Bulls

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

He hated the tanking but deemed it necessary: The last six weeks of this season was a desperate, ugly slog meant to mitigate the exhilarating 14-7 stretch that revitalized the season.

However, that stretch came at a cost as the Bulls had to stay focused on their long-term objectives; getting the best pick possible in this coming June’s draft, evaluating young players and keeping costs down for the future.

It didn’t mean, though, that the finish was something easy for Bulls Executive-Vice President Paxson to stomach, even if it was for the greater good.

“We did this year what we felt was in the longterm best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again; it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in; but it’s the way the system is set up.”

The Bulls are tied for seventh-worst odds with the Sacramento Kings, and the coin flip to determine who gets the upper hand in the lottery will be tomorrow. The system is undergoing minor changes next season, and perhaps full-fledged lottery reform is on the way.

But if it isn’t, one has to wonder if the Bulls will be in a similar position 12 months from now. Paxson doesn’t envision he’ll be addressing this issue, though.

“We feel we went about it the right way; our intentions were to see what we had and develop our young guys,” Paxson said. “But we didn’t ever want to ever be in this position again and honestly I don’t think we will and I think next year if we stay healthy.”

The Zach LaVine situation will be tricky: By the time LaVine heads into restricted free agency this summer, he’ll be 17 months removed from ACL surgery and not a strong sample size since to make teams throw max money at him.

Then again, it only takes one team among the usual suspects with cap space: Sacramento, Dallas, Atlanta and Philadelphia, among others. The Bulls haven’t traditionally thrown money at their restricted free agents so it’s not hard to see a standoff on the horizon.

He’ll want a max contract; The Bulls’ first offer will certainly not be that. But it’s hard to see the Bulls taking a pass on matching a market-based deal, even before it gets to the offer-sheet stage.

“Well, the market dictates a lot and how things go,” Paxson said. “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the (salary cap) spike. But we obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.”

Speaking of LaVine: Paxson reiterated several times he’s seen how recoveries from ACL injuries go, given the organization’s experience with Derrick Rose and his initial ACL tear in 2012.

So while they understood LaVine’s performance wasn’t going to be indicative of what he can truly develop into, Paxson is expecting more from the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade that jump-started all of this.

“We need---and I mentioned this to our team after Fred spoke to them last night---Zach LaVine to be a better basketball player,” Paxson said. “We need him to have a great summer.”

LaVine played 24 games and Paxson said there were things he liked in that sample. But while he mentioned others in the way of internal improvement like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis, it was clear his initial message was aimed at LaVine becoming a more complete player before the start of next season.

“We knew he wasn’t going to play for us right away and we knew we were going to get him back at some point, but I think he answered some questions for us,” Paxson said. “He had some really good moments, but he has a ways to go, but again that’s his responsibility to work and become a better player.”

Pleased with Hoiberg: Fred Hoiberg’s first two years were littered with questions at various times surrounding his job security and aptitude for the high-pressure, high-stress cauldron of NBA coaching. So while it wasn’t a surprise to hear Paxson confirm Hoiberg would return to start his fourth season, he elaborated on the type of team best-suited for Hoiberg’s style.

It wasn’t an intentional shot from Paxson but the inference was clear: Younger teams are better for him.

“I think Fred just kind of got his feet underneath him more this year,” Paxson said. “This group, the way he wants to play, pushing the basketball. Just from my observations watching practices and games, you could see that comfort level.”

Will this experience bode better for Hoiberg when this team’s talent level begins to turn the corner? Paxson wasn’t asked that directly but there’s not many young teams that actually win much—especially if there’s no unicorn capable of lifting all tides.

“I think every year as a coach you gain experience and you learn things,” Paxson said. “So I’m sure you’ve talked to Fred about what he’s learned over this year as opposed to last year. Again, I thought Fred and our staff did a tremendous job of keeping our group together.”

