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The 9 Lives Of John Paxson

On June 23, 2011, the Bulls’ brain trust of John Paxson (VP of Basketball Operations) and Gar Forman (General Manager) drafted Jimmy Butler with the 30th pick of the NBA Draft. The team then traded the draft rights to Norris Cole and Malcolm Lee to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the draft rights to the widely-unknown Nikola Mirotic.

Months earlier, Forman took home NBA Executive of the Year honors in a peculiarly prescient acknowledgement of a fantastic 2011 draft haul. In fairness, this award is often a head-scratcher. (Case-in-point the Warriors’ Bob Myers receipt of the 2014-15 award despite most of the team’s heavy-lifting being done in prior years.) The same can be said about Forman’s award. In the end, how does the 2010-11 award not go outright to the executive that signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh? That year, Forman shared the award with Pat Riley.

But in hindsight, this award is fairly representative of the 12-year Paxson-Forman run: accolades aplenty and an absence of accountability.

Like a handful of other teams, the Bulls took measures to clear cap space in anticipation of the 2010 free agency class and specifically James. In the end, they whiffed on LeBron, but no one can deny that the risk was worth taking. However, an egregious error was allowing Dwayne Wade to give the team the impression that he might come home to Chicago when that was clearly never in the cards.

As that summer carried on, the Bulls were left holding the Carlos Boozer Bag. (Incidentally, Boozer tripped over a duffel bag before the season even started and had to miss a month of action.) While Forman and Paxson (hereinafter “GarPax”) complemented the roster with useful pieces like Kyle Korver, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer, there wasn’t a game-changer in the bunch. The move that most directly led to Forman’s Executive of the Year honor and helped the team improve from 41 to 62 wins was the hiring of first-time head coach Tom Thibodeau, who added a much-needed identity to a roster left treading water after two years of the disastrous Vinny Del Negro.

These two offseasons are a decent representation of the GarPax era: solid work in the draft, particularly when drafting late, generally effective addition of role players, but almost universal failure when it comes to the big moves that can define a franchise and deliver championships. Here’s the timeline.

It Was The Worst Of Times

In 2003, John Paxson assumed the helm as Bulls general manager during some dark days for the franchise: The failed Eddy Curry/Tyson Chandler experiment, Jay Williams‘s career-ending motorcycle accident, underwhelming free-agent signings, Marcus Fizer.

The Bulls were the worst team in the NBA from 1998-2004, and it wasn’t close. But there was always optimism bubbling beneath the outer crust of despair. The Bulls were among the league leaders in attendance during the same futile period, a testament to the lasting power of Michael Jordan as opposed to the inscrutable nature of Bulls fans. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who I think is unfairly regarded on a national level as “cheap,” isn’t afraid to roll the dice when a championship is possible. There was always potential for a turnaround.

Paxson started building through a draft philosophy of productive, high-character guys who tended to come from big-name NCAA programs. And he had plenty of decent picks to work with:

2003: Kirk Hinrich (7th pick)

2004: Ben Gordon (3rd); Luol Deng (7th, acquired from Suns)

2006: Tyrus Thomas (4th, acquired with Viktor Khryapa from Blazers for LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd)); Thabo Sefolosha (13th, acquired from Sixers for rights to Rodney Carney (16th))

2007: Joakim Noah (9th)

Most of these players are solid guys who can help you win, but do any of them significantly alter a franchise’s direction? Even at his peak with all his knee cartilage, is Joakim Noah going to be the second-best player on a championship team? I don’t think so. The same can be said about Luol Deng, who perfectly represents the GarPax dichotomy. Deng’s draft day acquisition from Phoenix is probably on the short list of GarPax’s better moves. But his reported reluctance to move Deng for Kobe in 2007 is a nearly unforgivable sin. And it goes without saying that only the most magnanimous of souls can forgive the Aldridge for Thomas trade.

The Luckiest Bounce Of All

Despite the near constant and infuriating stupidity and badness that was Tyrus Thomas,  Paxson never received the appropriate ridicule for the Aldridge trade. I think a lot of this has to do with Derrick Rose. Without the trade, it’s unlikely the Bulls squeak into the 2008 lottery and beat the odds to land the No. 1 pick and future MVP. Bulls fans were able to distract themselves from the disappointment of Thomas with the promise of Rose. Rose made it much easier to ignore Aldridge turning into one of the game’s best power forwards.

