By Dan Bernstein–
When John Paxson kicked himself upstairs in May of 2009, he expressed a desire to spend less time in the limelight. He became the Bulls’ VP of Basketball Operations, and installed Gar Forman to be his proxy as GM.
His subsequent public appearances have been rare, limited to the bizarre scene surrounding the altercation with Vinny Del Negro, the hiring of a new coach, and the summer’s free-agent scramble.
Even when answering questions, he has tried to position himself as a delegator who allows the executives under him full autonomy. He even went so far as to say “I don’t have the ability to override Gar, or anything like that.”
Paxson certainly has that ability, despite his attempts at modesty, and he is still running the Bulls. Forman is a dutiful functionary with a significant amount of influence, but it’s still Pax’s show.
His team is at a high-water mark. The Bulls are 33-14 after a 12-4 January, Tom Thibodeau was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, Derrick Rose is a starting All-Star, and they have routed their meek divisional competition.
Others in his position would be fluttering back to the spotlight like moths, reminding everyone just who put this all together. Even a hushed exclusive with a favored writer would do the trick – a couple well-chosen quotes to put his stamp on the success and remind fans who’s in charge.
So far, though, nothing. He wanted a lower profile and he’s keeping it, to this point.
He and Forman really do deserve some credit for this. The Thibodeau hire was just right, and it makes NBA teams look stupid for relegating him to the longtime-assistant track as long as they did.
The roster was gutted for the LeBron courtship, with two thirds of it empty after the South Beach Talents Relocation Project was announced. They landed Boozer quickly, and made savvy strikes with Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and Kurt Thomas. They envisioned the small roles for C.J. Watson and Omer Asik.
Not long ago, the contract given to Luol Deng was an albatross for Paxson. Under a real coach, now, Deng is playing the best basketball of his career on both ends of the floor, and his positional versatility has helped them weather the kind of major injuries to key players that cause other teams to pack it in. He is earning every penny, while the lamented departure of Ben Gordon is an afterthought. Gordon had to go so Rose could have the ball, and Paxson knew it.
Rose himself may account for two reasons Paxson is reluctant to put himself out there.
First, he’s aware how damn lucky he is to have him in the first place. The odds of getting that top pick were minimal, and it’s humbling for an executive to know that random chance was the primary determining factor in his team’s resurgence.
Second, he’s trying to build a championship team around a point guard. The most powerful, athletic one any of us has seen in some time, but still an NBA little guy. Predecessor Jerry Krause is proud to this day of his achievement in constructing a dynasty around a two-guard, and Paxson understands the difficulty facing him.
Most importantly, they haven’t won anything yet. A hot month against bum teams has powered the rise to tie Miami for the East’s second spot, but tough road games loom with heavy minutes already logged by Rose and Deng.
Paxson’s reticence to take credit may speak to heightened expectations, now, too. For that to have occurred so quickly is further evidence of a job well done.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM.
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