There were some things to be learned Thursday from Bulls Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations John Paxson following the conclusion of the most cruel and disappointing of Bulls seasons.
The roster for next season is pretty much set, if not complete. The point guard and power forward positions appear filled, shooting guard seems certain, and Robin Lopez will return. Small forward remains wide open.
“The majority of this team and roster is going to come back,” Paxson said during a morning media conference in the Advocate Center. “Robin is obviously an important piece to our future. I feel really good about going into next season with Kris Dunn as our starter and Cameron Payne as our backup. I probably haven’t spoken enough about Lauri today. He is a cornerstone. Kris Dunn had stretches where he was terrific. But again he has to improve.”
Fred Hoiberg will be back as head coach.
“Fred will be back, yes,” Paxson reiterated. “Absolutely. I think Fred just kind of got his feet underneath him more this year. This group, the way he wants to play, pushing the basketball, this group suited his style more. You could see that comfort level. Like anything, we all need to grow. I need to grow in my role. I think every year as a coach you gain experience and you learn things. I thought Fred and our staff did a tremendous job of keeping our group together.”
The Bulls greatest need in the draft is a wing/small forward. Young and athletic, of course.
“We need to look at the wing position,” Paxson confirmed. “That would be an ideal spot. Size and length at the wing, a shooting component; a defensive component would be something that if you’re looking at an area we would like to improve, that would be it. But depending on where we draft, it’s hard to overlook talent, even when you’re looking at maybe a specific need. We can use versatile players, guys that have length and size and shooting component, those types of things. We’re going to be young, we’re going to be athletic, we’re going to be more skilled, and it’s going to be a team that I think can play at a high level.”
Free agent acquisitions are under consideration, but not short term veterans.
“Philly is the model for what they did for all those years, and now look at them,” said Paxson. “They’ve got some high draft picks, they hit on a few of them and now they’re in position. The other thing we’ve tried to do is manage the cap appropriately so that we have opportunities to spend when the time is right. We’re not just going to go out and try and sign some older players that fill a need. We have to remain patient and disciplined in the approach we have.
If Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen all improve significantly over this next year, Bobby Portis keeps growing as a player, Denzel Valentine, who found his niche a little bit this year, continues growing as a player, Cam Payne gives us something and we add pieces to it, we’re going to be a better basketball team.”
And never, ever, never again — and Paxson repeated it a few times — will the organization go through a season like this in which winning, at times, seemed less a priority than maneuvering for talent and draft position, where the nature of competition was perverted for the sake of hope and happenstance.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long term best interests of the Bulls,” said Paxson, clearly uncomfortable still answering about what transpired. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever 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. To be very honest, we believe we’ve done it the right way.
“We, last summer, embarked on a rebuild; we had a very young roster,” Paxson pointed out. “Every time we put out a lineup even after the All Star break, it was to watch players play and young players — and I believe this totally having played in the league and been around the league — the only way to really find out about players is to give them consistent minutes over a consistent amount of time, consistent amount of games. Our intentions were to see what we had and develop our young guys. But we didn’t ever want to ever be in this position again and, honestly, I don’t think we will.”
So, Mora family, playoffs? You kiddin’ me? Well, maybe not, but this was not the time for predictions.
“You never know what other teams are going to do,” said Paxson. “For coaches and players, their goal has to be every year to be as good as they can be: Be a playoff team, be whatever you can be. It’s (management’s) job we just keep this in perspective and continue doing it the right way, that we don’t get going too fast, get too far ahead of ourselves and make poor decisions that bind us long term. We’ll be vigilant about it. I think when we made the decision to trade Jimmy (Butler) and get what we got in return, we were just looking forward. I’m confident knowing what Zach did in Minnesota that last year he was there, knowing what Kris Dunn did for us before he had the freak injuries for us, and Lauri is obviously what we want in a player. I think we can really get a head start on things when we get back together in September."
There’s plenty to come with the May 15 draft lottery drawing here in Chicago. The Bulls are tied for sixth poorest record. The drawing will set the top three teams and then by record in order following. So the Bulls could be one, two or three, or six through nine. Most NBA drafts also yield good players beyond the top 10, like rookie of the year candidates this season of Donovan Mitchell at No. 13 and Kyle Kuzma at No. 27. This draft generally is regarded to have potential starters among all the top 10 players. The Bulls also have the No. 23 pick from the Nikola Mirotic trade to New Orleans. The draft will be June 21 with free agency to begin July 1.
