Construction of a Contender | Part I
"I didn’t like the character of the team [in 2003]," said Bulls general manager John Paxson. "I found out that you can’t change it in one swoop; you have to chip away at it.”
By Adam Fluck | Posted September 21, 2006
In the first installment of a two-part feature, Bulls.com examines John Paxson’s most significant front office moves from the early part of his tenure as general manager, including the drafting of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, and the hiring of Scott Skiles. Read the second half of this story by clicking here now.
When John Paxson took over as the Bulls’ general manager three and a half years ago, he inherited a team that was loaded with underachieving and undesirable players.
The organization lacked a positive direction, and a search for the winning ways that had eluded the team since Michael Jordan’s departure in 1998 had begun.
Paxson knew that turning things around would be a tall task, and that patience would be his most important virtue. With an evolutionary plan in mind and lofty goals in place, Paxson was determined to stay the course until he made them a reality.
Chicago’s GM says that his philosophy as general manager dates back to his playing days, when he was primarily a role player.
“I valued the team and understood that guys who weren’t the headline players could still add and contribute to a team,” Paxson said. “Those values were important to me and I felt that was how you won.”
Paxson added that when he took the job, he didn’t have a set train of thought that he was ready to instill on a daily basis.
“Instead, it was sort of born out of some of the decisions that I had to make,” he said, citing his first draft as an example, just days after Jay Williams’ motorcycle accident. “When you are faced with tough decisions is when your philosophy comes forward.”
With the departure of Tyson Chandler, Paxson put the finishing touches on a complete overhaul of the Bulls roster since his arrival in the front office. Along the way, he’s taken significant risks and dealt away young talent that many fans once believed would be the cornerstone of the franchise.
“When I first got the job, everyone was really excited about our prospects,” he recalled. “They had just won 30 games for the first time in years. But when camp arrived that fall and I started to look at our make-up, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the character of the team. I found out that you can’t change it in one swoop; you have to chip away at it.”
Now, three years later, thanks to crafty trades, successful drafts, and, most recently, a major free agency score, Paxson has led the Bulls back to prominence. The team has made two consecutive playoff appearances and the young core is only beginning to scratch the surface of its potential. In Scott Skiles, Chicago has a head coach who fits perfectly with a hard working group that refuses to quit.
Expectations for the coming season have been raised, and Chicago may once again have a legitimate contender playing on the West Side. Bulls.com targets the organization’s ten key transactions since Paxson’s tenure began and talks to the general manager about each move.
Paxson on Hinrich: “We need him to take the experience he got with Team USA and become a little more vocal. Hopefully, he is a guy who is going to be wearing a Bulls uniform his entire career."
(Koichi Kamoshida/NBAE/Getty Images)
Paxson admits that the Bulls hadn’t considered taking a guard until the Williams incident. It’s possible that Mickael Pietrus or Jarvis Hayes may have ended up in Chicago, but instead, it was Kirk Hinrich who heard his named called at seven.
Regarded by some as the “safe pick,” Paxson saw something special in the kid out of Kansas, and Hinrich has done nothing but meet and exceed expectations throughout his three-year professional career.
“Players like Kirk I can relate to,” said Paxson. “He’s a much better player than I ever was. He possesses a lot of intangible things because of the way he grew up and having his dad be a coach.”
Hinrich’s development as a player, coupled with his team concept and defensive abilities, earned him a spot on the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team roster this summer. Paxson sees it as a major opportunity for him to further elevate his game.
“He’s grown every year. He’s learned a little something each season in terms of improving his game, and he’s gaining more confidence. Kirk’s involvement with USA Basketball is really going to help him in that area. I don’t think he’s ever been as confident of a player as he needs to be. I think this experience will help him in a lot of ways—the fact that he’s going to be identified as one of the premier players who has played alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, and his understanding and realization that he is good enough to play with those guys.”
Paxson also hopes that the fourth-year Hinrich, who will turn 26 this season, will emerge as more of a leader for the Bulls.
“We need him to take the experience he got with Team USA and become a little more vocal. He’s a big part of our future. Hopefully, Kirk Hinrich is a guy who is going to be wearing a Bulls uniform his entire career. We want him to step out of the somewhat shy personality that he has and become a little more vocal with his teammates.”
A handful of other members from the 2003 draft class, including the aforementioned James, Wade and Anthony, have already received contract extensions this summer. While Hinrich is eligible for the same, a deal has not been consummated yet, and may not even happen until after the season. However, Paxson explained that discussions about it have begun, and he’s optimistic things will work out sooner or later.
