Bulls

Paxson addresses future after Bulls' disappointing season ends

Paxson addresses future after Bulls' disappointing season ends

Calling the season a “disappointment” and "unacceptable", Bulls executive vice president John Paxson addressed the media along with general manager Gar Forman after the Bulls’ season-ending win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

It marks the first time the Bulls have ended their season with a lottery appearance since 2008, as they’ve fallen well short of expectations that didn’t just revolve around qualifying for the playoffs but the belief they could contend for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

“Gar and I understand accountability. And we are accountable for what this team did this year,” Paxson said. “We don’t run away from it. We accept it. That’s on us. And we get it. And we understand what’s at stake.”

What’s at stake could be the Bulls’ standing in the conference and league, as the franchise faces a crucial offseason where Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol will be unrestricted free agents, along with deciding the best course of action with several key players on their roster.

“We had a bad year, we are not running from that,” Paxson said. “Changes need to be made. I’ll go down with a group that fights more than a group that doesn’t.”

Paxson roundly disputed reports Forman’s job was in jeopardy, and made no bones about the expectations that were placed in front of new coach Fred Hoiberg, as they didn’t make significant changes to a roster that lost in the second round of the 2015 playoffs.

“This roster we brought back, we thought they had one more shot to make a real positive run in the Eastern Conference,” Paxson said. “It obviously didn’t play out that way. And that’s where our biggest disappointment comes from. I do think that anybody who watched us play this year saw a team that didn’t have the collective fight and toughness to fight through adversity.”

The adversity included the myriad injuries the Bulls suffered for another year, starting from the first days of training camp when Mike Dunleavy underwent back surgery and Derrick Rose broke his orbital bone in the first 30 minutes of the first practice.

Forman added the entire roster wasn’t together en masse all season, punctuated by the season-ending injury to Noah in January—but Paxson added he talked to the team after the game and said he felt they still had enough to make the playoffs.

“We did have a lot of significant injuries that hurt us,” Paxson said. “But we as well as anyone understand that’s not an excuse. In fact, I told our guys, given the injuries, we were good enough to make the playoffs.”

Paxson and Forman addressed the seemingly endless controversy surrounding the players and their adjustment to Hoiberg, admitting Hoiberg endured some growing pains.

Hoiberg had situations with Noah as well as Jimmy Butler—situations Paxson pointed to Hoiberg saying he wished he’d do some things over again as growth within a tumultuous season.

“We’re in this with Fred,” Paxson said. “I think the last few days Fred has an opportunity to express some things that are honest and candid about what he needs to do better. It’s our responsibility to help him along that way.”

“What I've heard him say the last week or so, he's gonna do everything he can to improve and grow. I'm very confident he'll grow. How can you not through experience?”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

At 42-40, the Bulls finished ninth in the East, but even if they made the playoffs, Paxson said they would evaluate things as honestly as they say they are as a lottery team.

“Tex Winter used to have an old saying that, ‘Winning covers a multitude of sins.’,” Paxson said. “And even had we gotten to the playoffs – we wanted to, believe me, that was the goal, even with all the injuries and anything – it would not have covered up a lot of the things, the issues we’ve discussed here. Those would not have gone away. We’d still be addressing them.”

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.