In April 2003, despite losing the job he loved, Jerry Krause invited John Paxson to his home in a northern suburb of Chicago.
The secretive, longtime Bulls general manager, and the main architect for one of the most captivating dynasties in sports history, held court with his replacement on philosophies and agents, on broad themes and tricks of the trade. Paxson, whom team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf plucked out of the radio booth to be Krause’s replacement despite no executive experience, greatly appreciated the gesture.
Perhaps that’s why it was Paxson who first approached Reinsdorf early in the Bulls’ 2019-20 season and told his boss he’d identified the problem with a season that began with such optimism and promise but quickly devolved. Most importantly, he knew how to fix it.
The Bulls, Paxson said, needed to change their front office structure.
It’s astounding that in the 35 years since Reinsdorf led a group of investors to purchase the Bulls for $16 million that only Krause and Paxson have helmed basketball operations. But such loyalty breeds loyalty in return.
That’s why the man known as “The Sleuth” opened up his home to Paxson, whom he had once acquired as a player and signed off on Phil Jackson hiring for one season as an assistant coach. And it’s why Paxson is willingly moving into an advisory role -- as big or as small -- as the new head of basketball operations, Arturas Karnisovas, sees fit.
In their latest valuations, Forbes pegged the Bulls as being worth $3.2 billion, not a bad investment for Jerry Reinsdorf, his son, Michael, the current president and chief operating officer who led the search for Karnisovas, and their group of investors.
It’s one reason why, despite the Bulls’ rebuild currently being stuck in neutral and a largely disgruntled fan base, such potential still exists for Karnisovas.
Chicago is a major market. The history of the franchise is rich. The facilities are top-notch. Intriguing young players dot the roster. And the Bulls’ books are largely clean with all of their first-round picks intact.
“It’s not a good job,” one rival executive told NBC Sports. “It’s a great job.”
How did we get here?
It’s not hard to find the similarities between Paxson replacing Krause and the current situation. Attendance has waned. A rebuild that ownership signed off on has yet to take flight. Also, Krause held his spot for 18 years, while Paxson and Gar Forman, who was promoted to general manager in 2009, have been empowered for 17 years.
Forman, who worked for Tim Floyd at Iowa State, actually first joined the organization in 1998 as a scout.
Though the currently disgruntled fans don’t want to hear it, Paxson’s tenure has been defined by more hits than misses. From 2003 to 2005, he completely flipped the roster he inherited from Krause, save for Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, and built a perennial playoff team out of shrewd draft-day acquisitions like Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon and solid free-agent signings like Andres Nocioni.
In one stretch, the Bulls made 10 playoff appearances in 11 seasons. And coaches Scott Skiles and Tom Thibodeau, both hired by Paxson, helped define a culture and style of play befitting the blue-collar nature of Chicago.
When the Skiles era crashed and burned, the Bulls cashed in their ridiculous 1.7 percent odds to win the 2008 draft lottery and drafted homegrown product Derrick Rose with the No. 1 overall pick over Michael Beasley. More shrewd draft picks like Taj Gibson at No. 26, Jimmy Butler at No. 30 and even Joakim Noah at No. 9 -- while fans clamored for University of Washington standout Spencer Hawes -- positioned Paxson and Forman for another successful run.
Critics of the so-called “GarPax” era point to the Bulls winning just five playoff series and making one conference finals appearance during their tenure. That’s what happens when the previous general manager, who inherited Michael Jordan from previous general manager Rod Thorn, won six NBA championships over a pair of three-peats.
But the Bulls were positioned for sustained greatness when Rose became the youngest most valuable player in NBA history in 2011 and signed a maximum contract extension on the eve of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Then, in a tragic twist of fate, Rose’s succession of knee injuries, surgeries and rehabilitations betrayed him and his hometown Bulls.
The failure to add a superstar to push the Skiles-led Bulls over the top and augment Rose’s early brilliance are legitimate stains on this regime’s resume.
Even when the Bulls surprised the NBA by stealing Ben Wallace, the reigning and four-time Defensive Player of the Year, from their Central Division-rival Pistons in 2006, it only produced middling results.
