Growth and Success: The 2021 Plan

In recent interviews across various Chicago media outlets John Paxson has been talking about the future of the Bulls. He has set the goal for this seasons team as being “in the hunt” for the playoffs. He has stressed the importance of the young players developing into stars, and there have even been some hints that they Front Office will be making a big push for free agent superstars in the summer of 2021.

The Summer of 2021 will be an important free agency period for the Bulls. They will finally be free of the Cristiano Felicio contract and Otto Porter’s massive contract, and 2021 is the summer Lauri Markkanen becomes a restricted free agent. The Bulls should have some money to spend in 2021 and some decisions to make on how best to spend it.

Will there be superstar free agents available that summer? Of course, aren’t there always? Barring any contract extensions, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, and Anthony Davis, will all be free agents that summer. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and LeBron James will all have the option of becoming free agents that summer as well. And all the young, up and coming stars drafted the same season as Markkanen will also be restricted free agents that teams flush with cap space could pursue. We could be looking at another crazy NBA offseason, with superstars switching teams and the landscape of the league shifting overnight.

But can the Bulls Front Office land one of these superstars in free agency?

That remains to be seen. Unlike previous years, when all GarPax had to sell a free agent on Chicago was a limousine ride with Benny the Bull and doctored photos of the free agent in a Bulls jersey adorning the United Center, this time they have a clever plan: Get Gud.

For the next two years, until that fateful summer of 2021, the Chicago Bulls will have to be a competent and competitive team. The Front Office is trying their hands at the Brooklyn Nets method of team building. Over the next two seasons, as the young core of the Bulls grows more competitive, the hope is that Chicago becomes an attractive destination for a championship hungry superstar (or two).

Just as Brooklyn pieced together a competitive roster, found their way into the playoffs, and then lured two superstars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant) away from their teams this past summer, the Front Office is hoping to replicate that formula for the summer of 2021.

To that end, GarPax have put together an intriguing roster for the next couple years. A mix of savvy, veteran NBA talent and young potential, make up what appears, on paper, to be a competitive basketball team.

Along with the upgraded talent added to the roster, GarPax have also hired two competent assistant coaches to help Jim Boylen develop the young potential of the team. Chris Fleming, former assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets, and Roy Rogers, former assistant coach with the Houston Rockets, are both highly respected around the NBA, and have received a lot of praise for their ability to focus and improve young, talented, NBA prospects.

It’s happening Bulls fans. This team should no longer be a member of the tank-a-thon sweepstakes. They should be firmly “in the hunt” for several seasons to come.

Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

But don’t get too jubilant, true believer, because just as the GarPax giveth, so to must they taketh away.

“Our success will be determined by the growth of the young guys we have.” Said John Paxson in a recent radio interview on AM 670 The Score.

On the surface this statement is straight forward and true. Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Wendell Carter Jr, and to a lesser extent, Chandler Hutchison, Daniel Gafford and Coby White, making significant strides these next two seasons, the Chicago Bulls will not break free from the bottom feeders of the NBA. We’ve already seen LaVine make improvements to his game, and I anticipate his growth to accelerate with a solid cast of veterans complimenting him this season. Likewise, much should be expected from Markkanen this season, and just as much should be expected from Carter next season. They have to start actualizing their basketball potential, otherwise the rebuild will have all been in vain.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it.

Paxson is absolutely right that growth, or lack there of, will determine just how successful this Bulls team will be. It’s quite a trite little piece of logic when you look at. It’s the fact that the statement is even made that worries me. It’s an odd thing to say in a public interview: We won’t be good until the players are good. It’s almost like Paxson is trying to hedge his bet.

So much of an NBA rebuild is a gamble. From the Lottery itself, to the talent and determination of the players drafted, to the health of those players, it can feel like a giant crap shoot. Already, LaVine, Markkanen, Carter Jr, Hutchison, Kris Dunn, and Denzel Valentine, have all had their early NBA development interrupted by serious injuries. It’s been devastating to watch. So I understand why Paxson might be cautious in his optimism and remarks to the media.

Even so, when John Paxson firmly fixes the fate of the team to the shoulders of his young players, the statement begins to sound like an all too familiar excuse. “We didn’t win because of the injury to Derrick Rose.” Blaming players and coaches for the Bulls lack of success has been the hallmark of the John Paxson era, and this feels like more of the same.

Injuries, attitude, demeanor, communication, work ethic, inaccurate perceptions about the team, have all been used as excuses to point the finger at anyone and everyone other than the Front Office when it comes to why this franchise hasn’t competed for a championship in 20+ years. When Paxson plays up the idea that Markkanen, LaVine, and Carter have to play well in order for superstars to want to play in Chicago, he is washing his hands of any responsibility he might have in building a championship team.

If memory serves, the Bulls recently HAD a scrappy young team with several budding stars on it. It was a team that had even seen some success in the playoffs, yet “Hollywood as Hell” Lebron James still chose to take his talents to Miami instead of joining Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Loul Deng in Chicago. Player acquisition is NOT the job of the players. It’s NOT the job of the coaches. The only people responsible for building this Bulls team is the Front Office.

There is no guarantee that the 2021 plan will work, I think we all know this. The growth and development of these young players could stagnate, or hibernate, the next couple of season. Injuries cutting into the talent and potential of the Bulls young squad is a real fear that we’ve faced far too often with this team. Even with the upgraded talent, the Bulls might have a difficult time climbing out of the basement of the Eastern Conference, let alone compete for the playoffs the next two seasons. But even if everything goes to plan, if Lauri, Zach, and Wendell become stars in their own right and the Bulls make the playoffs, there is still a distinct possibility that superstar free agents do not sign with Chicago in 2021.

If that ugly scenario plays out, if we find ourselves signing Demar Derozan in the summer of 2021 instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, don’t blame Markkanen and LaVine. Don’t fall for the narrative that Paxson is beginning to spin. Don’t let this Front Office off the hook again.

It’s the job of GarPax to sign superstars. It’s the job of GarPax to hire coaches that will develop players into superstars. It’s the job of GarPax to correctly identify and acquire players that CAN develop into superstars. It’s the job of GarPax to create a winning culture. It’s the job of GarPax to build a championship team.

John Paxson has had 16 seasons to do his job. He is on season 17.

How the hell can he point at Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Wendell Carter Jr, and say, “It’s all on you. The success of this team, it’s all up to you.”

Where the hell does he get off with that kind of bullshit excuse?

Maybe I’m reading too much into one small statement. Maybe I’m just manifesting my personal frustration with the Front Office a little too much. But this feels too familiar to ignore. This feels too much like the finger pointing we’ve seen from Paxson in the past. Deng, Rose, Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg, Kris Dunn, they’ve all had that same finger pointed at them and some excuse painted on their backs as they are released into the desert. I’m sick and tired of the GarPax scapegoating the players and coaches. If the 2021 plan doesn’t work, please don’t blame Jim Boylen, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr, or anyone else on the court for the Bulls. Please do remember who put those individuals there.

Whew! This post got a little heated at the end. You’d never believe this reading my posts now, but John Paxson was one of my favorite players as a kid. I used to shoot threes on the playground during recess trying to emulate Paxson’s shot. Maybe that’s why I’m so harsh with him as a blogger, I expect too much from one of my childhood heroes. While Paxson waits for growth, success, and the summer of 2021, you can find me here at RokDeez Bulls Blog, sharpening my torch and lighting my pitchfork. Whatever happens these next two seasons, whatever happens in the free agency of 2021, thank you for reading true believer, and GO BULLS!