End-of-year press conferences typically have the kind of optimism John Paxson displayed Thursday at the Advocate Center. For 31 minutes Paxson discussed how the Bulls are in a better place than they were a year ago, and how there were multiple factors that played a role in the team winning just 27 games in this the first year of their rebuild.
But past the rose-colored outlook Paxson had of the team he did offer three declarations. Two were expected, that Fred Hoiberg will be back as head coach next season, and that the Bulls consider rookie Lauri Markkanen a foundation piece for the future. But Paxson also delved into where the Bulls stand at point guard – a position that’s been as much a revolving door as any other since Derrick Rose’s departure in 2015.
“I feel really good about going into next season with Kris Dunn as our starter and Cameron Payne as our backup,” Paxson admitted.
It’s an interesting comment from Paxson on multiple levels. Let’s break down the layers.
Dunn as the starter isn’t a surprise. While Paxson didn’t directly mention that the Bulls see him as the point guard of the future – instead opting to discuss how he needs to improve at the rim next season – it’s clear the front office and coaching staff is interested to see how Dunn, Zach LaVine and Markkanen can perform when all three are healthy: the three played together in 12 of 82 games this year.
Dunn battled through three different injuries in his first year with the Bulls, including a finger injury in the preseason, a concussion stemming from a nasty fall against the Warriors, and turf toe that ended his second season prematurely. His raw numbers – 13.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals – were encouraging, though his .423/.321/.730 shooting numbers and 2.9 turnovers were less than efficient.
“We saw a lot of really good things from Kris,” Paxson said. “I think Kris has an opportunity to be one of the better defensive guards in the league. He showed that at times this year.”
The declaration of Payne being the backup, which Paxson actually brought up unprovoked, is more interesting. Thrust into a larger role post-All-Star Break, Payne actually exceeded expectations in the final 25 games. After returning from broken foot rehab, he averaged 8.8 points and 4.5 assists in 23.3 minutes, while playing in some seriously ugly lineups. But Payne also shot 40 percent, went to the line 16 times in 25 games and never wowed for a player two years removed from being a Lottery pick.
Perhaps the Bulls are still trying to justify last year’s Taj Gibson-to-the-Thunder trade, but Paxson seemed content with what Payne showed in his first real run with the Bulls, last year’s sporadic minutes not included.
“Cameron showed a competitiveness to him,” Paxson said. “He showed an ability to push the ball probably better than any guard we’ve had in a while and he showed a defensive edge to him that I think will help us going forward.”
It’s clear the Bulls are moving on from Jerian Grant, while Denzel Valentine has been an above-average distributor on the second unit (3.2 assists in 27.2 minutes) and Ryan Arcidiacano is a two-way roster filler. That leaves Dunn and Payne on the depth chart…unless the Bulls were to address the position in the draft.
And that’s what makes Paxson’s comments regarding the Bulls filling the holes in their roster via the NBA Draft.
“I think we need to look at the wing position. That would be an ideal spot. Size and length at the wing as a shooting component, a defensive component, would be something that, if you’re looking at an area we would like to improve, that would be it,” Paxson said.
He also added that “it’s hard to overlook talent even when you’re looking at a specific need,” meaning the Bulls may go best player available if a player drops, but combined with the Dunn/Payne comment it appears the Bulls won’t be targeting point guards with either of their first-round picks.
That would include, in the Lottery, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. With the Pelicans pick, which will fall somewhere between 20 and 23, that includes Shake Milton, Aaron Holiday, Tre Duval and Anfernee Simons, among others.
Of course anything can and will happen between now and the draft, and Paxson could simply have been posturing in an attempt to not give away any draft leanings. But win Dunn looking at the very least like a rotation piece for the future, and the Bulls happy with what Payne showed in his 25-game audition, the likelihood of the Bulls adding a point guard seems far less likely than it did 24 hours ago.