John Paxson speaks to the press
"We're confident that we have a foundation in place. We're confident in the direction that we are headed." - John Paxson
Jim Boylen might be the Bulls coach for awhile, the personnel makeup of the Bulls roster could look very different next season, don't be surprised if the Bulls look to make a major trade involving their draft pick, and there may be some superstars hiding in plain sight on the Bulls roster named Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Though they better get better.
That's a little bit of reading the lines and in between the lines of John Paxson's post season Advocate Center media session Thursday. The Bulls' Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations reiterated and emphasized the themes about this disappointing 22-60 season, that it was derailed by inescapable injuries and should have/would have/could have been a substantial accelerated step in the team's rebuilding process with even some late season meaningful games.
But that obviously was diverted by the myriad early season misfortune that not only sunk the season, but then resulted in the departure of coach Fred Hoiberg for Boylen. And then the trade of Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker for Otto Porter Jr. It produced a brief glimpse of the franchise's belief on where it is headed before a final few weeks of injuries and concerns grounded virtually the entire regular rotation.
Though the Bulls announced Thursday morning Markkanen was cleared to resume basketball activities. The issues with his heart apparently were only related to improper diet and hydration. Which was perhaps the greatest relief as Paxson made clear he believes the Bulls have a strong roster foundation in Markkanen, LaVine, Porter and Wendell Carter Jr.
But Paxson also suggested without mentioning any names because of NBA rules that the roster could be supplemented substantially with the addition of veteran and experienced players to complement the primarily young core players. Paxson didn't make any specific predictions about next season. But he seemed confident, assuming good health, the Bulls should be in a substantial and positive position next season regarding competition and the playoffs.
I still believe given a really good offseason with this draft pick we have coming and with our ability to get some veteran players in here alongside these young guys, we can make a substantial leap.
"Ideally this season would have given us a larger sample size of this group together, especially after we made the trade for Otto," Paxson acknowledged. "But this is the NBA and we were faced with some injuries and some obstacles that sometimes are hard to overcome. With that said, we're confident that we have a foundation in place. We're confident in the direction that we are headed. We understand always how important the offseason is where we will have another high draft pick. We'll have an opportunity to bring in some veteran players, which will be a priority for us to help this roster grow."
"My heart tells me had we been healthy all year long, we would've won more than 22 games," Paxson said. "All I've said is I'd like to see us in a hunt for a playoff run. We have to be healthy to do that. I've also talked about the internal growth of our guys. I think Lauri Markkanen has the opportunity to make a big step. I think Zach does, Wendell, Otto. If we're injury free, we're going to have a better bench than we did this year. I understand about getting that transactional player, but there are other ways to build and grow. I think we'll be OK in that regard."
Team personnel aren't permitted to discuss potential draft picks. Though the widespread consensus around the NBA is that Duke forward Zion Williamson could be that generational-type talent like Derrick Rose was in 2008 or LeBron James in 2003 to change the arc of a franchise no matter its circumstances or previous record. Murray State point guard Ja Morant is also considered a potential franchise changing talent. Paxson reiterated the May 14 draft lottery is crucial to all the teams that missed the playoffs, but it's not the sole program.
My heart tells me had we been healthy all year long, we would've won more than 22 games.
"The first thing we need to do is see what happens in our draft," said Paxson. "What I will tell you and I know for sure, we need some physical and mental toughness from some vets to help our guys out, and that will be a priority. Well find out May 14th. Luck and hope are not a strategy or a plan. We have to plan."
So the scouting work will continue as Paxson said General Manager Gar Forman was currently at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon.
"It's never easy in this business to lose because we're in the winning business and that's what we aspire to," said Paxson. "I thought going into this season that if we would have stayed healthy we would have had the opportunity to win a significant number of games (more than) last year (27). That didn't happen. As I look at it now, it might be a blessing in disguise in terms of our draft position and those types of things. I'm committed to our direction; we're going to be patient. But we're also going to take advantage of the opportunities that come our way."
"Rebuilds are difficult. Sometimes it takes years and years," Paxson acknowledged. "I still believe given a really good offseason with this draft pick we have coming and with our ability to get some veteran players in here alongside these young guys, we can make a substantial leap. Our goal next year has to be in that (playoff) hunt. That's going to take us being healthy. And hopefully we'll get a little luck in that regard."
Here are some of the primary possibilities from Paxson's comments:
Boylen could get a contract extension beyond his current deal that expires at the end of next season. Paxson expressed perhaps as much enthusiasm for Boylen as any coach he has hired.
"It's very possible," Paxson said when asked about whether an extension is being considered. "In fact, I've spoken to both Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf) about addressing that and I don't know what the timing will be, but I envision Jim being our coach here and us committing to him, yes.
"I think what I've seen is his ability to show these guys he genuinely cares about them," Paxson said in adding Boylen intends to visit all the players in the off season at their homes. "His goal is to get them better as individuals. I'm the first to admit that first week (he was head coach) was like dynamite blowing up. It was a rocky week. What I've seen since then is a guy who embraces this challenge. He embraces the individuals he's coaching. He really does view himself as a teacher, a guy who wants to connect with the players. Sometimes you have to be demanding and hard. I still believe that you can demand as a head coach as long as you show these guys that you're doing it because you care about them and you want them to succeed. In the four and a half months Jim has been the head coach, he and I have had more dialogue together about everything than I had with any of the other guys, probably combined. Jim is going to rub players the wrong way sometimes. Phil Jackson rubbed players the wrong way. The great ones do. We're going to try to build something here with him as our coach and I'm confident in that right now.
