Tag Archives: John Paxson

Year in Review: Bulls stuck in crossroads, face difficult decisions moving forward

If there is one thing I will take away from this season, it is that this team is not ready to accept defeat and start over. Given the acquisition of Rondo, Wade, and Lopez, Gar Forman and John Paxson made it clear they want to remain a competitive team, despite prior indicating that they want to get younger as a team.

Being a franchise with one of the most prestigious histories in the league, these past few seasons have been strange for the Chicago Bulls. While their reemergence atop the East is in the rearview mirror, the Bulls have still been able to limp into the playoff race these past few years.

Now, however, the direction of their franchise is unclear. With Rondo, Wade, and Lopez’s best days likely gone, the front office has to decide whether to replace them with young players on the rise, players who could make the team instantly competitive, or to rid themselves of their large financial obligations (Butler, Wade, etc.) and start from a clean slate. The first question though, is whether or not Fred Hoiberg will continue to lead next year’s team.

Between having to start backup PG’s, splitting starting minutes between Mirotic and Zipser, and defensive struggles, there is a lot of growing room for Fred Hoiberg as a coach moving forward. If the front office’s biggest inclination is to remain competitive, I believe that Hoiberg should be given another year to grow this team, as he showed flashes of success with the personnel he was given.

Looking forward to next year, keeping Fred Hoiberg could offer promising improvements from many players on this team. For one thing, we saw guys like Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser show the ability to be competitive players, maybe not immediate starters albeit, but competitive nonetheless. Additionally, Hoiberg’s offensive wisdom may help Portis or Denzel Valentine develop into the scoring threat the Bulls need.

That being said, it would be foolish to expect significant improvement from the aging veteran starters that snuck this team into the postseason. It is only fair to Fred Hoiberg, or whoever else coaches this team next year, that the front office gives them more rising talent. As of right now, Rondo and Wade are on the wrong side of 30 and Lopez is approaching there as well. The Bulls, and their fans, are in dire need of players who can improve and thrive alongside Jimmy Butler. While improvements from their younger players may help keep the Bulls in the playoff picture for another year or two, this team does not have a foundation that is built to succeed in the Eastern Conference as is. Moving forward, I would expect and hope that the Bulls front office makes a bit of a splash this offseason in order to shake things up. Given the relatively low ceiling this current group has, it is probably also in Forman and Paxson’s best interest to make some significant changes.

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Bulls flat-line at the deadline, wave goodbye to Gibson, McDermott, and a future pick

Well the trade deadline has come and gone, with no superstars swapping teams on the final day. To the delight of many Bulls fans, Gar Forman and John Paxson were able to complete a trade to avoid sitting on their hands yet another year. To the disgust of Bulls fans everywhere, this trade makes absolutely no sense. To be fair, this trade doesn’t ruin the franchise in the way Sacramento trading for 25 cents on the dollar to get rid of Demarcus Cousins, but this trade just makes you want to scratch your head. Trades are either supposed to make you better in the present or the future, ideally both. GarPax managed to somehow diminish both of these prospects with this one. While this wasn’t a blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination, there is still a lot to break down here so stick with me here.

First let’s get to the deal itself. The Bulls receive: Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne in exchange for Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 2nd round pick. So essentially, the Bulls are giving up the best player in this group (Taj) as well as a draft pick, while also disposing of the man they gave up two first round picks for (McDermott). In exchange the Bulls received one rotation player (Payne) in their ongoing struggle to find a serviceable point guard. And while Payne is a nice player and has some upside, he has pretty much the same skill set as the other 17 point guards on the roster.

Payne hasn’t gotten much of a chance to prove himself yet playing behind Westbrook for his first season and a half in the league, but one thing is already brutally clear, he is just as bad of a shooter as the other Bulls point guards. He is making only 32 percent of his outside shots, 38 percent total. That is basically Rajon Rondo level of clogginess (yes I made up that word) you are hoping to be your future 1. Sure he’s quick and athletic with a long wing span, but somehow manages to only be a mediocre defender so far in his career.

Meanwhile the Bulls gave up their best outside threat, and their best two-way player outside of Jimmy Butler. I want to take a moment to thank Taj Gibson, as so many others have, for his time as a Bull. The dude was the consummate professional during his tenure in Chicago. The guy was benched in favor of two players who were atrocious on the defensive side of the ball because they could hit mid-range jumpers (Gasol and Boozer) for most of his time here and never said a word about it. All he did was show up, do what was asked of him, and somehow remain a consistent contributor to this team despite the madness going on all around him. He will be sorely missed in the Windy City and I wish him the best of luck in OKC.

