It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.
It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.
Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.
He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”
They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.
All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.
When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.
When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.
When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.
Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.
If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.
This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.
Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.
“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”
Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.
“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”
Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.
But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.
At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.
If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.
Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.
And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.
“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”
Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.
And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.