“Kirk’s agent, Jeff Austin, and I have talked about it and it’s not something we’re going to allow to get public,” Paxson said. “I’ve been on record and I’ll continue to say that Kirk is a valuable, valuable player for us. He represents a lot of things that this organization is about.”
While Paxson is weary of doing anything to detract from the team concept that has worked so well for Chicago the last two seasons, he admits that Hinrich has become the face of the franchise.
“The city can identify with a guy like Kirk. He plays hard, he’s unassuming, and he brings it every night. But for me, unless you have someone like Michael Jordan to be the face of your organization, the ideal scenario is about the team.”
Paxson on Skiles: “He never believes his team is out of a game and he never stops coaching. I think that’s important.”
While it’s difficult to truly do justice to the job Scott Skiles has done since his arrival in Chicago, it’s clear that he’s been a fundamental part to the team’s success in the last two seasons. His no-nonsense, straight forward nature has brought out the best in his players, and he’s molded them from inexperienced rookies to seasoned young professionals.
“He’s got an approach that I respect and gravitate towards,” Paxson explained. “He’s an extremely bright basketball person, and he’s got a way of holding guys accountable.”
When Skiles’ name first surfaced as a candidate for the Bulls job, so did negative reports, citing his tenure in Phoenix and his relationship with a few outspoken players. Paxson feels he got a “very unfair rap,” and defended the style that has worked so effectively for the 42-year old head coach in Chicago.
“Is he tough on players? Sure he is. I never had a coach in all my time playing that wasn’t tough at times. If you’re looking for a coach who is always going to say the politically correct thing, you’re going to find that guys aren’t always going to get better under that coach.”
Additionally, Paxson says it’s no coincidence that the Bulls greatly improved after notoriously slow starts the last two seasons. Skiles’ ability to maintain a hardworking group that has stayed on the same page over an 82-game season has paid big dividends thus far.
“Hopefully, as we go in to this year, Scott will have a combination of players that he can mold into a team,” Paxson said. “It might take us some time to find our rhythm as a team because we’ll have a lot of new faces again, but Scott and his staff will see that we get better as the year goes along and that’s the most important thing.”
Paxson calls Skiles an outstanding game coach, but perhaps it is his undying desire to win that makes him most effective: “He never believes his team is out of a game and he never stops coaching. I think that’s important.”
Since his first day on the job, Skiles has also made it clear that practice is as much of a priority as anything. It’s something that should be a given in any professional sport, but in reality, often is not.
“Our guys know that practice is important,” Paxson said. “Every time they step into [the Berto Center], they know there isn’t going to be a day off. He has a good balance of when to push and when to hold off physically. When players are in here, it’s about business and it’s about getting better. Scott laid that groundwork right away, and he’s never deviated from that.”
It’s no secret that the salary cap has an impact on the shape of rosters across the NBA, but perhaps it’s not quite as well known how vital it is to maintain the desired financial flexibility. To wit, a six-player deal (none of whom are currently on Chicago’s roster) that was consummated nearly three years ago still has an affect on this year’s team—thanks to the ample cap space it eventually granted the Bulls this past offseason.
Paxson acknowledges the Raptors got better players from a basketball standpoint, but his focus on the big picture, along with patience, paid off. The total dollars in the deal were very close, but the fact that Antonio Davis had one less year remaining on his contract than Jalen Rose was significant.
“It was the beginning of a process where we chipped away at some of the financial dilemmas we were facing in terms of having flexibility,” Paxson explained. “While we accomplished something from a salary cap standpoint, we also got about as professional of a guy that you can possibly have in AD. We felt we knew that before we made the trade, but you never know until you get a guy in here. He was even better than advertised.”
At the same time, Paxson had successfully begun an equally important process—changing the outlook and culture of the team. The next fall, the Bulls bought out the remaining two seasons on Eddie Robinson’s contact. It was a move that hurt the organization financially, but it was more than justified.
“From a basketball and cultural standpoint, it was one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Paxson said of the Robinson buyout. “There are always little things that you try and do, but the AD deal was what started the process of us chipping away and eventually achieving financial flexibility, which is where we found ourselves this summer.”
Paxson on Gordon: “You just don’t find guys like Ben very often and I have no reason to believe he’s not just going to get better and better."