Back to the Bulls plan, and I use that word loosely. As far as I can tell, GarPax are trying to clear up cap space for this Summer in an attempt to build around Jimmy. I am only speculating because the majority of insiders and experts are just as confused about what the end goal is here as anyone else. The Bulls have stock-piled four point guards (MCW, Rondo, Grant, and Payne) hoping that one of them can stick with the team as a mainstay. Wade and Rondo are signed through next year but that is still up in the air as Wade has a player option and who knows with Rondo. The only asset the Bulls have at this point is Jimmy Butler as their draft pick this summer won’t even be anything to brag about.

At this point I think all Bulls fans can do is wait and see. Personally, I have lost all patience with Forman and Paxson as they have shown no direction at all with this franchise since it was clear Rose would never be the same after his ACL injury. This trade is no exception to the theme of these last handful of years. But hey, the Bulls are in the playoffs if the season ended today so we have that to look forward to.

Stuck in a rut

The Chicago Bulls sit in one of the NBA’s most feared places; “Basketball Purgatory.”

The NBA is a weird sport in that we already know who is likely to make the NBA Finals, and know it now, even before a single team has played a regular season game. The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers sit atop each conference and as a Bulls fan you ask yourself, where do I fit in?

The Bulls will finish in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, sporting a team that would have been great in 2010, but one that cannot even scratch the surface of NBA glory in 2016. They will have their moments, and have a playoff run that mirrors the Ben Gordon Bulls run in 2009 against the Celtics or the Nate Robinson Highlight Reel in 2013 against the Nets, but will inevitably end with an early exit, giving way to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers once again.

This early pessimism is not how anyone wants to start the season, but the way in which Gar Forman and John Paxson have structured this team leaves little hope, and an uncertain future. The team has names in Wade, Rondo, Lopez and Butler, but besides Butler, all they are, are names.

Wade’s Chicago ties will fill the seats, Rondo will be electric at times, and Butler will always be your primary scoring option. But what happens after this year?

In the last 4 years, the Bulls have finished 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 9th in the Eastern Conference; in other words, “basketball purgatory”. While last year was nothing short than an embarrassing season, the three previous playoff teams could not get over the hump, stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference. 

Because of these “bad” teams making the playoffs, the team has not been able to stockpile high draft picks and rebuild. They have continued to piece-meal the team together, and sell fans on the idea that Jimmy Butler and a supporting cast of Rondo, Lopez and of course Wade, will bring the team to the top. But everyone knows that is almost impossible to believe.

So the question becomes, are the Bulls committed to winning an NBA title? Or is the unsustainable piece-meal model, consistent revenue-generating approach acceptable to Bulls management, and therefore supposed to be acceptable to the fan base? The Bulls need to tear down and rebuild, but Bulls management would never cave to that reality. Instead, they have chosen to sell you on an aging roster, that again has the right names, but they don’t go hand and hand with the players they truly are.

In my eyes, the tear down would have begun by trading Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline or this past offseason. Butler has proven to be one of the biggest surprises (including being an All-Star) in the recent history of the Bulls drafts and because of that, he would have given you the most return as a trade piece.  By holding onto Butler, this team has not gotten any closer to competing for a title. While I am a fan of loyalty in sports in regards to players staying longer with the teams that drafted them, the Bulls have to be realistic and know that if and when they do become NBA contenders again, it will probably be after Butler has already moved on from Chicago. As long as he is there, they cannot move forward with both his large salary and his skill-set making the team just good enough to keep them out of the Top 10 in the draft. This team has to get younger and more athletic, which the front office has preached, yet they are now older and slower with the additions they made. Along with a departure of Butler, I am also still not sold yet on Doug McDermott nor Nikola Mirotic, and they too could have been prospect pieces sent away to stockpile draft picks, and take flyers on young developing players in return that could have been included in the deal.

I understand that unlike baseball and football, stockpiling draft picks is difficult in basketball. Just ask the 76ers. There are only two rounds to play with every year, and it is always a huge gamble. But as the Bulls front office, what do you have to lose? Use your biggest trade piece to build for a sustained successful future. The Bulls too often look at the current make-up of their team, when a well-organized organization would invest more into the future then a make-shift quick-fix solution for the now, with no guarantees.

The 1996 Spurs knew that an aging roster (and an injured David Robinson) would not allow them to be any better three years down the road, so what did they do? They tanked and drafted Tim Duncan and won the 1999 NBA Title and 4 more after that. The 1996 season (20-62) was the worst in its 50 year franchise history, but they have made the playoffs for the last 19 years ever since. So was that one awful season worth it? The Spurs and I would argue a resounding yes.

If the Bulls continue to follow their current model and don’t look at stories like the Spurs, they will have a very hard time scratching the surface to compete for a title in the near future. While the flashes may be there this year in a short playoff-run that management will enjoy due to ticket revenue, there is no development of young exciting players to make Bulls fans confident moving forward.