"So much of it is leadership, and Jim has accepted that," Paxson said. "He's going to show them the right way. He's going to be truthful with them. He's going to coach them the way he feels they need to be coached. I was impressed this morning going through some of these exit meetings with our guys; they were no nonsense. The players were engaged. They accepted what Jim was asking of them. And Jim has high expectations for them. We're going to try to build a roster that Jim is comfortable coaching."
It is not generally considered a strong NBA draft beyond the first two or three selections. The Bulls traditionally have preferred to retain their draft pick, or trade ahead in the draft. It will be unlikely a team could trade up in this draft unless offering a player like Anthony Davis, who would then also have to commit to resigning. The Bulls have the fourth odds for the top draft pick at 12.5 percent to 14 for the top three. But once teams move into the top four, teams are put in order. It means the Bulls could fall as far as No. 7 or No. 8 in the draft, though the latter is unlikely.
"I think this year in the draft we are going to have to keep a broad mind in terms of how we want to go about things," Paxson admitted. "Gar and I have talked about that a lot. Whoever gets lucky is going to be better off."
With LaVine in the top 20 in the league in scoring and in the top five the first month of the season and Markkanen jockeying with James Harden for most 20/10 games in February, Paxson suggested the route to a transformational star could be internal as much as in free agency. After all, players like Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo weren't viewed that way their first two or three years in the NBA.
"I'm not ruling out Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen being significant players in this league," Paxson said. "Zach just turned 24 and I thought Zach had a really good year. He grew in a lot of ways where I think he's going to get better. I do believe when we establish winning again this city is a draw, that this organization is a draw. But that's down the road. That's why we made the deal at the trade deadline for Otto. We felt that was a significant piece to becoming a much better basketball team. Over that stretch where we had him and we were healthy, we were playing at a level that I could see us playing at in the future. The strength thing for (Markkanen) is the key. In terms of basketball, Lauri has to learn how to play lower. His base has to become stronger. His base has to become better so he can play lower and against physicality. His ability to put the ball on the floor and create for himself has to improve. And he has to focus on how to get himself open. You don't have to be the quickest guy in the world to find ways to move your body and get yourself open. Larry Bird was a great example of that. He wasn't quick and I mentioned that to Lauri this morning. He's two years in and has had some hiccups with injury. But he averaged almost 19 and 9 this year in a year that he'd tell you he could've done a lot better. He's a great kid. He fits everything we want to be. He wants to win. He cares. Those are the type of guys we want to find."
Point guard appears to be an offseason priority. Paxson was asked about former Bull Rose amidst rumors of interest. Paxson said he could not talk about free agents. He did say: "We had good times (with Rose), there were some rougher times. But he's a good kid. Chicago loves him. We have great respect for him.
"We have not given up on Kris (Dunn)," Paxson added. "I think he has defensive abilities. But we have to get better at that position. He has an opportunity this summer to improve his game, come back with the mindset of being a true push guard, getting us to play with pace. I do see our starting lineup with three legitimate three-point shooters in Zach, Lauri and Otto. A point guard who can get those guys opportunities will be a priority. Kris is going to have opportunity because he's under contract. But we understand as an organization that's a position that if we're to make a step in the right direction, that we're going to have to address. No beating around the bush on that one."
Boylen in his half season has emphasized an offensive system unlike many in the NBA with fewer three point shots and more inside scoring. Paxson said he is comfortable with the direction.
"I personally don't subscribe to the theory that you have to shoot 50 threes a game to win at a high level," Paxson said. "Jim's thing is getting to the rim. It's not necessarily through post passing, although that's still something—if you have players that can catch the ball close to the basket and score—that is a valuable thing. His thing is getting to the paint and drawing defense. If you have shooters out there with them that can space the floor, that's valuable, too. What we are talking about and will continue to talk about is versatility in our lineup, guys who have an ability to push it out and we can get the ball up the floor quickly and advance it. That's more to me what the league is about. So as we go into this offseason, we're going to be looking for versatile guys because I think we have the type of lineup we can throw some difficult things out there for guys."
There could be staff changes on the bench with Boylen.
"We obviously elevated our associate head coach to head coach and now we have to determine (how to replace that)," Paxson said. "You change in midstream, we worked with what we had. We love all the guys on our staff. They work hard. They're really good people. Our players like them. But we're going to look at what's best for the organization, what's best for Jim and go about it that way."
There was a positive with the report regarding Markkanen's healt and that everyone is ready to attack the offseason training with commitment.
"Obviously, we got some good news with Lauri with all the tests he had. That's a relief," said Paxson. "He's being educated on things he needs to do with his diet. If we can ever get this group together, I'm confident we are going to improve. We are going to add two or three players to this group this summer and it should make us deeper and with Jim having a full training camp heading forward to me, that's a solid start."
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