Bulls management Wednesday explained, and there was news, there was what was known, and mostly, hardly unsurprisingly, uncertainty going forward. Which actually was not that surprising.
The news was that the Bulls intend to bring back Rajon Rondo, who has a team option and relatively small buyout in his contract.
“There’s a really good chance that we bring Rajon back and for these reasons,” said Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson. “As we get younger, it’s still really important to have quality veterans around your young players. To a man, our young people loved Rajon. He was great in the locker room. He was great off the court with these guys. He took them under his wing in a lot of ways, and he was responsible for a lot of the good things that came from them. We have a lot of respect for Rajon, especially how he believes in the game. He used to drag guys into the weight room, and he held them accountable in a lot of ways. We really take a lot from him.”
What was known was the return of coach Fred Hoiberg, which Paxson supported with emphasis.
“Fred’s our coach. He’ll be back,” Paxson said in his opening statement.
“We made a commitment to Fred. Whether we’ve given him (the right roster), maybe we haven’t. I mentioned to you last year that I view young coaches in this league like young players. They have to develop and grow, too. I’m not going to get into the specifics about things we’ve seen. I think Fred’s challenge this offseason is to find ways to be a better leader. I think he showed progress in that area. The team did rally around him at times. But again, that’s part of the process, too. We made the commitment to him. We support him. And we’re in this with him. That’s how an organization has to work.”
A big part of that uncertainty, meanwhile, is the option Dwyane Wade has on whether to return as the highest paid player on the team at $23.8 million. It’s Wade’s option, and though he doesn’t have to tell the team until after the draft, he seemed to indicate at his post season session with reporters he will return. Wade said then he could see himself, if necessary, being a mentor to young players. In other words, “Are you giving up $24 million to hang out with LeBron? Not me.”
It also seemed like the Bulls would try to retain restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic.
“We value Niko,” said General Manager Gar Forman. “Niko made it clear that he wants to be in Chicago. We made it clear that we would like for him to be in Chicago. When those things align, you hope you can get something done when July 1 comes. We certainly would hope that Niko would be back.” Forman also said the Bulls hoped to retain fellow free agent Cristiano Felicio, though, again depending on a potential offer.
Which didn’t provide any greater clarity to the question of whether the team will/would want to/would even consider trading Jimmy Butler. Not because they don’t believe he is their best player. Paxson basically said without hesitation, there’s no one close.
But how do you get off a 41-41 treadmill?
“When we signed (Rondo and Wade) last year they understood what they were coming to,” reminded Paxson. “We had already made the deal for Robin (Lopez), so they understood what the deal was. We haven’t altered from that course. Dwyane has an option and we’re going to sit down with him and talk to him about all of this. The thing with Jimmy is all of us would love to go out and get another a superstar player to go along with him, but right now the situation we’re in, the salaries we have, that type of thing, that’s a difficult thing for us to manage.
“Jimmy is far and away our best player,” Paxson reiterated. “He’s an all-NBA type guy. His work ethic, as most people know, is one of the best in the league. Our job, you always have to keep things open. We’re going to sit down with Jimmy again. We’re going to talk to him and we’re going to define to him, with him, our thoughts. That’s not for today. We respect Jimmy, we respect his opinion and we will sit down and talk with him.”
Which sounded like the obvious, which seems to have occurred: We’re not with our record in position to make anyone untouchable. But you better knock us over. No one has come close to doing so.
Which could pretty much leave little, if any, room to pursue free agents. And though the Bulls have to consider all options after a .500 season, it sounded a lot like another season to be patient and then perhaps with substantial salary cap room after next season—and most teams without similar financial availability—strike. After all, it’s not like the Cavs and Warriors are quite close to being spent yet.
“We’ve got a lot of guys under contract. The landscape is such that to make significant change right now will be difficult. To think that we could just up and massively move pieces and parts is not realistic. We made the statement last year we were investing in the young guys. I know it sounds like a broken record, but it’s the truth. We brought in five young kids on our roster, two that we’re going to add (their pick in this draft and Sacramento’s second). It’s not about what leads us to believe we don’t need change. We know change is a part of this, but we don’t want to change without knowing exactly what we have. I don’t feel that we’ve given our young kids a chance to see. We know we’re on the line for that. We scout them. We drafted them. We traded for them. That’s part of the job. But we have to give them an opportunity.”
No one is saying they still could be playing if Rondo wasn’t hurt against Boston. They lost. But if there doesn’t seem like there will be any obvious change in abandoning the current roster, there will be changes, and it could be the kind that help turn average into much better.