Rookie Denzel Valentine may turn out to be a nice compliment player, but with probable 5th place finishes this year and next, Rondo and Wade will be gone, and what do you have to show for it in 2018? It will be time again to sign another “Big Name” of yesteryear to sell tickets on a promise that only would have been valid 3 or 4 years ago when their new roster of Paul, Harden and Griffin is sold to the fan base.

The Bulls need a complete rebuild to sustain success moving forward but Bulls management seems too scared to do it in fear of losing money on ticket sales and fan interest for the current season.

Even if the rebuild takes a few years of last-place basketball to stockpile draft picks so be it. Staying in the middle of the pack will get this team no closer to competing for an NBA title.  More and more Bulls fans seem open to this idea. But, with a management team that tells its fans that 36-year old free agent-to-be Pau Gasol is part of the future of the team and will not be traded at the deadline, it leaves a lot to worry about in terms of the future of the franchise.

Rond’oh!

In a strange way, it’s been nice to see a flurry of activity from the Bulls front office in the point guard market. I was not alone in my frustration a season ago when the Bulls trotted out  the oft injured Derrick Rose, diminutive Aaron Brooks, and local real estate owner Kirk Hinrich to hold down the fort for a second consecutive season.

The swap of Cameron Bairstow for Spencer Dinwiddie was a low-risk move with the tiny potential for a nice payout. The big trade that sent Rose to the Knicks was judged to be a positive one by this writer, mostly because of the addition of the (suddenly) cheap Robin Lopez, but also because of the potential upside Jerian Grant brings to the table. And while Jose Calderon is nothing more than a shooter at this point in his career, I could envision him carving out a successful role next to Butler as a floor spacer.

All of these small moves were nice, but the Bulls were still clearly lacking someone they felt confident could soak up the majority of minutes at the one, a feeling that motivated the team to award Rajon Rando a two year, $28 million contract that reportedly has a partially guaranteed second year.

The Rondo signing appears to make sense on the surface. With a roster lacking any proven point guard talent, why not take a one year flier on the guy who lead the league in assists a season ago, averaged two steals a game and hit a career best 36% of his threes?

As anyone who watched Pau Gasol loaf through the past two seasons in Chicago knows, the box score does not tell the whole story. A closer examination combined with a careful eye can sometimes paint a different picture than some counting stats in the newspaper.

Rondo spent the past season on a typically dysfunctional Kings team that failed to crack .500 for the 37th consecutive season. The Kings scored a lot of points in George Karl‘s high paced system but surrendered even more on defense, posting a net -3 for the season. Rondo’s presence on the floor did nothing to help matters, as the team was more than a point better per 100 possessions when Rondo was on the bench.

Plus/minus can be a misleading stat at times. Starting players on talent-deficient teams can have artificially low net ratings compared to their teammates who are able to feast on opposing bench units. But when you consider that Rondo played 70% of his minutes alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who was exactly even in net rating, Rondo’s statistics begin to look more damning.

Despite his gaudy assist totals, Rondo does very little to improve his team’s offense. Rondo is a terrible shooter who is reluctant to even attempt long jump shots. A career 29% three point shooter, Rajon’s poor stroke is made even worse by the fact that defenses completely ignore him on the perimeter. Rondo absolutely needs to have the ball in his hands on offense to be remotely effective. When he doesn’t space becomes tight for all of his teammates. Look at what happened on this play against the well-coached Charlotte Hornets:

Hornets ignore Rondo pt 1

As DeMarcus Cousins runs to set a pick for Rudy Gay, Kemba Walker, Rondo’s defender, turns his head completely away from Rondo and begins to focus his attention on stopping the pick and roll.

Hornets ignore Rondo pt2

As soon as Cousins receives the pass from Gay, Walker has completely committed to clogging the lane for any potential drive from the big man. Rondo is left totally alone, a complete afterthought for the defense. Rondo ended up making the wide open three after the ensuing pass from Cousins, but he has been unable to connect on those shots at a high enough rate to force defenses to re-calibrate their strategy.

This is the biggest reason I hate the Rondo signing. After struggling through last season with a starting back court that couldn’t make a three, the Bulls are doubling down by signing the worst shooting point guard in basketball.

For all of the dynamic things Butler can do on a court, attracting attention off the ball is not something he does. As we saw quite a bit last season, Butler felt most comfortable with the ball in his hands running the offense. To compliment that, the Bulls need to pair him with a point guard who is going to keep help defenders occupied far away from the paint. Rajon Rondo could not be further from fitting that description.

I just cannot comprehend what Gar Forman and John Paxson were thinking  when they signed Rondo. Do they expect him and Butler to play well off each other? Unless Butler is spending his summer turning himself into a 40% three point shooter, I struggle to imagine a scenario where these two are able to power the Bulls to a half decent offense.