While the ping-pong balls allowed the Bulls to land their franchise cornerstone, 2008 saw the Bulls decide to pair the rookie with first-time head coach Vinny Del Negro. This followed a reported falling out between the front office and the incorrigible Scott Skiles that resulted in Skiles’s firing on Christmas Eve, 2007.

I’m usually in the camp of people who believe professional coaches receive too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go bad. This is particularly the case in the Chicago fishbowl. But Del Negro was overmatched from the start. He was truly a terrible coach, even worse than Paxson’s reported first choice – Mike D’Antoni. While the young core grew and Rose asserted himself as an upcoming star, the team stayed mired in mediocrity, weighted down by their albatross of a coach who might not be able to coach team defense but must be one heck of an interviewee.

Paxson’s alleged frustration over Del Negro’s roster usage eventually boiled over into a 2010 physical altercation reportedly initiated by Paxson after the coach violated the first edition of the management-imposed Joakim Noah minutes limit. Both parties deserved to be ashamed about this – Del Negro for being himself and repeatedly over his head and Paxson for hiring him and then acting like a child when the terrible guy he hired turns out to be terrible.

An Era Of False Hope

The appointment of Tom Thibodeau prior to the 2010-11 season was Forman’s first coaching selection as general manager. Paxson had been kicked upstairs in 2009 with Forman, who had spent 11 years in the organization, assuming the role of GM.

Thibs brought immediate legitimacy to the team, and his young, hungry players bought in. This also more or less coincided with generally strong work in the draft done by the Bulls’ front office:

2009: James Johnson (16th); Taj Gibson (26th)

2010: Kevin Seraphin (17th, traded to Washington for rights to Vladimir Veremeenko)

2011: Norris Cole (28th, traded with Malcolm Lee to Minnesota for right to Mirotic), Jimmy Butler (30th)

2012: Marquis Teague (29th)

2013: Tony Snell (20th)

2014: Jusuf Nurkic (16th); Gary Harris (19th) – Both traded to Denver for rights to Doug McDermott (11th)

Yet despite the additions of guys like Gibson and Butler, Rose’s 2012 injury was the signature event that defines the Bulls’ recent era. After two regular seasons where the Bulls accumulated the best record in the Eastern Conference, any legitimate momentum towards a title vanished on that fateful day in April.

The Bulls’ identity changed from Dynamic Grit to just Grit. A testament to their players and staff, the Bulls somehow grinded out 93 wins in the next two seasons and a second-round playoff appearance in 2013. But as constituted, even with a healthy Rose, these Bulls teams were never going to beat LeBron’s Heat teams. Despite all the defense and all the effort, in the end the team’s only shot creator was a 6’3 point guard.

Looks Like Rain

After enduring another Rose injury and another lost year, this past offseason once again allowed the Bulls to be players in free agency. After LeBron was clearly out of the picture, GarPax set their sights on Carmelo Anthony. In spite of themselves, they landed Pau Gasol instead of the very rich Knick, which in hindsight seems like the right move despite Gasol’s advancing age and defensive deficiencies. Mirotic arrived and GarPax traded two first-round picks to land NCAA legend Doug McDermott. They low-balled Jimmy Butler when there was probably a deal to be made in October.

Even before Butler’s Most Improved Player season, advanced statistics viewed him favorably to both Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward, two wing players who collected fat contracts last offseason. But this isn’t surprising from a front office that lags behind much of the league when it comes to use of analytics.  (Imagine the forthcoming cap gymnastics the Bulls would have had to pull off to give Butler the max deal he’s going to get this offseason if Carmelo had accepted the Bulls’ offer.)

Yet when times got tough during the season, it was Thibodeau who endured the endless scrutiny, despite inheriting a radically changed and ultimately fatally flawed roster while also having to deal with the backseat driving of a needling front office. It didn’t take long to grow tired of the Chicago Media’s endless hand-wringing.

The Bulls’ beat writers are generally decent, specifically the Tribune’s very professional K.C. Johnson. But other local columnists and talk radio hosts seem to carry a lot of water for the Bulls’ front office. And this has been a constant theme.

