Bulls executive vice president John Paxson addressed the team's slow start in a wide-ranging one-on-one interview with our K.C. Johnson.
The last two times John Paxson oversaw this significant a roster overhaul, the Bulls experienced success, if not championships.
Paxson inherited a roster from Jerry Krause in April 2003 that he flipped completely, save for Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, and built a perennial playoff team centered around Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and coached by Scott Skiles.
When that era fizzled, leading to Skiles’ Christmas Eve firing in 2007, the Bulls lucked into the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery and landed hometown product Derrick Rose. Paxson and general manager Gar Forman surrounded Rose with talent and hired Tom Thibodeau, who coached the Bulls to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals before Rose’s torn ACL altered the franchise’s trajectory.
Team president Michael Reinsdorf, Paxson and coach Jim Boylen all publicly pointed to this season, the third of a rebuild following the June 2017 trade of Jimmy Butler, as the one in which the Bulls would become relevant again. In their words, all expected nightly competitiveness and the challenging for a playoff position.
Entering Saturday’s home game against the Clippers, the Bulls stood as one of the biggest underachieving stories of the NBA. Their 9-18 mark included not one victory against a winning team. They’ve been blown out and lost big leads. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, principals from the Butler trade, have appeared to regress.
Against that backdrop, Paxson sat for a 16-minute interview with NBC Sports Chicago Saturday afternoon. Here is that transcript:
Q: What has disappointed you the most about this season?
A: Obviously, we all expected to have a better record than we do right now. Given the offseason we had and the September we had, all of us in basketball operations thought we would have won more games. So that’s disappointing. If I have to point to reasons why, first I assume responsibility for the organization always. And I own where we’re at. The thing that I probably didn’t anticipate was that Jim put in a new system. We hired two new assistant coaches who have had their input with Jim. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, I thought it would carry over more quickly than it has. That was a miscalculation on my part. That said, I watch a lot of practices. I communicate with Jim and his staff consistently. I sit in on team film sessions to observe and hear what is being taught. What I see is a lot of good things being taught and emphasized to our team. What you don’t see is the consistent carryover from the practice floor to the film room to the games. Why is that? No excuses for it. But we still have a young team. And I think guys are still trying to figure out where their shots are coming from and how to play instinctively out of this system. My reference point is always from playing and Phil Jackson and Tex (Winter) put in the triangle. It wasn’t an instinctive way of playing basketball. It took us some time. We had the greatest player in the game so you’re going to win a lot of games. That’s the next step with this group. Here’s this system and we have to grow out of this system. Jim and his staff have to add to it. And the players have to grow out of it. But it’s playing with instinct out of the system. And we’re still taking baby steps. And I didn’t anticipate that. That’s on me.
Q: What is the system?
A: Like a lot of offenses in this day and age, it’s a lot of spacing. It is trying to create a situation on the floor where two guys are guarding one and you move the ball and you space it and shoot and you can get corner 3-pointers. Getting the ball to the lane is a priority. We’ve attacked the basket well this year. We haven’t finished at a rate that is high at all. That’s been an issue. If you’re going to break it down statistically, we haven’t shot the ball well. A component of that is are you getting the right guys the shots. That’s growth in terms of what we’re running. Those are all things that I know our staff is working on individually with players. That’s you need to see carry over at some point. But it takes patience. Coby White, for example, is 19. His ability to finish at the rim isn’t elite right now. But that’s what he has to work for. And I could go down the line with players on that.
Q: Do you think players believe in the system and, in turn, have belief in Jim Boylen?
A: I have good communication with our players so I have a good feel for what’s going on. I think this is a combination of a lot of things. When you’re not having success, it’s easy to question and point fingers. When you run an offense, if you’re getting open shots, individual players have to look at themselves too. Just like coaches have to look at themselves and I have to look at myself. I think it takes time for everybody to understand why you’re doing certain things. The one thing about this system that Jim and his staff have implemented is there is room to grow. Jim tells me we’re trying to set the foundation. That goes back to me getting guys to understand that and then start playing instinctually out of that. That’s the next area they have to grow.
Q: How would you assess Jim’s performance to this point and will he finish the season?
