The four biggest takeaways from the Bulls’ season-ending news conference where Executive Vice President John Paxson and General Manager Gar Forman addressed the media:
Run it back
The inconsistency with the playing rotation and the young players on the roster hasn’t dissuaded the Bulls’ brain trust from the path they began last season — sort of. The “10 players with three years or fewer experience” we’ve heard repeatedly from General Manager Gar Forman wasn’t spoken but it was in the air. They’re still very high on Cameron Payne, the centerpiece of the midseason trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. And with Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Denzel Valentine and more on the roster, they’re not ready to cut bait on inexpensive talent in the near future.
“We know change is a part of this, but we don’t want to change without knowing exactly what we have,” Paxson said. “And I don’t feel that we’ve given our young kids a chance to see. Again, we know we’re on the line for that. Players develop, don’t develop. We scout them. We drafted them. We traded for them. That’s part of the job. But we have to give them an opportunity.”
Some would say they’ve seen enough for the Bulls to decide who can play and who won’t, but it’s clear they don’t feel like the young players have been given enough of an opportunity to show how they fit going into the future. Internal improvement seems to be the biggest factor for the summer as opposed to wholesale roster turnover.
“They've each committed to being in here all summer and putting in the work,” Forman said. “Being with our strength and conditioning coaches, being with our coaches on skill development and those are decisions we have to make.
“We certainly feel we have a young core of players that have a chance to get better and we're gonna need to add to it. Are we good enough, are we where we want to be? Obviously not. We're 41-41, a 500 team.”
With Nikola Mirotic, they sound like a front office ready to commit to a restricted free agent who’s only showed small glimpses but nothing sustainable. Before his usual March bloom, the Bulls couldn’t get as much as a future second-round pick for Mirotic on the trade market.
Perhaps that’s why they feel it would be best to hold onto him in the meantime, giving him yet another chance to prove himself. Dwyane Wade has a player option for $23.8 million, and the Bulls sounded like they’re expecting him to take it going into next season, where he’ll turn 36 in the middle of the 2017-18 campaign.
They’d probably be better served bringing in another veteran to lessen the dependency on Wade, but that doesn’t seem to be a main focus with the cap space they hope to maintain for the future.
Non-committal about Jimmy Butler, again
Butler completed another season where he made massive improvements statistically and with his skill set, becoming more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands.
He’s entering the third year of a five-year, $92 million deal and he’ll soon be eligible for a much larger payday if the Bulls would want to commit to him after his contract expires following the 2019-20 season, but the trade rumors have dogged Butler and the Bulls since the middle of last season.
Given the chance to firmly commit to Butler as a franchise player they’ll build around, Paxson and Forman again hedged their bets, as a loaded draft is around the corner and they know Butler will be sought after by more than a few teams.
“Jimmy is far and away our best player. He’s an all-NBA type guy,” Paxson said. “We talked about last year, look our job, you always have to keep things open.”
The Bulls resisted trade offers for Butler at the trade deadline last season and then last June on draft night, the day after they traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks. The longer it goes on with Butler, especially if the Bulls are focusing less on bringing in proven talent and more on the current course, one wonders if this is a frustrating situation waiting to blow as Butler doesn’t want to waste his prime years on a team that isn’t anywhere near ready to truly compete in the Eastern Conference — a conference that aside from LeBron James, doesn’t have many teams that would scare a player like Butler if he had sufficient talent around him.
“We’re going to sit down with Jimmy again. It’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “We’re going to talk to him and we’re going to define to him, with him our thoughts, those types of things. That’s not for today. But we respect Jimmy, we respect his opinion and we will sit down and talk with him.”
Same with Fred Hoiberg, kinda
The boos and chants of “Fire Hoiberg” from a disapproving United Center fan base was the last image in anyone’s head of the Bulls’ second-year coach as they were unceremoniously wiped out of the first round against the Boston Celtics.
Paxson and Forman have said Hoiberg has improved but still left the impression they’re expecting more from him as time goes on. He’s entering the third year of a five-year contract where he’s making $5 million annually, but there’s still questions about his command of the locker room and his ability to make the best of whatever roster he’s given.
“I think Fred’s challenge this offseason is to find ways to be a better leader,” Paxson said. “I think he showed progress in that area. The team did rally around him at times. But again, that’s part of the process, too. We made the commitment to him. We support him.”
Wade said he felt Hoiberg showed improvement through the year, but one wonders if that was Wade throwing Hoiberg a life preserver after a finish to a season where he clearly wasn’t the only problem or question mark headed into the offseason.
“Dwyane said some positive things about Fred, that he saw growth in Fred. I mentioned to you last year that I view young coaches in this league as like young players,” Paxson said. “They have to develop and grow, too. I’m not gonna get into the specifics about things we’ve seen. We have a lot of discussions throughout the year about issues we have, things with him, but that’s for us internally to have and to talk about.”
Endorsement of Rondo
If it was one thing that was crystal clear about the front office, it was their wholesale support of Rajon Rondo and the likelihood he’ll be back next season for the second year of a team option, as Paxson said “there’s a good chance or a really good chance that we bring Rajon back”, citing his influence in the locker room as a main factor.
In fact, it seems almost as if they were a bigger fan of Rondo as a voice and guiding force than Hoiberg.
The biggest event of the season was clearly following a January loss to the Hawks, where Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler called out the young players, followed by Rondo unleashing on Instagram the next afternoon in defense of the young players, criticizing the leadership of Wade and Butler.
“To be candid with you, when we had that incident where Dwyane and Jimmy spoke up in January, when he stood up for our young guys, that empowered them a little bit,” Paxson said. “It might be small but there was some growth with our young guys. Because they felt they had a voice as a young player and for us that was important.”
Considering the Bulls nearly exiled Rondo in January to him becoming the most important player as the Bulls looked ready to upset the Celtics in the first round just two weeks ago, it’s a turn of events not many saw coming.
“To a man, our young people loved Rajon. He was great in the locker room,” Paxson said. “He was great off the court with these guys. He took them under his wing in a lot of ways, and he was responsible for a lot of the good things that came from them. We have a lot of respect for Rajon, especially how he believes in the game. He used to drag guys into the weight room, and he held them accountable in a lot of ways.”