It doesn’t really matter what the story is. “Derrick Rose ignoring medical advice during his rehab.” “Derrick Rose‘s failure to recruit player X, (whether it’s LeBron or Carmelo, etc).” “Thibodeau playing Noah up to his arbitrary and management-imposed minutes limit.” These are storylines that got a ton of play in Chicago, and the same goes for scrutiny of Thibs’s coaching style. While the front office might not be able to land a big free agent, they are absolutely brilliant when it comes to controlling narratives that surround the team.

A reluctant discussion of the Thibs/GarPax taffy pull

I don’t want to spend too much time on the well worn ground that’s the strained relationship between the Bulls and their coach. Everyone has an opinion and nothing is black and white. There are valid criticisms of Thibodeau. His offensive sets leave something to the imagination and often become bogged down with a lack of free-flowing movement. He calls a lot of plays and (anecdotally at least) it seems like they waste a lot of shot clock. That being said, it wasn’t until this year that the Bulls paired Rose with legitimate secondary options to work the offense through – the signing of Gasol, the emergence of Butler, and (at times), the rookie Mirotic. Think about that. Rose was drafted in 2008 and didn’t get his 1A teammate until six seasons and two serious knee injuries later.

It’s also reported that the gruff coach doesn’t work well with others. I can’t speak to that. Thibs surely has a “unique” personality. But it isn’t Thibs who has the history of altercations with his co-workers. And it was Forman who sent a shot across the bow when he fired assistant coach Ron Adams, a well-regarded bench coach who was close to both Rose and Thibodeau. The roster never quit on Thibs and it doesn’t hurt that he helped make a lot of guys a lot of money. Despite occasional rumors of player displeasure, none of that has ever been significantly substantiated (with the possible and ridiculous exception of McDermott). I say this not to overstate the virtue of Thibs as a coach but to highlight the most important aspect of a coach’s “people skills” – dealing with his players.

The most harped upon criticism is that Thibs plays his guys too many minutes.  Honestly, I don’t get the often hyperbolic reactions to this and probably never will. Maybe there were a couple of seasons where Noah and Deng played a couple ticks more than they could have. Yet critics bemoan his failure to employ the “Popovich Model” as if Thibs has the same roster as the Spurs or as if Pop didn’t ride the hell out of star players like Duncan during his formative years. Maybe Pau played a few too many minutes in a handful of 14-15 games, but he was still under his career average and the team dealt with injuries to every frontcourt player except the corpse of Nazr Mohammed.

No Bull has been in the top 10 in total minutes since 2010-11. Butler (39 MPG) might have led the league in minutes if he hadn’t run into DeAndre Jordan and missed a few weeks, but he’s 25 years old and, like many NBA studs before him, a beast. (Duncan played 40 MPG at that age, FYI.) Butler’s free market value certainly wont take a hit from “overuse.” McDermott missed the second-most games due to injury on the roster. Who are the armchair doctors going to blame for that one?

Quite frankly, the only injury that can be attributed to any member of the Bulls’ organization is the situation surrounding Deng’s botched spinal tap performed by the medical staff during the 2013 postseason. Everything else is conjecture born of frustration over some hard-luck injuries. Even with the 2014-15 minutes limits, the practice limits, the added layer of bureaucracy with playing time gatekeeper Jen Swanson (did we ever get her official job duties?), the Bulls lost more games to injuries than they did in 12-13 and 13-14 (Rose’s multiple injuries included). All that meddling and nothing to show for it. Sometimes your guys get injured.

The final category of popular criticism concerns Thibs’s “rotations” and particularly an alleged reluctance to play young players. This just isn’t true.

Butler only played eight minutes per game during his rookie season. This is the easy go-to for Thibodeau critics looking for evidence of reverse agism. But beyond the fact that it took Butler awhile to hone his offensive game, there are other reasons why he didn’t get a lot of run in 11-12, namely: Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, Rip Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson.

I mean, the team went 50-16 that year. How about a little deference?

And then there’s the case of McDermott. Hopes were high when the Bulls traded up to snag McBuckets with the 11th pick last June. I admittedly was in line to get served some McKool-Aid as well. After all, it didn’t take a genius to realize the Bulls needed offensive weapons. And while I’m not a rabid observer of the college game, I knew McDermott and his track record of filling it at a high level. He was supposed to be ready to contribute for a team that was ready to contend.

