Sports

How Chicago Bulls fans helped will a new-look team into existence

Jerry Reinsdorf was never going to fire John Paxson. He wasn’t going to let his son Michael do it, either. You don’t just dismiss family, not even when they’re ruining everything around you — sometimes, the more convenient option is to bury your head in the sand and convince yourself everything is fine even if it’s not.

Paxson wasn’t technically Jerry’s son or Michael’s brother, but he may as well have been after hitting the clinching shot in the 1993 NBA Finals and then spending two decades contorting the Bulls around the luxury tax line like a young Derrick Rose avoiding contact at the rim. Reinsdorf had already spent three decades letting the decision to fire Tony La Russa and Doug Collins eat away at him. You think he was going to do it again with Paxson? There was no chance.

Things got really dark for a minute there. The punch clock, the bizarre usage of timeouts, an intentional plan to let Ryan Arcidiacono guard Giannis. The Bulls will tell you there was never a mutiny, but they sure came damn close to one. Paxson’s comments consistently put blame on the players instead of himself. Michael theoretically could have done something about it, but he was still trying to figure out why people called them ‘GarPax.’

Bulls fans feared the worst case scenario when the team traded Jimmy Butler, its final homegrown star from its last successful era. That’s essentially what played out: in the four years since the Butler trade, the Bulls own the worst record in the NBA. That stat is dispiriting enough on the surface before you acknowledge the Bulls couldn’t even tank the right way.

The only way Paxson and Forman’s rebuild had any hope of succeeding was with a Luka Doncic, a Trae Young, a Zion Williamson at its core. The Bulls drafted Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter instead. They seem like nice guys and will have long careers and make a ton of money in the league. They just weren’t going to lead this franchise back to its rightful place atop the NBA by themselves. John Paxson wasn’t going to do that, either.

There was a time when Paxson really did have a magic touch in the draft. He selected Ben Gordon and Luol Deng in the same year Devin Harris and Rafael Araújo went right after them. He took Joakim Noah over Spencer Hawes. He found pillars of the franchise late in the first round in Butler and Taj Gibson. Even Kirk Hinrich was a good pick.

Hey, no one is going to bat 1.000 percent in the draft. Paxson did pretty well. The Bulls didn’t have the fortune or the guile to win a championship in that era, but they built a team the city could be proud of when they hired Tom Thibodeau and took Rose at No. 1 overall. Bulls basketball felt big and felt important again, and that was good enough for a while.

Then it all fell apart. The Bulls went 0-for-8 on first round draft picks after Butler between Marquis Teague and Chandler Hutchison. Giving Jabari Parker $20 million per year didn’t make things any better. Otto Porter Jr.’s most memorable moment in Chicago was pouring cheap wine into people’s mouths at a wedding in the middle of a pandemic. Thad Young was an inspired signing, but the Bulls almost broke him in his first year in town.

The attendance at the United Center — perennially ranked atop the league — slipped to No. 24 by capacity percentage. People weren’t watching on TV, either. The Bulls were in crisis, but the Reinsdorfs still weren’t going to fire John Paxson. Winning simply took a backseat to protecting a relationship the family had spent decades cultivating.

There was only one way out of this for Bulls fans: they had to make Paxson quit. It was both a tall task and a noble challenge, and Chicago fought like hell to get it done. Billboards were bought and chants were started on national TV. Radio interviews turned into “interrogations,” at least according to Paxson. The franchise risked turning itself into a punchline every time Paxson’s hand-picked coach, Jim Boylen, opened his mouth. The Bulls turned into a league-wide punchline because of it.

It could have kept going in perpetuity. Maybe Zach LaVine would have been traded for pennies on the dollar as he entered the last year of his contract, repeating the same mistake the franchise made with Butler. Maybe Markkanen would have been re-signed to a fat deal. Maybe Coby White is still the full-time point guard, and maybe this is the year Carter finally breaks out. The Bulls would have added another young piece in the draft. Remember when the Reinsdorfs were telling potential hires to “keep an open mind” about retaining Boylen even after he humiliated not just a proud NBA franchise but the greatest American city?

The Reinsdorfs were not going to fire Paxson. He had to step aside. Give the man some credit for actually doing it.

Memphis Grizzlies v Chicago Bulls

Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Arturas Karnisovas made more bold transitions in five months than Paxson did in 17 years. It’s not like he was just trying to prove a point, though Chicago would have appreciated it if he was. It was more because he didn’t have any other choice. The roster that Karnisovas and co-leader Marc Eversley inherited was just that bad.

Karnisovas spent years as an assistant in front offices envisioning how he’d build a team if he finally got a chance to call the shots. He envisioned an egalitarian offense defined by side-to-side ball movement. He pictured a team that put a minimum of four shooters on the floor at all times. He wanted suffocating point of attack defense, and a roster full of good passers. He knew he needed depth on the wing to unlock versatility at both ends.

Karnisovas had a plan when he accepted the Bulls’ top job. After sitting out his first offseason and assessing exactly what was on this roster, he jumped into action to make it happen.

