Westerlund: Observations From Bulls Media Day

By Cody Westerlund–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Media day had an altogether different feeling for the Bulls on Monday.

After years of operating in win-now mode, the Bulls have embarked on a rebuild. They addressed their expectations and standing at the Advocate Center prior to opening practice with a double session Tuesday.

Here were the notes and observations of the day.

1. With Jimmy Butler traded, Dwyane Wade bought out and Rajon Rondo waived, the Bulls have plenty of starting positions open. Asked who would start if the season began tomorrow, coach Fred Hoiberg initially responded, “I don’t know.” He then went on to add Robin Lopez will start at center and the other four positions are an “open competition.”

At point guard, that means Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant will be competing for the starting job, with Dunn the favorite.

“The biggest thing with me is just probably staying with the course, working hard each and every day, proving, running the team,” Dunn said. “Coach, he wants to play at a fast pace, so just keep listening to the coaches and do the things they want me to do.”

With Zach LaVine still sidelined in his ACL rehab, Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser and Justin Holiday are in the mix for the two starting jobs on the wing. At power forward, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis and rookie Lauri Markkanen will compete.

“Of course I want to start, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me,” Markkanen said.

2. Widespread demonstrations and protests against President Donald Trump and racial oppression took place in the NFL on Sunday following Trump’s inflammatory remarks at a rally in Alabama on Friday night, when he said players should be “fired” for peaceful protests such as kneeling during the national anthem. That was a topic of conversation for the Bulls on Monday, when they gathered for the first time.

When time allows, the Bulls will meet more extensively to discuss the divisive political climate and how they want to address it as a team, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said.

“It is something we are going to talk about again and come to some agreement on what to do,” Paxson said. “I’ll leave it at that. We understand the magnitude of what’s going on, how divisive things are right now. The great thing about sports is how it can bring people together. That’s what I think you’re going to see happen more and more now because of what’s going on.”

For his part, Dunn made clear he will always stand for the national anthem, referencing his respect for a friend in the military who’s currently serving in Afghanistan.

3. He wouldn’t say it, but the Bulls embarking on a rebuild must be a great relief for Hoiberg, who won’t be judged by wins and losses but rather player development, as management made clear. Perhaps most importantly, Hoiberg in his third season can finally focus on better implementing his preferred space-and-pace system.

How well the players will fit into his style remains unclear — Dunn’s shooting and finishing needs to improve, for example — but the youth of the roster should allow his voice to resonate in a way that it didn’t on last season’s team that was led by Butler, Wade and Rondo.

“It’s a young, athletic team,” Hoiberg said.

Saying the Bulls are “committed to him,” Paxson praised Hoiberg in the same breadth he responded to a question about how to regain the fans’ trust.

“Fred has our support,” Paxson said. “We believe watching how he has handled everything this summer, the way he and his staff have approached this with a more teaching element knowing we have young players.

“Gar (Forman) and I acknowledge this all the time, that Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf) are great people to work for. I do think we can win our fans’ trust back by showing them we can put a group of young players out there who care and show them there’s promise ahead, that we have young guys who can be something moving forward. It starts with Zach, Kris and Lauri. Those are the three big elements to this rebuild. We’ve done it once before. We did it when I first got the job in 2003. I have great confidence we can do it again.”

4. While he agreed to a new two-year, $27-million deal on Sunday, Mirotic wasn’t part of the media day festivities due to administrative reasons in finalizing his new contract. He’s expected to take part in the first practice Tuesday, when the plan is also for him to address the media after a summer in which he desired a more lucrative contract but didn’t have much leverage.

“We were encouraged that he was in here all summer and that he’s put on a lot of weight,” general manager Gar Forman said. “I think this is the first summer we had him that he didn’t have a commitment as far as international play. I think that’s going to really benefit him going into camp, with what he’s done to change his body and getting some rest and working on his skill. The contract to me ended up being a win-win.”

5. Despite 2016-’17 being a rocky season, Paxson expressed no regret about the Bulls signing Wade, whom they reached an agreement on a buyout with Sunday evening, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Bulls ended up paying Wade about $39 million to play in 60 regular-season games and six playoff games.

And despite Wade calling out his younger teammates after a loss last January, which led to factions in the locker room, Paxson praised what Wade meant to the Bulls.

“We talked earlier about some of the young guys, they were influenced by Dwyane – his professionalism, his Hall of Fame career, they took notice of that,” Paxson said. “The bottom line is we chose a different path. When Dwyane acknowledged that he wanted to play for a contender and didn’t want to be part of a rebuild, look, we worked with him, he worked with us and it became something we were able to do this weekend. Like we said, we wish him all the best. He’ll do great. He emphasized he was proud to wear a Bulls uniform for one time in his life, as he was from here. That was something I know he felt good about.”

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.

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