It’s not like Paxson and Forman didn’t take big swings. The Bulls traded Hinrich, a fan favorite and franchise stalwart, and the draft rights to Kevin Seraphin, to the Wizards for nothing but salary-cap space and a forgotten draft-and-stash international player in 2010. They did this to pursue the same Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that landed in Miami for two Heat championships.
Wade was serious enough about joining his hometown team -- six years before he actually, and surprisingly, did -- that he requested a second meeting with them during free agency. James connected with Thibodeau so well that during the Bulls’ scheduled meeting with James in downtown Cleveland that he requested an extra, private session with Thibodeau.
The idea of a James-Wade pairing in Chicago was far enough along that the Bulls held advanced trade talks with the Clippers about trading Deng to create the needed cap space for a third maximum contract. When those talks stalled, James and Wade kept their word to Bosh and teamed up in Miami.
"I know LeBron's eyes were here," Wade said of the duo teaming up in Chicago during an October 2016 interview. "I know my eyes were here."
After James took his talents to South Beach, the Bulls pivoted to Carlos Boozer and bench depth with solid role players like Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, among others. For two straight seasons, the hard-charging Thibodeau maxed out the talent on the roster and the Bulls led the league in regular-season victories.
But James, Wade and Bosh ruled the conference.
In 2014, the Bulls again pulled out all the stops to woo top target Carmelo Anthony, envisioning him as the elite scorer to add to Rose, Deng and Noah and vault the Bulls back to championship heights. Instead, despite his agent and college coach suggesting the Bulls as the best fit, Anthony re-signed with the Knicks.
“I just think that playing against those guys over the years and knowing the guys they had on those teams and knowing how hard those guys really worked, I was trying to see where I could fit in that. They were always missing one or two pieces with that team. We used to always talk about, ‘Man, that’s a team I could see myself playing for,’” Anthony told NBC Sports in November 2019. “They were very impressive with their pitch. Everything about it -- the organization, the players, Coach Thibs, the front office, ownership -- was exciting. But I chose to stay home.”
Again, the Bulls quickly pivoted to a solid consolation prize, signing Pau Gasol, who made All-Star appearances in both of his two seasons in Chicago. But James, now back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, bounced the Bulls from the playoffs again and a season-long cold war between Thibodeau and management led to Thibodeau’s firing.
The following season, Fred Hoiberg’s first as coach, a dysfunctional locker room torpedoed that team. As Butler rose to alpha-dog status, he waged his tough-love leadership style against that of the more passive Rose and inclusive Noah. The Bulls failed to even make the playoffs.
The Bulls first gave up on Rose, trading him to the Knicks in June 2016. With Providence point guard Kris Dunn as his target, Paxson pushed for a draft-day trade of Butler to the Celtics to blow it all up in one fell swoop.
Instead, the Celtics’ offer underwhelmed and the Bulls tried one last gasp at keeping a championship window open. They signed Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency and after a chaotic start to the year, the Bulls charged into the playoffs. Chicago even built a 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2017 playoffs before Rondo broke his thumb and the Celtics stormed back to win the series.
Wade asked for a buyout -- pocketing a tidy $38 million for one season of work -- and the Bulls traded Butler to Thibodeau’s Timberwolves in June 2017, finally landing Dunn, Paxson’s former draft-night flame, in the package. The Bulls were officially in full rebuild mode around Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen -- and later, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. For two seasons, some fan frustration mounted but the losses largely were understood.
Then, ownership, management and freshly extended coach Jim Boylen, who had replaced Hoiberg in December 2018, publicly talked up expectations for the 2019-20 season and said the playoffs were the goal.
“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs,’’ Boylen said
Paxson cited the revamped roster as a reason for raised expectations.
“We see real talent,’’ he noted on media day. “We see a versatile roster, we see depth on this roster, we see some leadership on this roster which we haven’t had, and because of that, our goals this year are really simple.
“... Jim (Boylen) talks about it, he’s not afraid of it, and our guys through their work have shown us that they want to make that commitment, so we feel good about that.’’
Then, the wheels fell off.
