An Alarming Case of Small Pax

in which we learn John Paxson doesn’t live in the past, and he doesn’t know how to count…

John Paxson has been the executive in charge of the Chicago Bulls for 16 years. There are very few NBA execs that have held their position as long as John Paxson has. He has been both the General Manager, and more recently, the Vice President of Basketball Operations, but for the last 16 years the buck stops with Pax. There aren’t very many teams willing to keep their front office executives in charge that long. In fact the number of teams with other NBA execs that are currently 16 years or more into running the same team can be counted on one hand.

1. Miami Heat – Pat Riley, President of Basketball Operations, 24 years and 3 championships

2. San Antonio Spurs – Greg Popovich, President of Basketball Operations, RC Buford, General Manager, 17 years each and 4 championships.

3. Dallas Mavericks – Donnie Nelson, General Manager and President of Basketball Operations, 17 years and 1 championship.

4. Boston Celtics – Danny Ainge, General Manager, 16 years and 1 championship.

5. Washington Wizards – Ernie Grunfeld, General Manager and President of Basketball Operations, 16 years and 0 championships.

The Chicago Bulls – John Paxson, Vice President of Basketball Operations, 16 years and 0 championships.

More than half of the league (17 teams) have a front office that has been on the job for 5 years or less. A third of the league’s front offices (10 teams) have only held their positions for 3 years or less. John Paxson (and Ernie Grunfeld) has been living a charmed life.

Why do I bring this up?

Last week, John Paxson did a radio interview with Danny Parkins and Dan McNeil on WSCR 670AM The Score, the radio home of the Chicago Bulls. Pax went over some of the moves the Bulls had made before the trade deadline, and the two Dans asked him some tough questions about the direction of the Bulls. Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson was not happy with the “interrogation.” He felt very put upon that the radio hosts dared ask him about the state of the team, his own job security, and the lack of interest from superstars in coming to the Bulls. When questioned about his knowledge of how distressed Bulls fans were over the amount of rebuilds he has overseen, Paxson had this to say:

“There have been three rebuilds. I wouldn’t even consider the first one a rebuild when I first got the job, because we didn’t have anything to do with that. I came in and we turned it around. There haven’t been a lot of rebuilds. There was one when we got Derrick Rose, that was one, and now there’s this one. There have not been others.”

The general snippy-ness of Paxson’s tone aside, the most annoying thing about this quote is the sheer lack of awareness he displays with the asinine assertion that there haven’t been a lot of rebuilds. Even if we go with his shoddy counting and assume he has helmed only two rebuilds, that is one more rebuild than most NBA front office executives ever get. I would argue that John Paxson has been in charge of 6 different “core” player groups and is in the midst of his 5th rebuild.

Core #1: Tyson Chandler, Eddie Curry, and Jamal Crawford.

When John Paxson took over as General Manager of the Chicago Bulls in the spring of 2003 those were the three young players he had to either build with or build around. Paxson decided to build with that young core, and by the 2006-07 season he had moved on from all three of those players.

Core #2: Loul Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Gordon.

These were the three players that made up what I consider to be John Paxson’s first rebuild. There were other notable names from that “try hard” era including Andres Nocioni, Chris Duhon, Ben Wallace and head coach Scott Skiles. Ultimately, this group of players was only able to get as far as the Eastern Conference Semi-finals in the 2006-07 season.

Core #3: Deng, Joakim Noah, and Derrick Rose.

Painfully aware that they didn’t have enough talent to win a championship, John Paxson started retooling the Bulls for a second time. Keeping the solid play of Loul Deng, through the draft Pax added the energy of Joakim Noah, and the unrivaled talent of Derrick Rose. By 2009-10 season, John Paxson had grown tired of the day-to-day minutia of running a basketball team, so he was elevated to the title of Vice President of Basketball Operations, and head of scouting, Gar Forman, took over as General Manager. The ‘09-’10 season was also the last season Vinny Del Negro was head coach of the Bulls, he had taken over for Skiles in 2008, but had done very little to maximize the potential of Deng, Noah, and Rose. Tom Thibodeau quickly took over as head coach in 2010, Carlos Boozer signed with the Bulls in free agency, Derrick Rose won the MVP award, the Bulls lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the rest is history.

Core #4: Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic

The third rebuild was born out of an attempt to stay relevant as the Thibodeau Bulls slowly succumbed to injuries. After two ACL tears, Rose was a ghost of his former self. Noah was suffering from chronic shoulder dislocations, and Deng was injured, tired, and run down, he needed a change in scenery. By the 2014-15 season, it was time to move on from all three. Enter hardworking Jimmy Butler, NBA champion Pau Gasol, and European phenom Nikola Mirotic. These three, along with rookie Doug McDermott and stalwart defender Taj Gibson, were supposed to pick up where Rose, Noah, and Deng had left off. By the ‘15-’16 season Thibs was out and Fred Hoiberg took over as coach.

Core #5: Butler, Dwayne Wade, and Rajon Rondo

In the summer of 2016 Jimmy Butler was king. Rose was gone. Noah and Gasol, gone. Only Jimmy was left to be the centerpiece for the 4th rebuild of John Paxson’s tenure. It was time to get younger and more athletic, or so fans were told. That’s why the front office signed aging stars Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo, forming a bastardized megazord-like thing called “The 3 Alphas.” I almost feel bad about including this as a rebuild, but if it had, by some miraculous means, worked out, then it most certainly would have been considered a rebuild by the Bulls front office.

Core #6: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen

In the summer of 2017 the king was dead. Jimmy Butler was traded on draft night to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the draft rights to Lauri Markkanen. This is what I’m counting as the 5th rebuilding attempt by John Paxson. It includes a tanking season, the signing of Jabari Parker, the trade of Parker and Bobby Portis for Otto Porter Jr, the firing of Fred Hoiberg, the elevation of Jim Boylen, and the drafting of Wendell Carter Jr. And here we are…

Interestingly enough, Kris Dunn may no longer be considered, by the front office, to be part of the core for rebuild number 5. Dunn is no longer being referred to as a “core piece moving forward” by the Bulls brass when they talk about the team. I’m not surprised. There were big hints that this was coming. Dunn’s fate seems to have been sealed when multiple leaks to the media at the beginning of last summer claimed people within the Bulls organization were questioning Dunn’s off-season work ethic.

That’s how this organization works under John Paxson. Reports are leaked to the media, questioning a players toughness (Loul Deng), questioning a players heart (Derrick Rose), questioning a coaches ability to communicate (Thibs), questioning a coaches ability to lead (Hoiberg), questioning a players work ethic (Dunn). Once those reports have made the rounds, and fans start to mutter a little bit themselves, it’s only a matter of time before that person is pushed out of the organization. It’s no wonder then that Paxson gets so upset when he hears that fans are muttering for his dismissal. In his world, where there’s smoke there’s fire. And he should know best, because when it comes to the Bulls organization, he’s the one with the book of matches and kerosene can.

John Paxson is very fond of saying he doesn’t live in the past, that he is constantly trying to move forward. I appreciate that he tries to move on from the many failed rebuilds of his past. That’s what he should do, but moving on doesn’t mean forgetting the lessons of history, or forgetting the pivotal moments that have shaped who and what the Chicago Bulls are right now. Not living in the past doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. Besides, as the old saying goes, those who don’t know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

I look forward to writing extensively about Core #7: Carter Jr, Markkanen, and Zion Williamson.