By Laurence W. Holmes–
(CBS) This may be hard to believe, but there was a time when Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson was known as a great communicator. Before he went into management, Paxson was an excellent game analyst — good enough that had he wanted to, he could’ve made a career behind the mic. He had the ability to explain the game in a clear and concise way.
I miss those days.
Rebuilds aren’t easy for a fan base. The idea of losing to get better is a tough concept. Selling that concept is incumbent upon the team’s leadership team, which Paxson leads for the Bulls. There’s never a time when Paxson or general manager Gar Forman are in front of cameras that they seem excited or even confident in their plan. They come across as arrogant and out of touch. More importantly, they seem incapable of selling what they want to do.
One of the biggest problems that that they Bulls have as an organization is messaging fans through the media. The presentation of their grand plans fall flat. This was the case Thursday night. Most Bulls fans wanted and knew that the Bulls needed a new direction.
Trading Jimmy Butler hurts because he’s a top-15 player in the league, but the Bulls have been stuck in neutral since Derrick Rose got hurt in in April 2012. We can debate who the Bulls acquired in return for Butler, as there are traits to like in each of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, but I walked away from the Bulls’ press conference late Thursday night with a sour look on my face because yet again Paxson and crew can’t sell their vision.
There’s an opportunity here, and the Bulls are struggling to take advantage.
The shame of it is that they have two local, recent examples to draw from and they clearly weren’t paying attention. White Sox fans are more at peace now than any time after 2005. Why? Well, general manager Rick Hahn was proactive in telling the fan base what the team wants to accomplish and how it plans on going about it. Hahn’s reasoning seems reasonable and makes it easier for fans to buy in.
When Kenny Williams was in charge of the White Sox, you may have disagreed with his strategy but never his conviction. You knew Williams was trying to win this year’s title, every year. You don’t get a sense of purpose from the Bulls, who just two months ago weren’t even talking about a rebuild. And before that, we saw the Bulls say that they wanted to get “younger and more athletic” before right before adding veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
Theo Epstein came out and told you the Cubs were going to be bad but explained why and what the goals were. The Cubs sold their way of operating, their culture change and their future.
When you compare the Bulls’ messaging to the Cubs, White Sox and even the Blackhawks, the Bulls look like amateurs. At this point in Paxson’s tenure, he still doesn’t have a sense of the fan base. Paxson understands communication and, after nine years, should realize Forman isn’t good at it.
Bulls fans have been begging for a direction, even if that meant the direction was backward for a little while. I don’t know if they’re prepped or not, but their approach to messaging often comes off as reckless, even when it looks like they’ve made the right decision.
An organization’s frontman has to relish the opportunity to sell its product publicly. Fans want to believe, but too often Paxson and Forman seemed pained to talk. There’s no joy in what they’re doing, and it comes across. Part of leadership is getting a fan base on board. When you can’t sell winning, you have to sell vision. And the Bulls are terrible at it.
My hope is that this rebuild will mean rebranding. The Bulls need to improve how Paxson, Forman and coach Fred Hoiberg present their product. They have no steak, so you have to sell the sizzle and let the fan base know that you’re on the way to the butcher.
Laurence Holmes hosts the Laurence Holmes Show on 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @LaurenceWHolmes.