April 16, 2018, 6:29 pm
Chicago Bulls President of Basketball Operations John Paxson met with the media to share his thoughts on a 2017-18 season that saw the Bulls finish 13th in the Eastern Conference with a 27-55 record.
While this is the second time in the past three seasons the Bulls have missed the playoffs, some of that was by design as last year’s draft night deal to send All-Star and franchise cornerstone Jimmy Butler to Minnesota sent a clear signal that this would be a rebuilding year.
The notoriously competitive Paxson, who has spent 33 years in and around the Bulls organization as a sharp-shooter, assistant coach, radio analyst, and front office executive was candid in speaking about the difficulties of the 2017-18 campaign.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said.
“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.”
It may seem hard to believe, but it has been 15 years since Paxson replaced Hall of Fame front office executive Jerry Krause, the architect of the 1990’s Chicago dynasty. In that time, Paxson has guided the Bulls to a 640-574 (52.7 percent) record with 11 playoff appearances and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals (2011).
Despite that, Paxson spoke like a man just getting started, and in many ways, he is, as the roster has completely turned over from those Bulls teams earlier this decade that we’re expected to challenge the Lebron James lead Miami Heat teams for Eastern Conference superiority.
He expressed optimism that the Bulls are through the worst of the rebuild and are in position to begin taking steps back towards playoff relevance sooner rather than later.
“The majority of this roster is gonna come back, because we feel we’re headed in the right direction. We understand that growth and internal development helps us become a better basketball team. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be looking for ways to get better, but a lot of it’s going to come internally,” Paxson offered when discussing the roster he has assembled.
Reading between the lines, its clear that Paxson is confident he has found a head coach fully capable of continuing to cultivate that growth in Fred Hoiberg.
Lost in a season where everyone was focused on the development of young talent acquired at a considerable cost in the Jimmy Butler deal was the fact that Fred Hoiberg delivered arguably his best season at the helm in 2017-18.
Remember, it was not that long ago (May 2017) following the Bulls first round playoff exit at the hands of the top seeded Boston Celtics that John Paxson said “Fred’s challenge this season is to find ways to be a better leader. He showed progress in that area. The team did rally around him at times.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a coach hand-picked by the front office having just completed a chaotic second season culminating in a playoff berth.
Fast forward a year, and despite slipping five spots in the standings from eighth to thirteenth, it’s clear that Paxson feels Hoiberg stepped up and met the challenge.
“I think Fred and his staff set the culture correctly last year in the summertime with the work they put in with our players. Our staff dealt with some real hurdles. We had injuries that were uncommon to some key players. We made the decision at the All-Star break to play our younger guys, with the belief that it was the right thing to do for our future. [The coaching staff] deserve a lot of credit for the way they consistently dealt with tough situations, but kept at it with their work, to get the best out of our players. Fred will be back. Absolutely.”
It would seem Paxson is far more content with his current single alpha chain of command (Hoiberg) than he was operating with a three-alpha set up (Butler, Wade, Rondo).
It didn’t take long for his focus to pivot to the Bulls’ current young trio of building blocks.
“What we saw from Kris Dunn this year was really encouraging,” said Paxson. “When he was healthy, he showed some real competitiveness.”
The second-year point guard out of Providence, selected at No. 5 in the 2016 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade, saw almost 30 minutes per game this season (up from 17 minutes per contest with Minnesota last year).
Dunn posted strong averages in points (13.4 per), assists (6.0 per), and steals (2.0 per). Turnovers were an issue at times (2.9 per) and it’s unlikely he will ever develop into a knockdown long distance threat (32 percent on 2.6 three point attempts per contest).
Yet if he can show even marginal improvement from distance and do a better job of finishing at the rim to improve on his 45.7 percent average on two point shot attempts, he could develop into a solid starting NBA caliber point guard.
It probably unrealistic to expect Dunn to turn into a high scoring model of efficiency on offense, and it’s doubtful he will ever be the type of guard that leads a team in scoring, but those weren’t the expectations for him coming out of Providence nor are they the expectations the Bulls have for him now.
If he can reduce turnovers, continue to play great defense, get his teammates open looks, and set the up-tempo pace Hoiberg has been desperately seeking since his arrival in Chicago, he will be well on his way to a long and fruitful career as the Bulls’ starting point guard.
Paxson also reiterated the Bulls’ see Zach LaVine as a foundation piece, expressing optimism that the team will be able to retain LaVine despite his status as a restricted free agent this summer, stating “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years,” Paxson said. “But we obviously value Zach a lot. We think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.”
Originally viewed as the centerpiece of the deal that also brought Dunn and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NBA draft (used to acquire Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen) over from Minnesota in the Butler trade, a year later its not looking quite as clear.
Granted, that’s mostly because Dunn and Markkanen (more on him later) performed at levels that far exceeded anyone’s realistic expectations.