But the only thing worse than his nickname was his game. A lot of Bulls fans have short memories and forget Thibs gave him the entire month of November to work himself into the rotation. He couldn’t do it. Beyond missing a lot of shots (less than 30 percent from three during that stretch), he struggled to adjust to the speed of the game. He even struggled to get shots. McDermott should have been in the D-League and that’s on GarPax. Yet very few people called out the front office for not using the developmental avenue like the Spurs did with first-round pick Kyle Anderson.

It’s not fair to call McDermott a “bust” after only logging 321 minutes of time and missing a lot of games with a knee injury. I hope he can break out like many NBA players do as time goes on. But to say he deserved rotation time is laughable, and right now it looks like a terrible draft night decision by GarPax. Trying to force Thibs to play McDermott this year was like asking him to build a house and handing him an eggplant.

Beyond that, I’m not sure who are the other deserving “young guys” that Thibs made ride the pine. Not Asik. Not Gibson (granted he was the methuzulah of rookies even before Thibs). Not Mirotic, a tantalizing prospect, but a guy still learning the NBA game.

Did we need to see more Marquis Teague? Even Tony Snell got 16 minutes per game in a bad 2013-14 rookie campaign. Speaking of Snell, it was popular for many Bulls fans to clamor for more of him this past season. He did show some flashes and on the whole he had a better season than the duct-taped Kirk Hinrich – a popular target of fan frustration. But to consider the mistake-prone wing a sort of underused panacea seemed like it was grasping at an ultimately meaningless straw.

Every coach will have games where it looks like he played the wrong guy, and it’s always easy to assume the dude on the bench would have outperformed someone playing poorly. So if you want to tell me that Thibs should have played Mike Dunleavy more against the Wizards during the 2013-14 playoff series the Bulls were never going to win, fine. I agree with you.

In the end, none of this really matters. If a trade or other maneuver can be worked out,  Thibodeau will likely be gone and the brain trust that hired Vinny Del Negro will get their fourth crack at it.

It’s clear that I’m an ardent Thibs fanboy. I love the weird, crazy guy. I love his relentless nature that’s reflected in the never-quit attitude of his teams. I love the little things, like the Bulls’ late-game inbound defense. I can’t help it.

All signs point to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg as the next Bulls coach, and as a Bulls fan, this would soften the blow of Thibs’s loss. I like Hoiberg. I like watching the Cyclones’ style of play. I like his demeanor and personality. But he’s anything but a proven commodity. Tom Thibodeau won’t be out of work long unless he wants to be.

The Postscript

Jerry Reinsdorf is a fiercely loyal guy. It’s an admirable trait amongst professional sports owners but not without drawbacks. With three decades of service to the Bulls’ organization, Paxson has the job security of a Supreme Court Justice. So this isn’t about whether the Bulls will sever ties with GarPax – they won’t. It’s about whether an objective analysis would lead someone to the conclusion that GarPax is the right management team to lead the Bulls to a championship.

While the major issues were examined above, there are small things that the front office has done well. GarPax let the Pistons overpay for Ben Gordon. They mitigated the damage and landed a first-round pick for Tyrus Thomas. And while a Kings protected first-round pick is a far cry from a 30 year-old Kobe Bryant, they traded Deng when it was clear it didn’t make financial sense for the Bulls to commit to him long term. They’ve done well identifying international talent.

My intention isn’t to blast John Paxson and Gar Forman. On the whole, they’re probably better than most front offices. But over the course of a good chunk of time in a mostly dreadful conference, they’ve failed to put together a championship roster and squandered many opportunities to hit home runs beyond the Butler pick. Their constant meddling with the coaching staff sometimes begs the question, “Why doesn’t Pax just pick up a clipboard and do it himself?”

Certainly both Thibodeau and the front office were hostages to Rose’s health. The grim reality is that the Bulls, and specifically Thibodeau’s Bulls teams, were the victim of outsized expectations. Their fans may not want to hear it, but there was never a title window. Even in a garbage conference, they never lost a playoff series to an inferior roster. And now they’ll likely be left with a core that includes Rose, Butler and Mirotic. They’ll get another year out of an over-the-hill Gasol and a damaged and probably untradable Noah. (And don’t forget Hinrich’s player option!)

In the end, it just seems like the view of the trophy is getting more distant as years go by.

12 years. Eight lottery picks. And this is what you’re left with, Bulls fans. You tell me if this is someone who deserves an apparent lifetime appointment.

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