If Rondo’s outside shooting was his only issue, it would be bad enough. But there are several other aspects of offense the newest Bull struggles at. Rondo was arguably the single worst transition player in the NBA last season. According to NBA.com, of players to handle the ball on at least 200 transition possessions, nobody scored less frequently, and turned the ball over more frequently than Rajon Rondo. Only Jordan Clarkson and Klay Thompson (who took a lot of transition threes) shot free throws less often in transition than Rondo.

All of which brings me to my final complaint about Rondo’s offensive game: his utter fear of the charity stripe. Rondo has failed to crack 60% from the line in four of the last six seasons. And as his percentages have dropped, so have the attempts. Rondo got to the line just twice a game last season, a shockingly low number for the player who finished tenth in the league in drives to the basket. People complain about Rondo hunting for assists to boost his stats, but I think a lot of his hunted dimes are the result of his unwillingness to draw contact in the paint for fear of embarrassing himself shooting free throws.

This was a particularly poor market for free agent point guards, but the Bulls somehow managed to overpay for a low upside rental who makes no sense from a roster construction standpoint. Michael Wonsover looked at some of the other point guards the Bulls could have potentially signed for less money who may have also fit better alongside Butler. Allow me to add rookie Wade Baldwin to the list. The Bulls passed on Baldwin to take Denzel Valentine, another old college player with legitimate red flags. Baldwin projects to be a capable defender and a good shooter who does not need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Sort of like an ideal partner for Jimmy. Sort of like the opposite of Rondo.

The frustrating thing about the GarPax regime is they have the ability to make smart moves along the margins, but completely botch their bigger decisions. Grabbing Dinwiddie for free? Smart. Getting Justin Holiday back for washed up Hinrich? Savvy! Signing Felicio out of training camp for less than $1 million? Potentially franchise-altering!

But between the Gasol signing, the all-in Doug McDermott trade, the Thibs firing/Hoiberg hiring, and now the signing of Rajon Rondo, this front office has proven that they are incapable of making the decisions that count.

 

BULLet Points: Bulls take season finale over Sixers

The Chicago Bulls ended their season on a high-note, winning in comeback form over the historically bad Philadelphia 76ers (10-72) 115-105 at the United Center Wednesday night. The Bulls ended the season a disappointing 42-40, a record that would’ve made the playoffs in the East most other years.

  • The strangest thing happened Wednesday night: The Bulls were going through the motions and getting beat down by one of the worst teams in NBA history 60-39 in the 2nd quarter, the lead was 24 at one point, and then the crowd started to boo mercilessly.
  • Except instead of digging themselves an even bigger hole, they began to click and showed some energy, knowing down 3’s from all over the court and playing pretty stifling defense at times. The result was a demanding 32-4 run by the Bulls to put them up 71-64 and they never looked back.
  • The comeback charge was led by Nikola Mirotic and Justin Holiday. As for Mirotic, the forward shot lights out from deep, 7/11, on his way to 32 points. We knew Mirotic could knock down a few shots, but it was the rest of his game that impressed those in attendance. The Montenegro native stuffed the stat sheet with seven rebounds, four assists, five steals, and even three blocks. Mirotic making the hustle plays seemed to spark the rest of his team to do the same. The fact that he only turned the ball over only twice in 39 minutes is just an added bonus for Niko on the night.
  • The other spark plug on the night was Justin Holiday. The guard dropped a career-high 29 points in the win over the Sixers and must have impressed Fred Hoiberg with his ability to run the offense. Holiday showed great court vision and made the right decision with the ball more times than not on Wednesday. Holiday also proved to be a two-way player causing havoc on the defensive side of the ball with his length, and athleticism. The season-finale was a strong audition from a player hoping to stay in the rotation for next year.
  • It wasn’t just Mirotic and Holiday knocking down threes on the night. The Bulls as a team shot 63% (15/24) on the night as the Bulls pleased their coach by finding open jump shots early in the shot clock on a consistent basis. The key to this was the quick ball movement and unselfish basketball. Once the Bulls started their comeback there was little standing around on offense and everyone was making the extra pass on the perimeter to set up an even more open shot. The result was the Bulls putting up 99 points over the final three frames.
  • One of the bright spots for the 76ers was Robert Covington. The Bellwood, Illinois native must relish playing against his former hometown team. Covington put up 25 points the last time these two met and was just as good last night. Covington put away 27 points on 7/17 shooting, including 7/7 from the charity stripe and was the reason the Sixers had such a big lead early in the 2nd quarter.
  • Coming up: The 2015-2016 season comes to a close as the Bulls fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. This is a crucial offseason for Gar Forman and John Paxson to correct the dysfunction within the organization.
  • A note from DRaT editor Jake Weiner: Thank you so much to everyone that joined us for our coverage of all 82 Bulls games this season. It’s been a depressing year for Bulls fans, but we’re so glad to have been able to share the ups and (mostly) downs with all of you. We’re looking forward to joining you all again next season!