Sure, LaVine demonstrated that the explosiveness that propelled him to back-to-back slam dunk contest victories in 2015 and 2016 is all the way back, but he largely struggled to co-exist with Dunn in their limited time together on the court.
After a mid-March contest vs. the Grizzlies that saw LaVine net 20 points despite shooting a woefully inefficient 4-of-12 from the field (2-of-7 from distance), a frustrated Hoiberg prodded LaVine after the game by saying “Zach has to get out and run the floor. He’s waiting in the backcourt for the ball. That’s Kris Dunn’s job.”
That game would end up being LaVine’s last for the season, as he missed the final 14 games of the year nursing tendinitis in his surgically repaired knee.
Dunn and LaVine would only share the court for a total of 308 minutes this season, producing an underwhelming -19.1 net rating.
Take that with a grain of salt though, as its just as much a sign of the team’s overall struggles as it is any sort of indicator on the potential of a Dunn/LaVine pairing going forward.
It’s important to remember that as he recovered from his ACL injury, LaVine had very little opportunity to practice with the team.
Most of his practice time prior to his return took place with the Windy City Bulls, the teams’ G-League affiliate located about an hour away from the official team practice facility across the street from the United Center.
In his return from the March 2017 ACL injury, LaVine averaged 27.3 minutes across 24 games spanning from mid-January through mid-March.
It will be an interesting offseason for LaVine, as he will be surely seeking a max or near-max offer sheet in free agency.
Still barely 23 years old, he has already played four seasons in the NBA and his career trajectory was on a major uptick prior to the ACL injury that limited him to 47 games for the Timberwolves two seasons ago.
His effective field goal percentage (a statistic that is used to adjust for the impact of 3-point baskets) had risen dramatically his first three seasons, going from 46.5 percent as a rookie in 2014-15 to 51.6 percent the following year all the way up to 54.4 percent in the 47 games he played in 2016-17 prior to the ACL injury and his subsequent trade to the Bulls.
As a point of reference, current MVP favorite James Harden of the Houston Rockets had an effective field goal rate of 54.1 percent this past season.
While nobody is going to mistake the playmaking ability and overall impact Harden has on an NBA game with that of even a pre-injury Zach LaVine, it only takes one team to become enamored with a player for a really big offer sheet to land on John Paxson’s desk.
Still, with inefficient percentages of 40 percent from the field (38 percent from three) in his 24-game return with the Bulls, it’s more likely that he will have to settle for a less than max deal, albeit one that might give Paxson and the Bulls a mild case of heartburn.
The jury is still out on LaVine, and he will probably need to demonstrate he is fully recovered from the ACL injury and capable of being more than a volume scorer with an amazing highlight package before the max offers start rolling in.
He will have every opportunity to do that if he stays with the Bulls, as he will be a featured player given every opportunity to succeed and showcase his abilities. At his age, he is still able to sign a four or five year offer sheet this offseason and test the free agent waters again in his prime at 28 or 29 years old.
That brings us to Lauri Markkanen. The final piece brought over from Minnesota, he singlehandedly silenced anyone doubting if the Bulls has acquired enough value in return for Butler.
As a 20-year-old rookie, across 68 games he averaged 29.7 minutes, 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.1 made threes per game while shooting almost 50 percent from the field (49.7).
He set a Bulls rookie record for 3-point baskets made in a season (145) and played a large part in the Bulls breaking the franchise record for 3-point shots made in a season.
Paxson on Markkanen –
“He is a cornerstone. We loved him in the draft but we didn’t know what we had. I’m incredibly impressed with the poise that he plays with. When I assess Lauri’s game, he obviously proved he can play on the perimeter. He needs this summer to work on his body, to get a base to him. He’s gonna need to tighten up his handle, where he can take one or two quick dribbles, and pull up. With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get to areas on the floor where he can really dominate a game. But he’s a young man and 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’s being played.”
That’s high praise coming from Paxson, and John deserves credit for how he navigated the Bulls through the Butler trade and put them in position to land Markkanen with the No. 7 pick.
Bottom line, if Markannen doesn’t produce at such a high level, there may be a completely different conversation taking place in Chicago today as the moves of the past few seasons had Chicago Bulls fans teetering on the brink.
Paxson’s work over the past year to rebuild the team has reinvigorated Bulls fans asking one simple question – “What’s next?”
With the May 15 draft lottery still to play out, the Bulls know they will pick no lower than No. 6 in the upcoming NBA draft. Thanks to the February deal that sent Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans, the Bulls will also have the No. 22 selection.
In more of a top heavy draft lacking the depth we saw in last year’s event, even if they don’t move up via a lucky bounce of the ping pong balls, they are in a great spot to land an impact player capable of complimenting the current roster.
