John Paxson remains convinced the Chicago Bulls are on the right path despite one of the worst records in franchise history and that they have the coach they need in Jim Boylen.
Chicago’s top basketball executive, Paxson said Thursday he expects the team to compete for a playoff spot next season. He also said it’s “very possible” Boylen gets a contract extension.
The Bulls went from 27 victories to finishing with a 22-60 mark in the second year of their rebuild. That gave them the fifth-worst win percentage (.268) in franchise history — the lowest since the 1998-99 team went 13-37 (.260) following the breakup of the dynasty teams in the franchise’s heyday.
The 22 victories were the fewest for Chicago since the 2001-02 team finished 21-61. And with a 9-32 mark at the United Center, Chicago tied New York for the league’s worst home record.
“I think our goal next year has to be to be in the hunt,” Paxson said. “We want to be in the hunt again. That’s going to take us being healthy. That’s the first thing.”
Chicago is slotted for the fourth pick in the draft and figures to have about $20 million in salary cap space to add some veterans to go with core players Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr.
Paxson said chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has not given him or general manager Gar Forman a win-now-or-else mandate, though they understand “the reality of this business.” For now, they’re safe and so is Boylen. He got off to a rocky start and finished with a 17-41 record after getting promoted from assistant coach when the Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg.
In his first week, Boylen insisted the team’s conditioning and toughness needed to improve. The Bulls suffered a franchise-record 56-point loss to Boston in which he used five-man substitutions and kept the starters out for about the final 20 minutes. Things boiled over the following day, when he called for practice after back-to-back games and a few players responded by raising the possibility of a boycott.
Instead, there was a team meeting and a session with coaches and management.
Paxson said he saw enough to believe Boylen is the right coach for this team.
“What I’ve seen is his ability to show these guys that he genuinely cares about them,” Paxson said. “That his goal is to get them better as individuals. I’m the first to admit that first week was like dynamite blowing up. It was a rocky week. What I’ve seen since then is a guy that embraces this challenge. He embraces individuals he’s coaching. He really does view himself as a teacher, a guy that wants to connect with the players, and sometimes you have to be demanding and hard.”
Though he acknowledged the perception that the Bulls aren’t a well-run organization, saying some of the criticisms are accurate and others are not, Paxson was adamant Chicago can land superstars.
“The first part of that is through the draft,” he said. “I’m not ruling out Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen being significant players in this league. … I do believe that when we establish winning again that this city is a draw, this organization is a draw. But that’s down the road.”
Though Paxson isn’t banking on lottery luck, the Bulls could use some. Chicago has a 12.5% percent chance to land the No. 1 pick and, presumably, Duke’s Zion Williamson in the drawing May 14 in Chicago. Moving up to No. 2 could mean getting Murray State’s Ja Morant. The Bulls’ odds of picking in the top four are 48%.
Whether Kris Dunn improves after a disappointing season or the Bulls look outside for help, Paxson made it clear the Bulls need better play at point guard next season. Dunn went from averaging 13.4 points to 11.3 in 46 games. And if the Bulls bring in competition, he insisted that’s just fine with him.
“I’m a dog, I don’t run from nothing,” Dunn said.
Paxson attributed a long list of injuries this season to bad luck rather than issues with the training staff.
“We have great confidence in our strength and conditioning staff,” he said. “The thing that I tried to impress upon the players (Wednesday) night is that we have everything here for them to work and improve this summer.”
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