CHICAGO – John Paxson insisted the Bulls are in a good position. And the Bulls’ top executive hopes they are never in this spot again.
“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said Thursday. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again. It goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in, but it’s the way the system is set up. To be very honest, we believe we’ve done it the right way.”
The Bulls went 27-55, their worst record since the 2003-04 season, and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years. But they are staying the course after going all-in on rebuilding.
Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, praised coach Fred Hoiberg and said he will “absolutely” return for a fourth season. He said most of the roster will be back “because we’re headed in the right direction” and called this “as important a summer as we’ve had in a very long time.”
Here are some things to know heading into the offseason:
PIECES IN PLACE
The Bulls believe they set themselves up for long-term success when they traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen on draft night last year. All three players they landed showed promise, with Markkanen emerging as one of the league’s top rookies. Throw in a lottery pick as well as another first-rounder this year, and the Bulls believe they are positioning themselves to make a jump in the Eastern Conference.
LOCKING IN LaVINE
The Bulls didn’t give up Butler only to let LaVine go as a restricted free agent. But there could be some interesting negotiations. Paxson said general manager Gar Forman will talk to LaVine’s agent “at the appropriate time.”
“I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years,” Paxson said. “But we obviously value Zach a lot. We think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.
The two-time slam dunk champion missed the first 42 games while recovering from a torn ACL in the left knee that he suffered with Minnesota and sat out the final 14 because of tendinitis in the knee. LaVine flashed his explosiveness but clearly had some rust to knock off when he was available, averaging 16.7 points in 24 games. For now, he’s looking forward to a summer without rehab.
“I missed the whole last offseason, and that’s where I make a lot of my jumps in the summer,” LaVine said.
From struggling rookie to solid NBA player in his second season, Dunn made quite a jump. But he remains far from a finished product. Though he averaged 13.4 points in 52 games and tied for fourth in the league in steals (2 a game), Dunn averaged 2.9 turnovers. Paxson said he’s comfortable with him as the
No. 1 point guard next season and Cameron Payne as the backup. But did Dunn do enough to establish himself as the Bulls’ long-term starter?
“What we saw from Kris Dunn this year was really encouraging,” said Paxson, who would like to see Dunn become a stronger finisher. “When he was healthy, he showed some real competitiveness.”
Paxson had strong praise for Hoiberg, saying he and his staff “set the culture correctly in the summer” and held the team together despite all the losses. Hoiberg is 110-136 in three seasons with the Bulls. But he finally had a roster suited to his pace and space style.
“Fred and our guys set the tone when our guys came back, and they just had the everyday attitude of working,” Paxson said. “That needs to carry over, and it will. Our guys need to continue to buy in which we believe they will.”
DRAFT ON TAP
With the sixth or seventh slot in the lottery and a pick from New Orleans in the 20 to 23 range, the Bulls need to hit in the draft this year if they’re going to accelerate the rebuild. Paxson indicated the Bulls will look to add more size and versatility on the wing. Mikal Bridges of Villanova could be a possibility with their higher pick.