Paxson is thinking big (literally) – “I think we need to look at the wing position. That would be an ideal spot. Size and length. A shooting component and a defensive component would be an area we would like to improve. But depending on where we draft, it’s hard to overlook talent, even when you’re looking at a specific need. We have a lot of work to do. You need versatility. We’re confident we’ll find two players that we like.”
Paxson also noted that general manager Gar Foreman has spent pretty much the entire season on the road scouting potential draft candidates.
It will be an interesting offseason for the Bulls, both for all the things that will play out publicly (LaVine contract, NBA draft, free agency) as well as for all that will take place behind the scenes away from prying eyes (Markkanen, Dunn, LaVine continued work to improve, Doug Collins contributions in his relatively new role as a Senior Advisor of Basketball Operations).
For now, the Bulls will continue to scout and get their draft board organized as the lottery (to be held in Chicago) is a month away, and perhaps if they strike gold again in the draft, next year’s end of season press conference with John Paxson will have to wait until a little bit later in April.
April 19, 2019, 10:57 pmTyreke Evans - G - Indiana Pacers
Tyreke Evans scored 19 points in 21 minutes off the bench including four three-pointers in Friday's loss to the Celtics.
Evans was on fire from the field going 6-for-10 from the field and 4-for-6 from three. He was a big part in the Pacers jumping out to a halftime lead, but wasn't able to will them to the win.
April 19, 2019, 10:26 pmPascal Siakam - F - Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam dropped an efficient 30 points on 13-for-20 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, four assists and three threes in Friday night's 98-93 win over the Magic.
Siakam led Toronto in field goal attempts on a night where Kawhi struggled to make a consistent impact and his team needed every bit of it to outlast a pesky Orlando team on the road. The Cameroonian forward has been on fire to start the playoffs and will look to keep it going in Game 4.
April 19, 2019, 10:19 pmKawhi Leonard - F - Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard had 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and one steal as the Raptors were able to find enough scoring from the supporting cast to beat the Magic on Friday night.
Aaron Gordon matched up with Kawhi for most of this one and did a good job keeping him uncomfortable as he struggled with a 5-for-19 shooting night. Head coach Nick Nurse indicated after the game that Leonard has been dealing with an illness that kept him from practicing the last two days so that may have had something to do with his struggles as well.
Source: Mike Ganter on Twitter
April 19, 2019, 10:12 pmKyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry posted 12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, two threes, one steal and one block in Friday's win on the road against the Magic.
Not only did Lowry have a nice full line, he made a lot of hustle plays that helped Toronto to an ugly playoff win on the road. He is responding nicely after struggling in Game 1, proving that he can be productive in the playoffs.
April 19, 2019, 10:05 pmDanny Green - G/F - Toronto Raptors
Danny Green notched 13 points with three three-pointers, one steal and one block on Friday night.
On a night where Kawhi didn't have it going from three (0-for-3), Green stepped up with an efficient shooting night and his trademark defense to help Toronto win an ugly one on the road.
April 19, 2019, 10:00 pmNikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic finally looked like himself on Friday night as he dropped 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and one steal as the Magic fell 98-93 to the Raptors at home.
Vucevic broke out of his playoff slump, but unfortunately Orlando dealt with poor shooting nights from DJ Augustin (3-for-7) and Evan Fournier (1-for-12) that ultimately sunk them on their home floor.
April 19, 2019, 9:53 pmAaron Gordon - F - Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon only scored 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds and one steal on Friday night.
While Gordon's line doesn't jump off the page, it was Kawhi's struggles from the field (5-for-19) that highlighted the impact he had on this game. Gordon's strong defensive effort helped the Magic stay alive on a cold shooting night but it wasn't enough to win.
April 19, 2019, 9:46 pmJonathan Isaac - F - Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac chipped in a solid performance on Friday night against the Raptors with 14 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two made threes.
Isaac was a big part of how Orlando was able to keep the game close in the first half, but his struggles from the field (4-for-11) and three (2-for-7) kept him off the floor in the fourth quarter as the his team attempted a final comeback.
April 19, 2019, 9:40 pmTerrence Ross - G/F - Orlando Magic
Terrence Ross played 32 minutes off the bench and scored 24 points on 8-for-17 shooting, including five made threes and two steals in Friday's loss to the Raptors.
On a night where the Magic got virtually nothing from Evan Fournier, Ross came through with a huge performance. Unfortunately, the big game from Ross wasn't enough for Orlando to overcome a poor night from its starting guards and a lackluster effort on the defensive boards.
April 19, 2019, 8:39 pmBlake Griffin - F - Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin (left knee soreness) is listed as questionable to play in Saturday’s Game 3 vs. the Bucks.
Griffin has already missed the first two games against Milwaukee. Detroit hasn’t been very competitive without him and they’ll need the big man if they hope to even up the series at home. Thon Maker would likely get another start if Griffin isn’t able to play.
Source: NBA INjury Report