The Bulls added Lonzo Ball via a sign-and-trade in the first minute of free agency (which might cost them). They signed Alex Caruso away from the Lakers hours later. The next day, the Bulls completed another sign-and-trade for DeMar DeRozan. Then they got rid of Markkanen, a GarPax holdover who would have ruined the vibes, and somehow added both Portland’s lottery-protected first round pick and a possibly useful depth wing in Derrick Jones Jr. out of it. All of this followed the daring moves Karnisovas made at last year’s trade deadline, led by the addition of Nikola Vucevic.

Only LaVine and White remain from the roster Karnisovas inherited. The Bulls didn’t patch up their holes as much as they burned the whole thing down and built it from the ground up.

Ball is one of the great prizes of the offseason. A 23-year-old (he’ll be 24 next week) with that type of pedigree doesn’t come around in restricted free agency all that often, but Ball is more than that. He feels like a perfect backcourt partner for LaVine, a big guard who can cover tougher defensive assignments, space the floor on offense, and help him get the team out in transition. Caruso, at just under $10 million per season, was also a forward-thinking signing because he brings one elite skill (on-ball defense) while also giving the Bulls another guard who can dribble, pass, and shoot. He’s another player who will help get them out on the break.

DeRozan was deemed an unnecessary luxury by some of the NBA’s sharpest critics who slammed the move, but it isn’t hard to see why Karnisovas saw him as a necessity. The Bulls’ crunch-time offense of LaVine playing 5-on-0 simply wasn’t the best use of his or the team’s time. DeRozan gives them another halfcourt option who established himself as one of the league’s best creators on isolations (he finished in the 96th percentile, per Synergy Sports) and in the pick-and-roll (an 84th percentile finish). His passing leap is real, his mid-range bag is deep, and he will help the Bulls both cut down on their turnovers and get to the foul line. His arrival proved the Bulls weren’t merely content with being better, they wanted to actually be good.

And the Bulls should be good, at least relatively speaking. The offense should be awesome, a unit that can jump into the top-10 after finishing No. 21 last year. The defense will suffer from a lack of bouncy rim protection and the mere presence of DeRozan, but Caruso and Ball will fortify the perimeter, and Patrick Williams and Javonte Green will stockpile blocks and steals.

Ultimately, this comes back to LaVine. He put together a truly remarkable offensive season last year, averaging 27.5 points per game on nearly 64 percent true shooting. No, he’s not a perfect player, but the Bulls have accentuated his strengths and covered up his weaknesses with these new additions. LaVine can finally operate off the ball with more halfcourt playmaking in tow. His defense won’t feel so damaging with an improved cast of defenders around him (LaVine has made real strides on that end himself). He won’t have to do it himself all the time. There will be nights when it feels like he’s sleepwalking into 30 points while barely dribbling. Credit Paxson for landing him in the Butler trade. Who knows where this franchise would be without him.

The No. 6 seed in the East may seem like the least exciting goal possible, but it feels a lot better after amassing the worst record in the NBA over the last four years. And after everything the Bulls did since March, why think they’re going to stop now even if they can’t trade another draft pick until 2027? As Blog-a-Bull wrote: “While these additions do show a commitment to LaVine as the team’s leader, it also shows that they are not really that committed to anybody.”

LaVine has failed to win even 35 percent of his games since coming to Chicago. To some it would be easy to view that as a failure of his own, but really it’s the people he’s been surrounded by who have failed him. He’s never had the same coach two seasons in a row. He’s never won four games in a row since he left UCLA (unless we’re counting this year’s Olympic run). The best teammate he’s played with in Chicago is … Thad Young?

It would have been easier for Karnisovas to burn it down, trade LaVine, and try to rebuild this franchise from the ground up. He would have gotten better marks from the harshest critics of his offseason for doing it. Chicago could have wasted more years watching a team that wouldn’t love them back.

Maybe it would have worked out and the Bulls would have landed the league’s next young superstar. Maybe they would have been stuck picking No. 7 forever. There’s risk in any team building philosophy, and this time the Bulls weren’t worried about ‘losing the deal’ when they made their moves. They just wanted to win some more games.

Memphis Grizzlies v Chicago Bulls

Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Almost everyone on the roster is set up to succeed this year. That’s the biggest change from recent years, when it felt like each individual piece was set up to fail.

LaVine finally has help. Ball will be lauded for his strengths as a new addition instead of questioned for his flaws tied back to his draft or trade status. Vucevic has the best supporting cast of his career, and will be a main hub in the offense. DeRozan’s offensive usage isn’t going anywhere. Coby White could be an electric shooter off the bench, and Williams will get to focus on his defensive growth while still getting plenty of opportunities on offense. From Troy Brown to Green to Jones to Alize Johnson, this feels like it’s going to be the best and biggest chance basically everyone on this team has ever had.

There are still plenty of experts picking the Bulls to finish under .500, including many of the most trustworthy ones. It might happen. Maybe DeRozan will tank the defense, maybe the Bulls will be soft inside, maybe the team simply doesn’t have enough versatility in certain matchups.

For once, though, the Bulls finally acted like the big market team they were always positioned to be. Every team can play the lottery game. The Bulls want to be the type of team that superstars want to play for. The first step was to stop being the worst team in the NBA over the last four years.

If Bulls fans seem higher than the national consensus on the team, maybe that’s because the fanbase itself is in a small way responsible for this. John Paxson wasn’t going to be fired. Chicago had to make him fire himself.



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