John Paxson stepped to the dais and made his priorities for the Bulls clear.
“We want to win,” Paxson said. “When you’re a young team, sometimes you have built-in excuses and complain about not getting officials’ calls or a poor road record. The next step is for those excuses to be put aside and to establish that we are ready to win.”
Paxson didn’t say that on Thursday when he had his season-ending, state-of-the-Bulls news conference. He said that 15 years ago Saturday when Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf introduced him as Jerry Krause’s successor and sixth executive vice president of basketball operations in franchise history.
Yep, it has been 15 years since Krause’s shocking departure and Paxson’s rapid ascension.
“For the last couple of years, I was interviewing people. They just didn’t know I was interviewing them,” Reinsdorf said that April 2003 day. “Hiring John was a very easy conclusion.”
In Paxson’s 15 seasons as head of basketball operations, the Bulls are 640-574 during the regular season and 39-52 in the playoffs. They have made the postseason 11 times with eight winning seasons, four at .500 and three below .500, including the 27-55 mark for 2017-18 that began the second full rebuild of his tenure.
Under Paxson’s watch, the Bulls have won five playoff series and advanced to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. The successes have outnumbered the slip-ups.
But 20 years have passed since the dynasty ended after the Bulls won the last of their six titles. As a player on the Bulls’ first three-peat team, Paxson doesn’t need to be reminded of this.
“What we’re trying to build is a basketball team, one that plays the right way, one that represents the organization the right way,” Paxson said.
Paxson did say this Thursday. He also preached patience, which speaks not so much to any mellowing as to maturing.
Paxson’s retreat as the public face of the franchise while general manager Gar Forman assumed that role for several seasons offered perspective for a man who has been associated with the franchise since 1985 as a player, assistant coach, broadcaster and executive. And when the organization hit the reset button in June with the Jimmy Butler trade, Paxson said he knew his leadership traits were needed out front.
Coach Fred Hoiberg has praised Paxson’s straightforward and direct communication throughout the season. Longtime front-office employees have cited Paxson’s accessibility and accountability as creating a strong working environment. Paxson consistently offered transparency on injuries or issues regarding the team, often proactively offering updates.
He also works well with Forman and created an inclusive front office that included the hiring of Matt Lloyd, now an assistant general manager with the Magic, from the public relations staff.
Of course, none of this matters a hoot to the season ticket holder shelling out big bucks to see a seventh banner hoisted to the United Center rafters — nor should it. That is — and should be — the standard.
In his Thursday remarks, Paxson expressed confidence that the Bulls “are in a better place” now than before they made the Butler trade. Translated, Paxson believes the franchise is closer to a championship.
Saying it doesn’t make it so. But the first season of the rebuild drew mostly positive responses to the trade’s return. Lauri Markkanen appears to be a franchise cornerstone. Kris Dunn showed strong potential. And Zach LaVine’s athleticism, if not his consistency, remained intact after left ACL surgery.
The Bulls jumped from 30 victories in Krause’s last season in 2002-03 to 47 victories in 2004-05 the last time Paxson oversaw a full rebuild. Over two seasons, Paxson and Forman completely flipped Krause’s roster, save for Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. They hit on Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon in the draft, Antonio Davis in the trade market, Andres Nocioni in free agency and Scott Skiles as a coaching hire.
The 2008 transformation following the debacle that was the 2007-08 season was more of a reboot than a rebuild, although they did draft Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson and worked the margins of free agency adroitly to augment holdover Deng.
No look at Paxson’s tenure can discount the luck — both good and bad — involved in Derrick Rose’s Bulls career. The Bulls overcame 1.7 percent odds to win the 2008 draft lottery and select Rose No. 1 overall, propelling the franchise back to championship contention. The franchise then had to endure the cruel succession of Rose’s knee injuries after signing him to a no-brainer maximum contract extension after he became the youngest MVP in league history in 2011.
Now, the Bulls need to hit on two first-round picks this June and add another impact player at some point to the new core of LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen. Paxson acknowledged how much work remains.
The late-season attempts to maximize draft lottery pingpong-ball combinations proved distasteful. Paxson also acknowledged this Thursday when he said “it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in.”
Winning always has driven Paxson. Some fans get upset because of Reinsdorf’s loyalty to executives. After 18 years, Reinsdorf let Krause go.
Fifteen years in, the Reinsdorfs still believe in both Forman and Paxson, who aren’t going anywhere. It’s time to get to work.