After all, this was the first season this group of players was together. Butler, Wade and Rondo seemed to have finally figured out late in the season how to play together and respect one another. And stop communicating by social media. Perhaps that comfort along with more certainty in the roster and rotation will enable the team to make the sort of leap that could get it in position to strike with a top free agent after next season when the advantage falls to the Bulls in the open market.
“Our expectation is our young guys will have a more consistent, more defined role,” said Paxson. “There was too much inconsistency in the rotations and trying to plug holes from game to game. Our expectation as an organization (going into last season) was to be competitive, but also create an environment where our young players grew and developed in a competitive environment. Some of that happened, but we saw what you saw and what a lot of our fans saw: Inconsistency in our play and really a team that was searching for an identity much of the season. Getting to the playoffs, always for a young group of guys, is something that they can learn from. But we always know that’s not the goal. Gar and I are committed to reshaping the roster, continuing to do that in that in a disciplined fashion.”
It didn’t suggest the Bulls were saying they are not that far away. But that with a tighter rotation, more defined roles (you’re a starter; you’re a reserve) and perhaps a few additions in free agency or trade to the periphery you might see what they hoped to see this past season.
“It’s fair to say we don’t have great shooting,” Paxson agreed. “That’s something we have to be on the lookout for. Outside of Rondo, our point guards did not play with push and pace the way Fred wants to play. So yes, we have to continue to look at the style he wants to play, and look at players that fit that. Last year, maybe we did plug some holes and do some patchwork stuff that maybe did not turn out. That’s our responsibility. But as disjointed as the team was, we ended up winning seven of our last 10 games. Against Boston when Rajon was healthy, we end up playing our best basketball of the year. It’s not an excuse, Rajon goes down and we fall apart. We didn’t have the support system behind him to help us win that series. We can sit here and say with him, we might have still been playing, but it didn’t happen.”
So it’s not the time to panic. They did use the word process, which is not copyrighted by the 76ers, who, the Bulls noticed, you may also not want to be. They didn’t exactly say that, but frequent media suggestions to dismantle the team generally mean reporters have a Cubs game to get to.
“We have those discussions all the time,” said Paxson. “But the opportunity has to be right. We understand what we’re facing. We’ve understood it since last year when we decided to change course. To say just blow it up? For example, if we don’t get something in return that puts us in a position to really move forward, you can’t do that. We’ve talked about (Jimmy). Ideally, in the system Fred wants to run, we need to play with pace and push. Jimmy’s a different player than some of these other guys. He has the ball in his hands a lot. But there was a stretch of games late in the year he had some big assist games. We know his value. To say just blow it up? It’s easy to say it. It’s tough to do it.
“You see it around the league, it’s (often) six, eight, 10 years before you get back in the playoffs,” Paxson pointed out. “You have to be a little bit lucky and the year you draft it has to hit for you.”
And now players come to the NBA at 19. Sure, the scouts are excited about this draft loaded with point guards, perhaps the game’s most important position in this era. The Bulls know they still need to get a good one. Rondo seemingly will return, but he’s signed for one more season. Maybe he can start and mentor a young point guard like the Chicago Bears NFL team appears to be doing with a quarterback draft. Forman did say given the late acquisition and injury issues, the team will give another look to point guard Cameron Payne. But Paxson said they’ll continue their search for a top level point guard, and he also make it clear auditions are over going forward. The rotation has to be consistent.
Paxson also disputed reports the team’s management structure has changed.
“I’m going to make this clear,” said Paxson. “The setup we’ve had since Gar was named GM in 2009…, the hierarchy is the same. My responsibility is reporting to Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf). Gar’s responsibility is reporting to me. We overlap in what we do every single day and we work well together. This is very much like in the business world, CEO, COO relationship. My responsibilities lie mostly in defining the culture of what we do every day; Gar’s responsibility as GM is in the day to day grind of this business. In my role, I always have the ability to say yes or no. It’s that simple.”
Without naming teams, Forman indicated that after this summer, most teams will find themselves locked into long terms deals and being who they are. Perhaps then the Bulls can strike.
“It’s our feeling that if you look where this is going the market is going to flatten and in some ways close. When that time comes, if you’ve got a level of flexibility, it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities where we won’t be hamstrung and feel we’ll be in an advantageous situation. I know a lot of fans don’t want to talk about cap and cap situations and spikes and where we’re at managing that. But I do think we’re setting ourselves up from the cap standpoint to take advantage of opportunities, whether those opportunities are this summer or next year or when they come about.”
Paxson added: “There are a ton of teams, because this is the second year of the cap going up, well positioned financially to have a lot of cap space. We’re not one to have a lot of cap space (this summer) unless we would renounce guys, and that’s not what we’re going to do.”
Forman: “Are we good enough? Are we where we want to be? Obviously, not. We’re 41-41, a 500 team.”