It wasn’t an easy task, especially after the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident and subsequent 3-20 start; Some of the roster changes management wanted to see implemented in the last six weeks and the general upheaval of the roster considering there was little continuity with new players coming in and out of the lineup.

“I know Fred enjoyed coaching this group,” Paxson said. “I think this you go back to last summer. Fred and our guys set the tone when our guys came back and they just had the everyday attitude of working. That needs to carry over and it will. Our guys need to continue to buy in which we believe they will.”

Overselling? Not quite: The general thought about the Bulls revolves around a belief that with two first-round draft picks in a deep class, the Bulls should be back in playoff contention in short order.

Whether it was a tacit acknowledgement of the gaffes Gar Forman has made at times or merely wanting to keep expectations at a modest level, Paxson would not get himself caught up hyping the sum of the parts.

Teams like Philadelphia and Boston are set up for the long run if LeBron James leaves Cleveland and heads west. The Bulls have the salary cap space to do some things but Paxson was pragmatic about not being too hasty.

“I don’t know how far away that is. You never know what other teams are going to do but all we can do is worry about ourselves,” Paxson said. “When we went on the path that we did last summer, we’re not just going to go out and try and sign some older players that fill a need. We have to remain patient and discipline in the approach we have.”

The expectation is to play more competitive basketball this time next season and if it results in the playoffs, he won’t turn his nose at it.

“We’re going to be a better basketball team. And we’re going to be young, we’re going to be athletic, we’re going to be more skilled,” he said. “And for coaches and players, their goal has to be every year to be as good as they can be. Be a playoff team, be whatever you can be.”

Three pieces/Markkanen: The timeline of injuries and organizational objectives interfered with the Bulls being able to see Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn all on the floor at the same time.

He didn’t duck the belief someone would have to emerge among the three, but stated if they all make the expected improvements this offseason, it’ll be a problem he’s glad to have.

“That’s one thing we have to find out,” Paxson said. “That was part of the deal when we made it. We need to find out how those guys play together. That’s why I said this summer is important. We need them all healthy so we can have a good training camp and find a way to get them playing the right way together.”

Paxson would hedge and watch himself on a lot of things, but Markkanen seemed to be the exception. Calling Markkanen a “cornerstone”, he’s excited about the strides Markkanen can make with a summer in Chicago or at least under the guidance of the Bulls’ strength and conditioning coaches.

“We loved him in the draft, obviously, but we didn’t know what we had,” he said. “I’m incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself. But Lauri, like Zach and Kris Dunn and all our guys, he has so much room to grow.”

The expectations for a significant jump next season appear to be as high for Markkanen as it is for LaVine.

“With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get in areas on the floor where he can really dominate a game,” Paxson said. “He’s a young man and just one year in the league, but he at least from my seat, he exceeded expectations. So yeah, we’re lucky. We feel very lucky he was part of that deal we made last summer.”

Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

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USA TODAY

Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter

How last year went

Well, Valentine didn't play. Instead, he underwent ankle stabilization surgery that kept him on the sidelines the entire season. What was initially ruled a day-to-day injury wound up costing Valentine upwards of 8 months. It was an obvious setback to a player who would have logged minutes in a backcourt that allowed Antonio Blakeney 14.5 minutes per game.

The last time we saw Valentine healthy, he averaged a modest 10.2 points on 42% shooting and 38.6% from deep for a tanking Bulls team. He added 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, solid counting numbers for the former first-round pick. He's expected to be ready for training camp.

Expectations for this year's role

Whatever he can give the Bulls. The front office addressed the point guard and power forward depth this summer but did very little on the wing. Perhaps it was because they couldn't improve every aspect of the roster, or perhaps they're expecting to get production from Valentine after he missed all of last season. With Chandler Hutchison nursing a hamstring injury, Valentine could have a path to early minutes behind Otto Porter at small forward. More realistic is Valentine seeing minutes at shooting guard, where he'll be taxed less defensively and can focus as a perimeter shooter. In that regard, he should fight with Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaq Harrison for minutes behind Zach LaVine. His expectations are tough to peg because we just don't know how healthy he is or how he'll respond to missing so much time. He hasn't played an NBA game since April 1, 2018.

