I'll admit, I've been critical of Paxson in the past. I've questioned his Final Four Only draft strategy. I've ridiculed his inability to attract big name talent. I even called for his firing just last week. But now I see it. There's a reason why John Paxson is the GM of the Bulls while I'm writing diaries on BlogaBull. Let me guide you through these last twelve months, this time through Paxson's perspective.
Just over a year ago today, the Bulls lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semis, and most fans, me included, figured we were set to make our big push in '07-'08. But Pax knew better. He who played through the Jordan and Hakeem Era saw the writing on the wall - our zero all stars, our undersized backcourt, our offensively weak frontcourt, the aging Ben Wallace, and the emergence of young talent in the East - and it confirmed something that he'd realized eighteen months earlier: These Bulls were never going to be a title team. Teams just don't win championships without stars. That day, Paxson made it his mission to land a superstar. But how? How could a 49 win, all-star-less team that was over the salary cap land a superstar? The truth is, you can't. But Paxson can. And he began plotting to make that happen.
First, there was the Kevin Garnett scenario. Sportwriters across America pointed to the Bulls as a likely destination, especially since they had a top 10 pick in the upcoming draft. But again, Paxson knew better: All great teams build through the draft. The Bulls did it with Jordan, the Rockets with Hakeem, the Lakers with Kobe, the Spurs with Duncan, and more recently the Cavs, Hornets, and Jazz with LeBron, Paul, and Deron. Unfortunately in '07, a good draft year, it was too late to make a move for a top pick. Pax let Danny Ainge get KG, and continued searching for other avenues. Gasol and McGrady and Rashard Lewis were brought up, but none of them had that star power. Then it hit him - there was superstar talent in the 2008 draft, and he still had time. He had his 'in', but could he make it happen? Somehow he had to get his 49 win, projected #1 seed in the East team atop next year's lottery, and he had to work quick.
Step one, he had to piss off his two best players - Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. But how? After all, these were two of the most sportsmanlike players in the NBA, with Deng winning the award in '07. Pax knew he had to get creative. First, he offered Andres Nocioni a completely ludicrous contract - a possible 6 year deal worth around 50 million dollars - which baffled every sane fan in Chicago. But Paxson knew what he was doing. He followed that up by comedically lowballing Deng and Gordon with their contract extensions, offering his two best players nearly the same money as Nocioni received. Deng and Gordon angrily rejected the offers, calling them a slap in the face. Paxson could only turn and smile - his plan was working.
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough; sportsmanship prevailed and Deng and Gordon practiced harder than ever to earn a bigger contract. Paxson began to panic - how could he get these guys to break? Thankfully, a bit of fate intervened: Kobe Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles, and he mentioned coming to the Bulls. Paxson knew he didn't have enough to trade for Kobe and still field a championship team, that was obvious, but he saw the opportunity to further his plan and pounced. After repeatedly telling Gordon and Deng that they weren't on the trade blocks, he opened up the floodgates. Suddenly the Kobe trade, involving Gordon and Deng, was front page national news. Weeks later, as the dust settled, Paxson went on record saying he and Kupchak were never close to a deal. Paxson told the truth; he never actually tried to make a deal happen. It was all for show, and it worked wonders: Gordon and Deng were officially pissed.
With step one complete, Paxson had to get rid of the other shining star on his team: Scott Skiles. Simply put, Skiles was just too good a coach to let his team miss the playoffs, and he had to go. Thankfully for Pax, he had set some stones in place 18-months earlier when he first realized the Bulls were doomed: he convinced Ben Wallace (and later on, Adrian Griffin) to join the team by offering ridiculous contracts. In short, Wallace was the best option out there to rattle a coach who had a strict no-headband policy. Again though, it wasn't enough, as Skiles had the Bulls playing their best ball late in the '07 season, even with a sans-headband Wallace. Pax knew he had to change things up a bit. He decided to let clubhouse leader P.J. Brown go, and substituted him with the quiet Joe Smith. Suddenly Wallace and Griffin were the veteran leaders, and predictably, all hell broke loose. Just two months into the season, Skiles came to Paxson's office and told him that the Bulls, now just 9-16 on the year, needed a knew voice. The talented coach was finally gone.
Unfortunately, the playing talent was still there, and with the Bulls just two games out of the 8th playoff spot, Paxson knew he had to do something immeasurably stupid to make sure his team stayed on track. He found it conveniently sitting at the end of his bench, in the form of assistant coach Jim Boylan. Without hesitation, Paxson appointed Boylan head coach. With four-guard sets and Nocioni everythings, the career assistant brought a new style of play to the NBA that fit Paxson's plan almost too well. All of a sudden, Aaron Gray was a regular rotation player! Chris Duhon was starting! Griffin and Wallace were calling team votes to suspend their teammates! And just to make sure Boylan stayed on course, any time Gordon or Deng went out with a nagging injury, Paxson made sure they stayed on the bench for weeks at a time.
The Bulls continued losing, but so did the rest of the Eastern Conference. Paxson continued his plan while doing some minor retouching on the side. With Skiles out and Boylan's tenure in shambles, Paxson no longer had a need for Wallace and Griffin, and he shipped both of them out at the trade deadline for friendlier contracts, but not until he made sure he got Larry Hughes in return.
With a month left to go in the season and the Bulls sitting comfortably in the 10th spot, Paxson began to see the first signs of fruition. Derrick Rose was building steam as the draft's #1 prospect, and Paxson knew the NBA would often rig drafts so top prospects played in either big markets (Ewing) or their hometown (LeBron). Chicago happened to be both for Derrick Rose. All Paxson needed to do was collect a few extra lottery balls to make sure nothing looked too suspicious. He told Boylan to bench Joakim in the fourth quarter, even though he played throughout the first three quarters. Nocioni took his place, and led the Bulls to half dozen fall-from-ahead, crippling losses down the stretch. Drew Gooden, who to Paxson's dismay was impressively productive as a Bull, was sent to the bench with a dozen games left with an undisclosed injury, never to be heard from again. And of course, Larry Hughes never left the court after overtaking the starting SG spot when Thabo got injured for a week. Message to Thabo: don't get injured.
When everything was said and done, the Bulls stood at 33-49, a complete reversal of last season's record, putting them four games back of the lowly Atlanta Hawks for the 8th playoff spot. With the 9th worst record in basketball, the Bulls had a 1.7% chance of winning the lottery, easily surpassing the NBA Rigging Threshold (.5%, see Shaq's 1993 Orlando Magic), and sure as shit, the Bulls ended up with the #1 pick on lottery day. Paxson sent someone named "Stan" to the Lottery Show, who may or may not work for the Bulls, as Paxson knew he himself wouldn't be able to keep a straight face through all the blatant rigging. He instead spent the night alone, masturbating to his own awesomeness.