The Bulls’ highest-paid player, Porter Jr., missed four months with a foot injury. Carter Jr., and Markkanen, two premier pieces of Paxson and Forman’s rebuilt roster, missed 22 and 15 games, respectively, due to injury. Once again, the Bulls struggled to keep their best players healthy.
According to InStreetClothes.com injury tracker Jeff Stotts, the Bulls ranked dead-last in games lost to injury last season (291 games) and consequently finished 20-62. Looking over the last five years, the Bulls have lost the sixth-most games due to injury among all teams -- and that doesn’t include Rose’s injury-marred 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns.
The players that did manage to stay in the lineup -- Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young and Luke Kornet -- either underwhelmed or were miscast.
The ever-reliable Young, for instance, took minutes from Markkanen, who clearly regressed, and didn’t fully fit Boylen’s late-in-the-offseason decision to employ a largely perimeter-based offense. Satoransky, while a valuable piece, wasn’t a break-down-the-defense point guard who could facilitate offense for primary scorers.
And Boylen created headlines for everything from unconventional late-game timeouts to benching LaVine.
In a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports back in December, Paxson looked inward.
“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,” he said then. “If I have to point to reasons why, first I assume responsibility for the organization always. And I own where we’re at.”
The Bulls should be in the conversation with the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and L.A. Clippers as a go-to, marquee destination in the NBA. Instead, in recent years, they’ve struck out trying to re-establish themselves as a premiere NBA organization.
The hope and belief is that Karnisovas is the man to do it.
Flush with revered history, loads of cap space in 2021 and a marquee market, the Bulls should, on the surface, have an inside track on the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Chicago’s own Anthony Davis hit free agency that summer. They can lure the lot of 20-somethings who grew up in the Michael Jordan era by flaunting all of the nostalgia bombs of the 1990s: The Bulls’ iconic red-white-and-black jerseys; the hypnotic Alan Parsons Project intro music; the six championship banners that hang in the rafters.
After all, this is the Bulls, the very embodiment of success during their childhood. Who could resist?
However, the Bulls’ brand has hit some hard times around the league while the other major markets are thriving. The Brooklyn Nets got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Los Angeles Lakers reeled in James and Davis as the Clippers got Kawhi Leonard and Paul Goerge. The Celtics netted Kemba Walker. The Miami Heat swooped in and snagged Butler. And the New York Knicks ... well, nevermind.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, their spotty track record with luring talent to Chicago suggests their reputation sits closer to the Knicks than other big market teams. As one rival GM framed it: “There’s a lot of growth potential in Chicago.”
According to multiple sources around the league, the Bulls are battling a perception that they’re an old-school organization catering to the past rather than the future. In other words, the brand had grown stale among players and the championship-laden organization had been in serious need of a facelift.
“They are in the same boat as the Lakers were before LeBron fell in their lap,” an Eastern Conference top executive said. “They didn’t think they needed to upgrade the front office because ‘Hey, we’re the Bulls.’”
League insiders rate the Bulls’ front office as one of the least-equipped staffs from a modern perspective. Under Forman and Paxson’s leadership, there was a consensus around the league that the scouting and analytics staff in particular were comparatively thin, relative to their peers.
Bulls assistant GM Steve Weinman is well-respected around the league and has led the analytical charge for the Bulls, trying to modernize the team’s shot selection and eschew mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers. But the impact hasn’t fully resonated. In October, on The Lowe Post podcast on ESPN, Bulls star Zach LaVine went as far as to say the Bulls didn’t even have an analytics department.
The biggest Bulls question in league circles and perhaps the largest variable at play is whether the Bulls are willing to spend money to equip Karnisovas with trappings of a modern front office, including on the injury-prevention side.
Skeptics point to the fact that Reinsdorf initially went after high-profile names like Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti and Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, but reportedly balked at the salaries that they’d likely covet and then turned his eye toward up-and-comers at a more affordable payscale.
Said one rival executive, “The reality is they don’t spend like a major market and don’t pay like one either. Maybe that changes now.”
The Once and Future Kings?
