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Bulls executives address team’s present and future
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 14
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It wasn’t how the Bulls hoped it would be eight years ago when they drafted Derrick Rose and with a future league Most Valuable Player were soon on the verge of the NBA Finals and perhaps another, at least, mini-dynasty.
But it officially ended Wednesday after a 115-105 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers that gave the Bulls a 42-40 record, but left them out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman, effectively, confirmed in a post game press conference that this Bulls group once with so much hope and promise failed in its final run, and it’s time for major changes.
“This roster we brought back, we thought they had one more shot to make a real positive run in the Eastern Conference,” said Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson.”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,” Paxson continued. “To me that’s the biggest disappointment in all of this. That falls on all of us. We put the roster together; the coaching staff and players, we’re all in this together. That’s the way it should be. Again, it goes back to responsibility and accountability for all of us. Gar (Forman, general manager) and I know we’re ultimately the ones that are responsible. Moving forward, we understand changes are going to have to be made.”
Paxson and Forman, speaking for about 30 minutes, didn’t elaborate or identify any specific changes. The Bulls now will get at least one lottery pick. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol will be free agents, so they Bulls don’t know even if they’d be interested in a return. But Paxson made clear anyone on the roster could be traded, that there are no untouchables. Paxson said he considered Michael Jordan the only untouchable in trade player.
Paxson also said there have been no discussions regarding any management or coaching changes and a report that Forman’s job was in jeopardy was erroneous. Paxson said coach Fred Hoiberg is part of the answer going forward and they believe his future is bright, though Paxson said Hoiberg has to improve and be more demanding.
Paxson also said:
— There is a further examination underway regarding the team’s medical practices;
— Derrick Rose needs to improve defensively as the defensive toughness every team requires starts with the point guard;
— There needs to be less talking about leadership, a reference to Jimmy Butler frequently saying he’s the team’s new leader, and that players need to show leadership rather than talk about it.
— The style of play has to evolve along with what the rest of the NBA has done for a quicker pace and more shooting, the open style game Hoiberg has emphasized.
— The team splintered and didn’t seem to show support for one another. Paxson referenced an incident when Blake Griffin took down Taj Gibson in a dirty, physical play and none of the Bulls players backed up Gibson. Paxson reiterated his disappointment in the team’s lack of “collective fight and toughness to fight through adversity.
“We did have a lot of significant injuries that hurt us,” said Paxson. “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. And we should’ve made the playoffs. Again, it goes back to responsibility and accountability for all of us. Gar and I know we’re ultimately the ones that are responsible. Moving forward, we understand changes are going to have to be made.”
And so ends this era of Bulls basketball, one that began so brightly with Rose’s ascendance and then turned the afternoon four years ago when Rose suffered a torn ACL and the Bulls have since been unable to escape the shadow of misfortune.
It’s obviously difficult to make major personal changes without reverting to an early 2000s Bulls model of a complete rebuild with young players. It failed badly for the Bulls then and it’s doubtful they attempt anything similar again.
The NBA’s salary cap will increase tens of millions of dollars in each of the next two summers. So the opportunity will be there to add veteran players. Plus, the Bulls have a fairly young roster with Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and recent arrivals who gave done well, like Cristiano Felicio and Justin Holiday, the latter with a career high 29 points in the Wednesday victory over the 76ers.
Rose has one year left on his contract as the team’s highest paid player at $21.3 million. Given his injury history, though he played his most games this season in four years, it’s unlikely teams would be interested. Butler has the most value as the team’s leading scorer with a contract through 2019-20 that isn’t excessive in today’s new economic terms. Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy both have one fully guaranteed year left on their contracts. Plus, the value of players is diminished when a team does poorer than expected, like the Bulls this season.
“Gar and I understand accountability,” said Paxson. “And we are accountable for what this team did this year. 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.”
Paxson on coaching: “After last season, we made an organization decision to go in a different direction with our coach. And we hired Fred. We’re in this with Fred. 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. And that’s looking at everything we do from top to bottom.
“We still believe Fred has a bright future. I’ve seen a lot of young guys in this league come in and have tough first years or second years but through hard work, they become better players. The same can be said for coaches. Fred is going to have to work at it. He’s going to have to devote a lot of time and energy to determining what he wants to be as a head coach and how he wants his teams to play. And we have to give him the resources to do that. And we will. We’re confident spending with Fred and going forward, we’re going to turn that part around. I left a final message with our group and told them this year wasn’t acceptable.”
Paxson on executive decisions: “Somebody told me that there was a report that Gar’s job is in jeopardy. It’s not. We’ve had one bad year. I can point to a lot of really good years where we’ve built something from scratch. And we have confidence that we’re going to get it right. That’s the way it is. Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorfs) obviously have the ultimate decision. And they’ll talk at the appropriate time, I’m sure. But Gar and I are going into this believing we’re going to get this done.”
