. Holiday should be in the same boat with the true lack of roster space available. The roster won’t look distinctly different next year and nobody should expect the team to thwart the rebuilding plans early in order to add a piece to push for the Eastern Conference Playoffs. It’s just not time yet.
“Philly is the model.”
As a matter of fact, Sam Hinkie did die for this. The forlorn architect of one of the largest rebuilding plans in the history of sports is no longer around to witness the fruits of his labor. What the 76ers did was scrutinized, poked and prodded from all corners. It was excessive and other franchises haven’t followed the exact blueprint but their recent success does prove that the methodology works.
One-third of the league is attempting to do something similar to what Hinkie accomplished in the City of Brotherly Love and the Bulls were one of the latest teams to embrace the challenge. They haven’t taken it to the same extreme that Philadelphia has previously and they likely won’t, but the premise that you need to get bad in order to get good applies.
Hinkie placed a premium on accumulating second round draft picks in trades and that is something that the Bulls haven’t been as amenable to. It is a positive development that the front office has publicly acknowledged a plan that is seemingly in the midst of working though.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interest of the Bulls. It’s not a situation that any of us ever want to be in again. It goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in but it’s the way the system is set up and to be honest we believe that we’ve done it the right way.”
When the Chicago Bulls picked a lane and decided to embark on a rebuild, picking high in the draft became one of their main priorities. In order to win in the NBA, teams need superstar level talent. Superstar level talent is generally acquired with selections at the top of the draft. I think the Bulls were planning on procuring a higher pick than where they are currently slated in the pecking order but we still don’t know for sure where they will reside at this point.
One could make the argument that the Bulls waited too long to embrace the full on tank and that they won too many games. Those concerns are warranted. Nikola Mirotic helped them win unnecessarily and he did ultimately bring back a 2nd first rounder but in all likelihood, having a better shot at the No. 1 pick would have been a more desirable outcome. The Bulls really did try to lose as much as possible but there were some more experienced tank artists out there. They got lucky at the end and have the 6th best lottery odds.
You could tell by John Paxson’s tone that rooting for his team to lose every night completely went against everything he has ever known. He acknowledged that it’s just part of the process at this point and the organization will be better off for it. They don’t want to be actively trying to lose next year but with a young team it’s expected that the losses will pile up on their own.
“We have got a long way to go.”
This is an important quote and one that optimistic Bulls fans should hang onto. This isn’t a one year phenomenon. The Bulls are expecting growth from their de facto “Big 3” and Paxson elaborated on that further. Pax confirmed that the majority of the roster would return.
He also said that he feels good about Kris Dunn as the starting point guard and Cameron Payne as his backup. In regards to Dunn, Paxson praised his toughness on defense and his ability to get to the basket. However, he did tell the press corps that, “Kris needs to get better at finishing”.
Paxson also specifically said that, “We need Zach LaVine to be a better basketball player.”
Paxson mentioned that the team isn’t concerned about LaVine’s rehab from the knee injury but he was very honest about what type of player they are expecting the 22-year-old to be. In reference to Zach’s restricted free agency, the Executive VP said that, “We value Zach a lot but the market dictates a lot”. We think he fits the direction we are going.”
The Bulls didn’t acquire the former lottery pick so that he could walk in free agency, but his free agency process will be interesting to follow. The Bulls have typically let the market determine restricted free agency and fans shouldn’t expect them to change that strategy this off-season.
Paxson also spoke glowingly about the third piece of the return for Butler. Lauri Markkanen had an exceptional rookie year and looks like the best player acquired in that deal. Paxson called the 20-year-old Finnish product a “foundational piece”. He praised his play on the perimeter while determining that he needs to work on his body, tighten up his handles, and learn how to get to areas on the floor where he can dominate a game. When asked about Markkanen, Paxson unabashedly said, “He is a cornerstone. We loved him in the draft. But we didn’t know what we had.”
“I think we need to look at the wing position. Size, length, shooting component and defensive component. But depending on where we draft, it’s hard to overlook talent even when looking at a specific need.”
This was Paxson’s response when asked what voids he hopes to fill in the upcoming draft. It was a good answer that was taken out of context by many. The wing position is a definitive area of need for the club. All successful teams have great wing players. It is a necessary addition going forward. The last part of the quote is the most important facet though.
It’s hard to overlook talent; especially when in the position that the Bulls are in. They need to take the best player available and I believe that they will do just that once the time comes. Paxson also said that, “You need versatility. Our game has changed that way.”
We will have more clarity on the situation after May 15th, and the crew here at The Loop Sports will have you covered. The Bulls are about to embark on an important summer that could define their future. They know it. It is now up to them and hopefully some good fortune along the way.
Feature Photo Credit: NBA.com