Last Thursday, John Paxson held his annual end of the season press conference, an event that traditionally signals the direction the Bulls are headed during the off-season, and it is the first glimpse of the new talking points for the summer. In previous press conferences, we’ve learned that the Bulls were looking to “get younger and more athletic,” we’ve found out that the first step in rebuilding is to “build a culture,” and this year Paxson wants the Bulls to use the summer to get “healthy and ready to go.”
Distressed, no doubt, by the numerous injuries that plagued key players down the final stretch of the season, John Paxson placed a heavy emphasis on the Bulls being healthy and in shape before the 2018-19 season. Citing the culture of hard work the team started last summer, Paxson stressed a need for players training together this off-season. As part of the Bulls culture, it is expected that the team play and work hard together during the season and summer. This is how a team learns to play the right way, and, represent the Bulls organization the right way.
“[Players] have to be themselves and play within the team concept… You want great talent. Guys that believe in each other… Our guys will stand out by their work and how they perform. When you get a group that plays together, you generally get a group that wins games at a high level.” – John Paxson
Fred Hoiberg and his coaching staff are the keepers of culture. They kept the team together during the doldrums of the Tank. They are under contract, and they will be back next season. Fred is in his element now. He has his feet under him and a group of guys that fit his style of play. That’s why the majority of the team is coming back next season. They play hard, and they play for Fred. Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne, and Denzel Valentine improved last season. They worked hard. They played hard. They bought in. They are examples of Bulls culture, they represent the organization the right way.
Just like Robin Lopez, an important piece of the Bulls future. He fits the team and the culture. He’s under contract through next season. He did all the little things last season, including allowing younger players to take his place in the rotation so the team could get a look at them. He is a true professional.
The Bulls need…
1… Zach LaVine to Be Better at Basketball. Guys who come back from an ACL are better the second year.
2… Kris Dunn to have a great summer and Come Back a Better Player. He is the starting point guard next season (and Cam Payne is the back up). Dunn needs to get better at finishing at the rim. If he works hard, if he plays hard, if he stays healthy, maybe then, we can talk about Kris Dunn being the Bulls point guard long term.
3… Lauri Markkanen has to Put in the Time. He is a cornerstone of this rebuild. This summer needs to be spent working on his body, and tightening up his ball handling. He needs to improve his footwork in isolation situations, and his scoring from within the three point line. He needs to stay in Chicago and train with his teammates. He’s already exceeded expectations, his room for growth is his most exciting attribute.
“[Tanking is] not a situation any of us want to be in again… It goes against everything as a competitive person you believe in, but it’s the way the system is set up… We believe we’ve done it the right way.” – John Paxson
The Philadelphia 76ers are the model. The Bulls have 2 picks in the upcoming draft, more than enough. They are looking to fill a need on the wing. They want a versatile player. One with length, size, and a shooting component. Then again, it’s hard to overlook talent if it’s available where they are picking. There will be no need to sign older players in free agency just to fill a need. It’s not a good idea to bind up the organizations flexibility by signing an older player to a long term contract. It’s best to remain patient and disciplined in the approach they’ve taken.
But most important of all, more than anything, they need to come back healthy and ready to go…
That was a brief summary of the John Paxson end of the season press conference 2018. It has already been analyzed and dissected, by experts and fans alike. Speculation has run a marathon, as well as amok, as fans tally which player names were mentioned by Paxson, and which weren’t. “Jerian Grant wasn’t mentioned, he probably won’t be back.” “Will they offer Robin Lopez a contract extension? Paxson was singing his praises.” If there is one thing I’ve learned from these press conferences it’s this: Nothing John Paxson says matters.
Two years ago the Bulls were going “younger and more athletic,” and then they signed both Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade to contracts. Last year, the Bulls were “building a culture,” and then Bobby Portis slugged Niko Mirotic, and, the front office and coaching staff went about tanking the season for a higher draft pick. I don’t mean to call John Paxson a liar, I believe he fully intends to follow through on the statements he makes. I call into question the focus, discipline, and patience of John Paxson and the rest of the front office.
If Philadelphia is truly the model of the modern rebuild, and the Bulls in particular, how can John Paxson believe that a single year of losing will be enough? The 76ers spent half a decade or more tanking. They spent two seasons patiently waiting for Joel Embiid to get healthy. They spent one season waiting for Ben Simmons. They spent this last season waiting for Markelle Fultz. They signed old, veteran players to contracts in order to fill needs on their roster. The 76ers looked for generational talent when drafting, they never drafted for need. If the Bulls are truly following the Philadelphia model, then they must take the most talented players available to them in this upcoming draft.
During the course of Philadelphia’s “Process,” they traded away former lottery picks, Rookie of the Year winners, and “Faces of the Franchise” all for more chances at selecting the next basketball great. I question whether John Paxson truly understands what the 76ers were trying to do. They weren’t trying to build a team, they were trying to find the Chosen One. Only when you’ve found that once in a generation talent, do you then try to build a team. That is the Philly model. I question whether John Paxson, and the rest of the front office, has the patience, focus, and ability to find that super star player.
I think Paxson knows, even if just subconsciously, he isn’t equipped to handle that kind of rebuild. That’s okay. Philadelphia isn’t the only model of a rebuild in the history of the NBA.
One of my all-time favorite non-Bulls teams in NBA history is the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. They emphasized strong defense, rebounding, and team offense. At the time, they did not have a super star leading their team. It was Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, and Lindsey Hunter. Those were the big names on the team. We all know them now, but at the time they were little more than a rag-tag group of hard workers. They worked their way through the Eastern Conference all the way to the NBA Finals. There they faced off against the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, a team they had no reason to win a single game against let alone a championship. We’re talking the Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Byron Russel, and Horace Grant Lakers. Nobody gave the Pistons a chance, but Detroit out worked the Golden Boys, and won the Championship 4-1. The Lakers never scored 100 points in a game the entire series, and they only scored in the 90’s once. If John Paxson wants a rebuilding model that doesn’t focus on finding a once in a generation super star like the Philadelphia 76ers model, let me suggest the ‘03-’04 Detroit Pistons be his guide.
So, here we are, another off-season, another press conference, another talking point, and little confidence in the Bulls, their direction, or their leadership. Actions speak when words lose all meaning. As always, the moves the Bulls make will say more about how well this rebuild is going than any John Paxson press conference could. Who knows? Maybe it will be enough if the guys come back in September “healthy and ready to go.”