Forman on not trading Gasol when they could lose him: “We value Pau and we like Pau, but anytime you have a restricted free agency you know there’s going to be opportunities and you could lose an unrestricted free agent. But in our situation if you really study where we’re at in our books and everything else, if that were to happen with any unrestricted free agent then the benefit of that is cap room, and cap room is an asset. So we felt the cap room was much more of an asset than anything that was in front of us.’’
Paxson on injuries and medical decisions: “We’ve begun a process of digging deeper into that, yes. Derrick’s injury the first day of training camp, there’s nothing you can do about that. Joakim’s, his shoulder, his arm was in the wrong place. So (Mirotic’s) appendicitis. But we’re all looking for ways to improve and be proactive in that area. Gar’s done a lot of background. We started the process of looking into things.’’
Paxson on chemistry: “I don’t think our chemistry, if that’s the right word, was great this year. For whatever reason the locker room wasn’t what you would like it to be. I do think going forward our vision of how to play, it’s what the league is getting to now. It’s more skilled basketball players, more pace up and down. We didn’t play that way this year for a lot of reasons.”
Paxson on Hoiberg: “Fred and his staff have to really get down to detail and get our guys to play that way. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily a personnel issue. If you demand of people and hold accountable, I think you can get them to do things on the floor. I know that from experience. Phil Jackson challenged me when he first got the job and I didn’t think I could do the things he asked me to do. I believe it can happen. I wouldn’t call it a miscalculation (to change coaches) for this reason alone, and you know this. We made that change last year for a lot of reasons, and they were all in the best interest of the Chicago Bulls organization. And that’s the bottom line. I’ve seen a lot of players come through this league and struggle, and they have really good careers. Some have great careers. Fred is a very bright guy. Every time we talk to him about basketball philosophy, we feel he’s on the right track mentally. We have to help him get to where that belief and vision and message translates to the court. He’s a great guy, he’s a hard worker, our players — even though you can say what you want, there was some controversy, whatever — our players respect that he’s played the game and is concerned about them. I think we can all grow in that capacity. We have all taken a lot of criticism, rightfully so, Fred included, but a rookie coach was dealt a lot of difficult injuries to navigate through. And I’m sure that’s going to make him stronger, too.’’
Paxson on Rose: “The thing with Derrick is he’s been through a lot. And I think because of that he’s had to look out for himself in a lot of ways. I can’t put myself in his place, I never had those types of injuries. So none of us have really walked in his shoes. We’ve got a lot of decisions to make, and that’s where we start. Our season’s over with, and we’re going to continue to work. We weren’t very good defensively, especially individually. We couldn’t keep people in front of us, and that’s important. Especially, that always starts with your guards, especially your point guard, creating, setting a tone. That’s an area Derrick’s really going to have to work on this summer. We need our point guard to set the tone defensively, there’s no question about that.”
Paxson on Rose and Butler: “They’re both very talented, but it didn’t always mesh this year. But you can say that about a lot of our players. Look, we need a tougher collective mindset. We need a better identity as a basketball team. Somewhere this year it got sideways. I’m not exactly sure where, but that’s on us to try and get right. Here’s how I feel about the whole leadership thing: When you’re talking too much about leadership you’re probably not getting what you need from the team leaders. I played with the greatest player in the game and you didn’t hear him talking about leadership. You heard him going out and showing leadership and showing that he was a winning player. I don’t think any of our guys need to talk about that anymore, about leadership. I think they need to show it.”
Paxson on change: “It’s obvious this roster isn’t going to be exactly the same coming back. We have to make some changes. What we have to do is determine that path, whether it’s through trades, free agency, draft, all those type of things.”
Paxson on Noah: “Jo’s an unrestricted free agent, as is Pau. We’ve got several of those on our roster. A lot of that, this is up to them. We are going to sit down with Jo obviously, his agent, and talk and see. Anyone who has been around us, anybody who has spoken to either Gar or I about Joakim, they know how we feel about him. He represents a lot of things that we believe in. To me, he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever been around in this business, as far as people go. So we have an affinity for Jo. But we’ve got to talk, we’ve got to see where it goes.”
Paxson on priority: “Anybody who knows me knows I’ll go down with the group that fights before I’ll go down with the group that doesn’t. We need more of those type of guys. I told the guys in the locker room, I spoke in December to them, and we had played the Clippers in a home game, and it was a game where Blake Griffin took Taj down on a really hard foul. And Taj took a fall, and what I saw that night was a team that didn’t really rally to his defense. Blake Griffin was kicked out of that game, and our guys didn’t stand up to that. Then when we had some of these bad losses where we had leads at home – against Phoenix comes to mind – again, you start thinking about the little things that really could’ve determined us not being here tonight and playing in the playoffs. They were kind of little episodes, but they were huge in the grand scheme of things. So it’s something that the urgency–that’s a good word–the urgency wasn’t there consistently enough.”