By no means was Ben Gordon the obvious choice for the Bulls at the third overall pick, but a number of stellar pre-draft workouts catapulted him to the upper echelon of the draft board. Luol Deng was high on Chicago’s list all along, and there was considerable thought given to taking him at three. It turned out they didn’t have to though, as Paxson orchestrated a trade with Phoenix for a second-round pick (No. 31), a conditional future first-rounder (No. 21 in NBA Draft 2005) and cash.
“We were all high on Ben and his talent and ability,” Paxson said. “The real thing came when Jerry Reinsdorf put up the money to get the Phoenix pick—that was big time. We were in a position where we wanted to keep accumulating assets in terms of players. If we wanted to get better, we had to continue to add to our base, so getting the seventh pick was a big thing for us.”
Paxson was sold not only on Gordon and Deng’s talent and ability, but their work ethic and how they’d fit in to the Bulls’ culture. That instinct has proven to be right on the money, as both players have shown they aren’t afraid to put in their time at the gym.
“From my seat, we’ve got so many guys that I don’t have to worry about what they’re doing in the summertime,” Paxson stated. “That’s a beautiful thing. I grew up in that environment around here—we had guys who loved to workout during the offseason. I don’t need to prod our guys to get in the gym.”
Gordon became an immediate contributor, becoming the first rookie in league history to win the Sixth Man Award. His name seems to circulate every time trade talks arise, but Paxson doesn’t sound like he’s interested in dealing the third-year guard.
“You just don’t find guys like Ben very often and I have no reason to believe he’s not just going to get better and better. He needs to continue to be the explosive scorer he’s shown he can be while finding other ways to score besides three-point shots. He’s got a good mid-range jumper that’s going to improve, and I think his driving ability can be more consistent than what he’s shown.”
Deng also displayed early flashes of brilliance, but a wrist injury at the end the 2004.05 season forced him to miss the playoffs and cut in to his offseason workouts. However, Deng came back nicely last year, improving his averages in nearly every major category and displaying a well-rounded, versatile game.
“Lou is a different type of player—while Ben is so talented and dynamic with the ball, he has found ways to sneak around the basket without the ball and score,” said Paxson of Deng, who just turned 21.
“He’s worked hard on his shot this summer and we just need him to keep getting stronger. I think that his game will develop as his strength develops. We’d like to post Lou up some, but in the past he hasn’t had the strength to do it. Those two guys need to keep believing that their hard work will pay off, and I think they’re heading in that direction.”
Paxson on Deng: “He’s worked hard on his shot this summer and we just need him to keep getting stronger. I think that his game will develop as his strength develops."
“We were sitting in the draft room and he was the only guy left on our board,” Paxson said. “Chris has proven to be a winner. He finds a way to help us win games, and he’s been a great addition for us.”
Paxson labels sending Jamal Crawford to New York “Plan B” of the Rose and Marshall trade. The deal was another meaningful step for the Bulls towards gaining the flexibility needed to sign Ben Wallace this summer.
The driving force behind the trade was relief from Williams’ contract, which Chicago took on along with Antonio Davis eight months before. The Bulls received four players in return from New York, but all had just one-year contacts that expired the following season and were off the books from a salary standpoint.
“One thing that is hard in this business is that once you get a long-term, big money contract that is hard to move, you’re kind of stuck and you don’t have the flexibility you need,” Paxson explained. “To be quite honest, we weren’t very good back then anyway. We were still a 30-win team and we weren’t showing much improvement. That deal gave us significant financial flexibility in a short amount of time, and it allowed us to do some of the things we’ve done in the last couple of years.”
Crawford’s situation was complex. The young guard had displayed a knack to score throughout his four seasons with the Bulls and was in a situation where he demanded a big contract. Paxson maintains that Crawford had the option of remaining in Chicago on the team’s one-year qualifying offer and eventually becoming an unrestricted free agent, but the Knicks entered the picture with dollars to spend and a desire to obtain him. When Crawford returned the sentiment, a long process that culminated in the six-player deal had begun.
“We felt that the opportunity to move Jerome’s contract in that deal was the significant part of it,” Paxson said. “You have to weigh everything. I know Jamal was a fan favorite and he’s a very talented basketball player. You don’t find many 6-foot-6 guards that have an ability to score like he does. But we want to be really good, and this deal fit in again towards us attaining the flexibility we desired. If we weren’t able to get rid of Jerome’s contract in that deal, we may not have done it.”