The chasm between what Chicago basketball can be and its current state was never more obvious than at All-Star weekend in February. A season that began with the Bulls touting All-Star aspirations for LaVine and Markkanen ended up featuring a dressed-up United Center with little Bulls representation.
LaVine spurned the dunk contest in favor of the 3-point shootout and exited in the first round. Carter Jr., meanwhile, was selected to the Rising Stars Game but didn’t participate due to injury. Fitting.
When LaVine joined the “Inside The NBA” set and was pressed by Charles Barkley on the state of the Bulls -- and in particular Markkanen’s play -- LaVine tried to defend his teammate.
“He got hurt, man,” LaVine said. “He got hurt like last year. All our troops are hurt, man.”
And all of this was after -- deep breath here -- a fan rented a “Fire GarPax” billboard to welcome the NBA world to Chicago, chants with the same sentiment broke out as LaVine gamely tried to answer a question on a live ESPN show, and Hall of Famers like Pippen and Barkley bashed the franchise on TV.
For Chicago fans, the biggest highlight of the NBA season at the building came when Common and Chance the Rapper dropped their wise wordplay during pregame and halftime shows, respectively, doesn’t bode well for the current basketball product.
The fact that Butler played in the game as a member of the Heat and Jordan appeared in a stirring pregame video as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets only served to underscore the divide.
So how do the Bulls get it all back?
The decision to trade Butler placed a premium on the draft again. With back-to-back No. 7 overall picks in Carter Jr. and Coby White, there is hope for the future.
Finding young talent in the draft should continue with Karnisovas. The former FIBA Player of the Year was part of the Denver front office that found Nikola Jokic at No. 41 in 2014, Monte Morris at No. 51 in 2017 and took a chance on Michael Porter Jr at No. 14 in 2018, the latter showing flashes of brilliance after an NBA “red-shirt” year in 2018-19. Another feather in his cap, Karnisovas served as the Nuggets’ assistant GM in the 2014 draft when Denver swapped No. 11 pick Doug McDermott to none other than the Bulls for No. 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic and No. 19 pick Gary Harris.
League insiders have tabbed Karnisovas as one of the pre-eminent scouts in the sport, dating back to his days directing the Adidas Eurocamp while being an international scout for the Houston Rockets, essentially running Europe’s version of the Chicago NBA combine.
“Arturas is one of the best executives in the NBA, I am so happy he is getting this opportunity,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told NBC Sports. “He was instrumental in our success when he was with the Rockets and then he went on to turn Denver into the contender they are today. I am also thrilled he is in the Eastern conference now!”
Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas was equally bullish about Karnisovas’ future in Chicago.
“The Chicago job is a great job, good market, team is in a good spot with young players, assets, attractive market and stable ownership,” Rosas told NBC Sports. “Arturas is a great person with incredible experience as a player and an executive and is prepared to come in and lead the organization where it needs to go. Excited for Arturas and his family as he is well prepared for this opportunity and will do great!”
But in today’s NBA, drafting typically gets teams only so far. At some point, LaVine needs to stop flirting with All-Star consideration and become one.
Markkanen must be a consistent matchup nightmare and not fade into the background. Perhaps most importantly, the Bulls need to sign a star.
Largely, the Bulls have operated in the rental market for aging stars or middling young players. In recent years, the Bulls have little to show for their free agency exploits beyond signing a 34-year-old Wade (two years, $47 million in 2016), a 30-year-old Rondo (two years, $30 million in 2016) and Jabari Parker (two years, $40 million) -- all of whom the Bulls cut ties with before the two years was up.
Anthony was asked if he saw any similarities between when the Bulls struck out chasing James, Wade and Bosh and the time he served as their primary target.
“I don’t know about their situation. For me, I think it was because I was already in New York,” Anthony told NBC Sports. “So it was between the Knicks and them. It wasn’t between anybody else.”
Paxson made a blunt public admission when the Bulls punted on free-agent mistake Parker and traded him and Bobby Portis to the Wizards for Porter Jr. in February 2019. He said landing Porter and his maximum salary represented, essentially, the Bulls’ foray into free agency since the franchise wasn’t relevant enough to attract a star in the offseason recruiting period.
