By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Reflecting on a 41-41 campaign for the Bulls that ended with a first-round playoff exit to the top-seeded Celtics, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson rued in his opening statement of a season-ending press conference that the team was “searching for an identity much of the season.”
For the next 39 minutes, nearly every comment made by Bulls management then pointed toward the status quo remaining in place for another season.
Paxson confirmed coach Fred Hoiberg will be back for the third season of his five-year deal. There’s also a “really good chance” the Bulls bring back 31-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo. In a decision out of the team’s hands, it appears more likely than not that 35-year-old guard Dwyane Wade will exercise his $23.8 million player option. Both Paxson and general manager Gar Forman also emphasized that inconsistent power forward Nikola Mirotic, an impending restricted free agent, fits Hoiberg’s system and that his shooting is needed.
“It could be, yeah,” Paxson responded when asked if the 2017-’18 roster could look quite similar to the 2016-’17 version.
This source of this larger takeaway is multi-faceted. For one, the Bulls remain in a rather static financial situation. If Rondo is back and Wade opts in as seems likely, the Bulls will likely only have cap room for a mid-tier addition in free agency.
Chicago also has few trade chips to dangle other than star Jimmy Butler. It’s noteworthy that Paxson and Forman again Wednesday stopped short of committing to building around him long term as an offseason begins in which Butler seeks clarity regarding his standing. That signals the Bulls continue to be open to listening to trade offers for the three-time All-Star Butler, but judging by their concern over getting stuck in a rut during a rebuild, the price on him would be quite hefty.
Paxson pointed out it can be six to 10 years before a rebuilding team gets back to the playoffs consistently, a line Forman originally referenced as far back as last June.
“We have those discussions all the time,” Paxson said of a full-scale rebuild. “But the opportunity has to be right. To say to 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. You can’t do that.”
Many of the Bulls’ talking points Wednesday echoed what they said after the trade deadline passed in February, when Paxson said they were building “with” Butler and not “around” him. Most notably, Forman again preached the importance of having salary cap flexibility in the coming years — 2018 and 2019 — so the Bulls can pounce on opportunity. That roster-building idea is rooted in Forman’s thought that teams will overspend this summer as the cap increases again, a fragile plan in that it’s dependent on so many assumptions regarding opposing teams and the idea that the Bulls can attract a priority, headlining free agent when they haven’t in years past.
And perhaps more than anything Wednesday, the Bulls stressed the importance of internal improvement, a process they cautioned will take time.
“From ownership down, we’re committed to working through the issues that we face,” Paxson said. “Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf) continue to give us resources. Gar and I are committed to reshaping the roster, continuing to do that in that in a disciplined fashion.
“We’re going to put a lot of resources and time into our player development this offseason and try to create a culture where they can grow and try to become the best players that they can. We said last year when we made a lot of these changes that this is a process. We approach is that what every day, and we’re going to remain patient and disciplined as we make decisions along the way.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.