The top potential free agents, like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins are not likely matches with the Bulls and most expected to return to their teams, perhaps other than James. After them, the top unrestricted free agents on the market will be Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Favors, Avery Bradley, Rodney Hood, Brook Lopez, J.J. Redick, Will Barton, Trevor Ariza, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Greg Monroe and Dwayne Wade.
The Bulls have a free agent decision of their own with LaVine, who will be a restricted free agent, which means the Bulls have the right to match any offer. Given LaVine’s limited season with 24 games coming back from ACL surgery, his market value is uncertain. Paxson was diplomatic in saying it will play out by the rules.
“Zach will have options,” acknowledged Paxson. “It’s the way the system is. Other teams can talk to him. We anticipated he would have ups and downs when he came back, again, given our experience with Derrick (Rose) coming back off an ACL. When we made the deal we knew he wasn’t going to play for us right away. I think he answered some questions for us; he had some really good moments. But he has a ways to go. I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the (salary) spike. We obviously value Zach a lot and we think he’s a part of our future. But he has the opportunity to explore things. We think he fits the direction we’re going and we have great faith in his ability that he’ll have a great summer in terms of his work and his improvement as a player, and we’ll see. It’s up in the air and not defined yet.”
So Paxson made it clear — as it is to the rest of us and a 27-win season that maybe could have been 34 — that there are flaws, though he liked to refer to it as growth potential.
“What we’re trying to build is a basketball team, one that plays the right way, one that represents the organization the right way,” Paxson said. “When I look at this year it was disjointed in that we didn’t have our full roster together for much of this season. Our goal is for them to get a great summer in, be healthy and come back when September rolls around to hit the ground running.”
On Kris Dunn: “What we saw from Kris Dunn this year was really encouraging. When he was healthy, he showed some real competitiveness. One area Kris really needs to get better is finishing. He's shown an ability to get to the lane, get to the basket. His numbers in finishing around the rim are lower than they should be. For a point guard, if you can get to the basket, you need to finish at a higher level. He has an opportunity to be one of the best defensive guards in the league; he certainly showed that at times this year. The toughest thing for young guys is being consistent in everything they do.”
On Zach LaVine: “Our goal this year for Zach was just to get him playing basketball again. He had a significant injury. We dealt with Derrick, who had the same injury. We’re sensitive to how it affects our player and how difficult it can be for them to come back. He did get back on the floor. I think, historically, guys who come back from ACLs are better the second year. It goes to the fact that Zach needs to be healthy, have a great summer and be in great basketball shape coming into training camp. When you’re coming off that type of injury and haven’t played in 10 or 11 months, it’s hard to be in the basketball shape you need to be in. He ,along with our other guys, have to be in the best basketball shape; it’s on us to demand it. Zach LaVine has to be a better basketball player. That’s his responsibility to work.”
On Lauri Markkanen: “I’m incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself. When I assess Lauri’s game, he obviously proved he can play on the perimeter with his shooting component. He needs this summer to really work on his body, to get a base to him, get stronger. He needs to find areas on the floor inside the three-point line where he can really be effective. He’s going to need to tighten up his handle, where he can maybe take one or two quick dribbles and pull-up, his footwork in isolation situations. With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get in areas on the floor where he can really dominate a game. At least from my seat, he exceeded expectations. We believe we have a good one there and a foundational piece for everything we want to be and the way the game is being played. We feel very lucky he was part of that deal we made last summer.
“Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, you go down the line,” Paxson added. “They have to put in the time. And we’re confident that they will. With the opportunity to have our young guys grow this offseason and the opportunity in the draft to add two pieces to that equation, we feel really good about the direction."
“In this league you need high-level talent, superstar-type guys to lead your team in terms of direction,” Paxson acknowledged. “The promise is there. It’s just this year it was disjointed because of a lot of different things. I have great faith in the young group we have. They have to grow and it’s not going to be easy. But I feel better today about the direction and our position than I did year ago.”
And with no need to go through the unpleasantness of development without the correct destination.
In effect, Paxson was saying — what he could without being fined by the league — is that there always are unscrupulous people. He didn’t mention former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie. It’s like the financial crash of 2008. There always are unscrupulous bankers trying to gain an edge. You’re then as a competitor put in an uncomfortable position: Do you remain principled and lose money even though there is no law against the inappropriate behavior? That’s when the government needs to step forward with regulation as it’s done so many times in our country’s history against monopolies, corporate abuse and financial misbehavior. Decency needs protection, unfortunately. Now it’s on the NBA to clean up the morass created out of predictable human greed.
“I don’t expect us,” said Paxson, “to be in that position again.”