The good news for Karnisovas is that the books are relatively clean beginning in 2021 when Porter Jr.’s ($28.5 million due in 2020-21 if he picks up his player option) and Cristiano Felicio’s ill-fated four-year, $32 million contracts expire. There’s some runway here to repair the team’s reputation among players, but Karnisovas certainly has his work cut out for him. It should start with this question: Why can’t the Bulls be at the top of Anthony Davis’ list next summer?
Obviously, the Lakers superstar has made his intentions known that he’d like to be in Los Angeles, but as an organizational thought exercise, the Bulls should wonder: where and why did we fall out of the picture for a homecoming move after Leonard and George just signed up for one in the City of Angels?
The worry for the Bulls is that a brand rebuild will take years on top of the current rebuild. Under Karnisovas, the Bulls have to figure out their identity and rejuvenate their standing around the league with a clear vision. The Paxson era struggled to commit to a small-market youth movement versus a blue-chip free agent play. One former long-time Bull couldn’t put a finger one single reason why the free agency route hasn’t worked.
“Maybe a little bit of weather, plus no one wanting to follow Jordan,” the former Bulls player said. “Plus the idea that the city is not glitzy, but more blue collar.”
Luol Deng, whose early 2000s Bulls teams epitomized that aesthetic, knows how the game has evolved to one where player empowerment is front and center and stars go to join other stars. The days of the try-hard teams battling for championship contention, or even perennial playoff positioning, could be over.
“Back then when we came in as rookies, we were a bit older. We had older guys on the team, so the league is different in that aspect,” he said. “… I know everyone wants to win, but it takes time. I think for these guys, developing a character and becoming familiar with each other, that’s when you change your mindset to really become a team. If you get a group of guys to commit to that with this talent that they have and the potential, I think it will be exciting for the city.”
Deng also knows what Chicago can be like when the United Center is sold out and the Bulls are rolling. He played on the 2004-05 team that ended a six-year playoff drought and helped restore basketball in Chicago after Jordan, Pippen and Jackson left town in 1998. And he achieved All-Star status playing alongside Rose and Noah as those teams challenged for conference championships.
“I don’t really like to compare. Everyone kind of has to figure it out as a team,” Deng said. “It’s such a different league now. But individually, I try to tell players what my mindset was, how I was approaching games. It’s about having that win-at-all-costs mindset.”
Paxson certainly possessed that as a player. He helped close out the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals with a flurry of fourth-quarter jumpers and sank one of the most memorable shots in franchise history, a 3-pointer in Phoenix to beat the Suns and seal the Bulls’ first three-peat in 1993.
His competitiveness as an executive was also evident often, cresting in a 2010 confrontation that represents possibly the nadir of his Bulls tenure. On March 30, Paxson had a brief, physical postgame altercation with then-coach Vinny Del Negro after Del Negro surpassed a medically imposed minutes limit for Noah. That incident, along with Paxson’s son’s decision to enlist in the Marines, led to him stepping back as Forman briefly became the face of the franchise and Thibodeau replaced Del Negro.
But the incident also is illustrative of Paxson’s mindset for the organization---do what’s best for it at all costs. He felt Del Negro put Noah in harm’s way and it incensed him.
That same mindset is leading Paxson to take a bigger step back this time. He’s expected to move into a senior advisory role with no daily presence around the team, sources said. He has offered to help Karnisovas in any manner in which Karnisovas sees fit and Karnisovas views Paxson as a resource, not a roadblock. The future of current general manager Gar Forman, who has moved largely into a scouting role, will be discussed.
The Reinsdorfs still believe in Paxson’s roster-building, drafting and character, but the Bulls need a new vision and a new direction. After trusting in a regime that had as much longevity as any in the league, Reinsdorf’s Bulls haven’t hoisted the Larry O’Brien championship trophy since 1998. Winning an NBA championship takes talent, sacrifice, some luck and strong vision.
Whether or not Karnisovas can lead the Bulls there is unknown. What’s certain is that the Reinsdorfs will give him plenty of runway to try.
K.C. Johnson is the Chicago Bulls Insider for NBC Sports Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@KCJHoop). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for his latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.