Where he excels

Assuming he's healthy, Valentine is the Bulls' second best 3-point shooter behind Otto Porter. Consider that in his last 20 healthy games after the 2018 All-Star break, Valentine shot 43.0% on 5.0 3-point attempts, seventh best in the NBA among players who attempted that many per game. Included in that stretch were 3-point shooting nights in which he went 4-for-6, 5-for-7, 8-for-11, 4-for-7 and 4-for-7. He certainly had the green light on a Bulls team playing for Lottery balls and a chance at Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley, but the numbers were nonetheless impressive. Valentine also shot 39.1% on above-the-break 3-pointers. Why is that important? The Bulls were 26th in FG% on those triples last season, and Valentine's mark would have ranked second behind Porter (Markkanen and LaVine were both 36% on above-the-break 3-pointers).

He's also got sneaky playmaking skills. The belief that Valentine could play point guard in the NBA was nixed quickly, but he's been an above-average passer on the wing. In 2017-18, Valentine averaged 3.2 assists on just 27.9 passes per game. Even if he can simply keep the ball moving on the second unit, he'll give the Bulls something they lacked a season ago off the bench. An offense can never have enough good passers, and Valentine is a good one on the wing.

Where he struggles

Valentine isn't going to provide much defensively. It wasn't his calling card at Michigan State and hasn't been his calling card in the NBA, especially not after ankle reconstruction surgery.

And maybe he'll continue getting that floater to go down, but Valentine isn't going to provide much inside the 3-point line. He'll turn 26 during the season's first month, so there's not much optimism he'll improve in either facet of the game. His value will come from beyond the arc, as both a shooter and passer.

Best case/worst case

It all comes down to health. Valentine missed 25 games his rookie season and all 82 last season. Ankle reconstruction is a major surgery and, while there's precedent of players coming back stronger, Valentine is the roster's biggest unknown. His best-case scenario is he's able to give the Bulls 70+ games as a second unit sharpshooter. He probably isn't going to give the Bulls much on the defensive end, but perhaps he'll play minutes with Shaq Harrison or Chandler Hutchison to help cover some of his deficiencies. Any playmaking on the wing would be a bonus, and it'd be a major positive if he can get anywhere close to the 3.2 assists he averaged on the tanking Bulls in 2018.

Worst case is pretty simple: Valentine, who wasn't athletic to begin with, is really hampered by the ankle. It'll be apparent early in the preseason and regular season what Valentine is going to provide. Sure, he'll be rusty, but you'll be able to see his limitations if he has any.

One key stat

Over the last three Bulls seasons, just four players have an individual Game Score, per Basketball Reference, of 31 or better. Jimmy Butler accomplished the feat on 10 different occasions. Lauri Markkanen accomplished it against the Celtics last year. Otto Porter did it against the Grizzlies a week into his Bulls career. The fourth Game Score of 31? Denzel Valentine, when he scored 34 points on 13 of 20 shooting, and added 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes against the Cavs in March 2018. The performances are few and far between, but he's capable of really going off. He made 8 3-pointers in that game, which is still the most Nikola Mirotic had nine triples against the Knicks in March 2016.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Zach LaVine gets no respect

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NBC Sports Chicago

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Zach LaVine gets no respect

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, Dave Watson, and John Sabine react to the week in the NBA and ‘list’ season.

1:45 - On Sports Illustrated top 100 NBA players list and the Bulls players, LaVine disrespect

13:10 - Which recent draft class would have the best starting five?

22:30 - Would Iman Shumpert be a good fit for the Bulls?

32:55 - Matt Peck goes on a rant that involves Wade+Melo

34:45 - Dave gives his top 5 PG’s of all-time

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: