John Paxson gave his State Of The Bulls Address on Thursday morning, and he naturally expressed confidence in the organization’s decision to “redefine their direction” last summer with the trade of Jimmy Butler that landed them Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.
Paxson believes the Bulls are in “a better place today than we were at this time last year,” and he’s looking forward to what he calls “as important a summer as we’ve had in a long time.”
This importance doesn’t have much to do with acquiring talent outside of their two first-round draft picks. Rather, Paxson is looking forward to a lot of internal growth of the young core that’s currently in place, and of course the Zach LaVine situation looms over everything. Paxson stressed patience and admitted the team has a long way to go (duh), and he made it seem like the Bulls won’t be looking to make any splash moves this summer that aren’t draft-related.
Paxson also heaped a ton of praise on the job Fred Hoiberg and Co. did not only last summer while building a “culture” (still not quite sure what that is yet) but also throughout what he called a “disjointed” season due to the injuries and different lineups.
Some of that disjointedness was self-inflicted. The Bulls mixed-and-matched lineups in the name of “player development,” though a lot of that just turned into unwatchable blowouts and journeyman like Sean Kilpatrick going off when nothing mattered. The last part of the season felt like a giant farce, and Paxson admitted it’s something they don’t want to have to go through again, but he insisted what they did “was in the long-term best interest of the Bulls.”
The Bulls did still wind up with an okay shot at a top pick (5.3% for No. 1 and 18.3% for top-3), but many were expecting better odds given some of the crap we saw on the floor. That seven-game winning streak, fueled by Nikola Mirotic (at least they got a first for him), threw everything a bit off-kilter, as did a bunch of the close games the Bulls pulled out this year against fellow trash.
Still, the Bulls do have some promising young talent on the roster, and it’ll be up to them to make their own improvements and this coaching staff to get the most out of them if they want to take significant steps forward the next few years.
Here’s a snippet of some of the other things Paxson said Thursday. And, yes, there was a Derrick Rose reference.
On LaVine’s contract situation
Paxson predictably said the market dictates a lot and rightfully noted that the market has tightened up since the cap spike. Not many teams are set to have cap space, limiting the suitors for LaVine’s services. That could very well help the Bulls, though all it takes is one team to make that big offer, and Paxson made it seem like they’re going give the youngster the opportunity to explore his options.
Paxson said the Bulls value LaVine a lot and they think “he fits the direction” they’re heading. Paxson noted that the main goal with LaVine was just to get him back on the floor after the ACL injury, and that historically players will be much better in their second year coming off that type of injury.
Even so, Paxson also strongly emphasized that LaVine has a lot of work to do and that the Bulls “need him to become a better basketball player.” That’s a Captain Obvious kind of statement, but it had to be said. LaVine had his moments this year, but on the whole he wasn’t good at all. He was an inefficient chucker who played terrible defense. It wasn’t fair to expect him to come back from this injury and kill it, but I’d guess that many people were hoping for a bit more. That he dealt with more knee soreness to end the year wasn’t ideal, either, unless that was just an excuse to keep him off the floor as the Bulls tried to lose games.
On Lauri Markkanen
There wasn’t too much said about Lauri outside of one specific question. Paxson called the rookie a “foundational piece” of the future and admitted the Bulls were lucky to get him. Paxson stressed some areas of improvement, such as getting stronger, doing more inside the 3-point arc and tightening up his handle.
On Kris Dunn
Paxson wouldn’t specifically say the Bulls had seen enough from Dunn to officially anoint him as the Point Guard Of The Future, but he said Dunn’s year was “really encouraging.” They liked his competitiveness and what he showed during the team’s hot stretch.
Paxson also gave Cameron Payne some love and hinted that the Bulls are happy with a main point guard rotation of Dunn and Payne. Payne did make some progress this season (the bar was extremely low), but I’m not sure how much of it really matters since it came during the useless part of the year. Notably, Jerian Grant wasn’t mentioned.
While Paxson praised Dunn, he also singled out the guard’s inability to finish at the rim as a needed area of improvement in his game. This is 100 percent correct and something I harped on all season.
On the Lauri/LaVine/Dunn dynamic
The Bulls didn’t get to see Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn play together often, but when they did it was mostly terrible. They had a minus-21.5 net rating in their minutes together, per NBA.com.
Of course, Paxson still expressed confidence in the trio to figure it out, and he again blamed the “disjointed” nature of the season for some of the struggles. That’s fair to a point given the small sample size, though them being that bad together wasn’t something I expected.
There was also a question about those three establishing a “pecking order” as they grow together, which was a topic that had been discussed at the end of the year. Paxson said while it’s often natural for a team to have a pecking order (the Jordan Bulls were referenced), not every team is like that. He wants the guys to “be themselves and play within a team construct,” rather than getting caught up in “who’s the so-called man.” If they have a group that believes in each other and plays together, they’ll win a lot of games, Paxson said.
On the draft
Paxson gave a typical stock answer by saying he’s confident the Bulls will find two players they like in the first round, but he gave a bit more insight into what kind of player they may be looking for. He emphasized a need at the wing and a player with size, length and a “shooting component.”
This sure sounds a hell of a lot like Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, though Paxson then also stated that “it’s hard to overlook talent” and that they could use versatility. What I got from the full answer is the Bulls love the idea of getting a guy like Bridges, but No. 6/7 might be a bit too high for a lower-ceiling guy like that and that Michael Porter Jr. may be the more likely target there. This could also be a whole bunch of smoke, though the Bulls’ need on the wing is obvious. (I was disappointed to not get any David Nwaba mentions at this press conference!)
On Robin Lopez
Paxson said on multiple occasions that RoLo is an important part of the team’s future and that the Bulls were really impressed with his professionalism. Also said Lopez suggested playing the younger guys over him in the latter part of the year. Okay then.
On how far the Bulls are from annual contention
Paxson didn’t want to put any specifics on how far away the Bulls are from being an annual playoff contender that can make noise. He said you never know what other teams may do and that the Bulls can only worry about what they’re doing. He again stressed patience and that they’ll “have opportunities to spend when the time is right.” They won’t “go out and sign an older player just to fill a need,” and they “don’t want to get going too fast and make poor decisions that bind us long term.”
I do like that patience was stressed here, because the Bulls do indeed have a long way to go. They haven’t proven anything. The defense is bad (this really wasn’t mentioned at all) and the young guys aren’t consistently good yet. I’m a big fan of Lauri but am still rather skeptical about the rest of the guys. I’m definitely looking forward to the draft and this summer, though, and hopefully this core can take a step forward next season, even if it’s just incremental.