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.”

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.