A: I’m not into giving rankings. We’re committed to Jim. There’s no quick fix to this. We’re not thinking of making any changes. Jim is a grinder. He’s going to keep grinding. One thing I respect immensely about him is he’s willing to listen to ideas. The thing he and I do is talk basketball. When I see things, he listens to what I have to say. Not that I’m making the decisions and I don’t tell him to play, but we talk basketball. And he’s open. He’s going to continue to grow and get better. I thought when we hired Chris (Fleming) and Roy (Rogers) this offseason, we improved our staff immensely. And I still believe that and they’re learning their rhythm together. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our defense. We’re probably ahead of where we should be given the youth of our team. We’re committed to Jim. From my seat, I have to look at things from a 30,000-foot view. I’m not going to sit here and say there’s some move we can make, whether it’s personnel or anything right now, that’s going to make a huge difference. We have to continue to develop Wendell Carter, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine. Go down the line. We have Chandler Hutchison. Kris Dunn has done a great job accepting a role. That continues to be our focus. Develop these kids. Get them to grow into good players.
Q: Do you think the locker room still buys into Jim?
A: We recognize players have a voice in this day and age. They’re empowered in a way they’ve never been. And that’s a good thing for the league. They’ve taken that and used that in a positive way for the league. We talk to the players. Thad, we’ve spoken to. The one thing I am confident is guys in that locker room share the same goal. They are together. There’s never going to be a perfect situation. There’s always some conflict. It can be teammate to teammate or coaches to players. That’s inevitable in this business. I don’t expect this group to fracture. I’d be disappointed if they did. All the guys in that locker room expressed to us their character and that’s not where they want to go or would ever go. I believe when they tell me that. I know that when things are bad or you’re not winning as much as you should, people want to point fingers. I’m not doing that internally. And we can’t do that internally. Once you do that, you’re in trouble.
Q: On Media Day, your organization stated playoffs as the goal. Is that still a possibility? And it seems you have moved the goalposts a bit towards development, which obviously needs to happen as well. But the team hasn’t been competitive many nights.
A: What we said is our goal is to challenge and compete for the playoffs. I don’t know why that changes. And the reason we said that, the summer we had and the changes we made and the draft and the buy-in in September, our players felt good about themselves. And we all felt good about it. The way Jim is wired, we’re all wired, why shouldn’t we be sending the message to them to compete for the playoffs? If that’s a pressure you put on people, I’m fine with that. I don’t waver. But I don’t know where that lands. I don’t know if that’s a realistic thing right now. We certainly haven’t played like a team that’s playoff-bound. But 50-some games left, it can change. If it doesn’t, we obviously didn’t achieve something that we thought we could’ve.
Q: How much discussion is there from the Reinsdorfs to you about the attendance and how much of a concern is that?
A: Very little. But we’re all aware of it. And our fan base is so important to us. I feel really bad about it. I own where we’re at. What I want more than anything, and I told this to the players before the season started, is to have a team our fan base can root for and that competes. We all want to win at the highest level. We’re not at that stage. But I’ve always felt our fan base will support us if they see guys really giving everything they have and competing and showing they’re in it with them. So it is disappointing that we’re not drawing the way we have. You get back to winning and people will come and support you.
Q: That’s the difference to me. When you took over for Jerry, you built a team that competed and was well liked. And then when you lucked into Derrick, you built a team that won a lot. You guys pointed to this season as the season it was going to change. And it’s gone the other way. Do you see why fans are frustrated with that?
A: Of course, and that’s why I’m so disappointed. We all thought we would have won more games. And the way we’ve lost some of them has been hard to stomach. But like I said, I see things being done on the practice floor and the teaching and then the lack of consistent carry over to the games that has hurt us. Is that inexperience, immaturity? I know physical toughness has been an issue. Teams that are physical with us have hurt us a lot this year. When things aren’t going well, there’s a lot you can point to.
Q: Have you miscast players in roles?
A: I wouldn’t get into whether we’ve miscast guys. That’s not how I look at it. Lauri for example has played better lately. But I still think he’s trying to find his way in what we’re doing, where his shots come from. He needs to play with confidence and instincts. I’ve talked to him about this. His heart is in the right place. He wants to be good. He’s a key part of this. We’re not down on him at all. We still think he has so much room to grow. I think he’s just trying to find his way. He has to be consistent in his work, which he is. And I think he’ll find himself as we keep going through this.
Q: So you’re going to ride this out as is this season?
A: There’s not a quick fix. We’d like to get Otto (Porter) back. Part of our shooting issues has been that he hasn’t been on the floor. Lauri hasn’t shot to the level that he has the first two years. We need him to do that. We’re not giving up on Lauri, Wendell, Zach, Coby White. We’re all in this together. This is about all of us being better.
Q: You sound as committed as ever to this job?
A: I’m here. I don’t plan on going anywhere.
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