By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Finally answering for a Bulls season that went so sideways that chairman Jerry Reinsdorf acknowledged it was a “disappointment,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson largely accepted the blame for a 42-40 campaign that ended without a playoff berth for the first time since 2008, believing management didn’t put together a team with the “collective fight and toughness to fight through adversity.”
“Gar and I understand accountability,” Paxson said Wednesday night in a press conference after the season finale, with general manager Gar Forman to his left. “And we are accountable for what this team did this year. We don’t run away from it. We accept it. That’s on us.”
How that accountability manifests itself remains to be seen, as there will be no changes at the top.
Paxson confirmed Forman’s job isn’t in jeopardy, while Reinsdorf backed his management team in a statement. Jerry Reinsdorf, team president Michael Reinsdorf, Paxson and Forman will meet in the coming weeks to determine the team’s direction. Without hesitation, Paxson also spoke freely of the steep learning curve for Fred Hoiberg in his rookie coaching season while also expressing confidence that he can be the man to turn the Bulls around.
Past that, Paxson and Forman indicated any path or move is in play.
In perhaps the most revealing responses of the night, neither Forman nor Paxson endorsed All-Star wing Jimmy Butler as the team’s centerpiece of the future. Paxson acknowledged Butler’s leadership style fell short this season. Amid his first season of a five-year, $92-million deal, Butler took a self-appointed leadership role that rubbed some teammates and some in the organization wrong.
“Here’s how I feel about the whole leadership thing: When you’re talking too much about leadership, you’re probably not getting what you need from the team leaders,” Paxson said. “And I always thought and I played with the greatest player in the game and you didn’t hear him talking about leadership. You heard him going out and showing leadership and showing that he was a winning player. I don’t think any of our guys need to talk about that anymore, about leadership. I think they need to show it.”
Paxson also made clear that no player, Butler included, is untouchable on the trade market.
“There’s one untouchable guy I’ve ever been around, Michael Jordan,” Paxson said. “So that’s how I’ve always looked at it.”
Added Forman: “John made it pretty clear we’ve got to take a look at everything. We’ve got to explore all options, and I don’t think there’s anything that’s off the table when you have a disappointing year like this. With that said, obviously Jimmy has had a fantastic year. From where he was to where he’s gotten to, he’s become a very, very valuable player for us.”
The extent of the Bulls’ self-evaluation will focus on finding a roster that better fits Hoiberg’s desire for an up-tempo offensive system, helping the coaching staff improve and a review of the medical staff and its practices, Paxson said, in an organization that’s been plagued by injuries and odd medical sagas in recent years.
Paxson didn’t even rule out a “total rebuild.”
“It’s too early to say right now,” he said. “We haven’t determined that path yet. Like we’ve said several times here tonight, all options are on the table right now.”
Never one to hide his emotions during his playing, coaching or management career, Paxson was straightforward throughout the media session that was held late Wednesday because he’d be out of town Thursday. He called out Derrick Rose’s defense, saying a quality unit on that end starts with the point guard’s effort. He also shot down the theory that firing the successful Tom Thibodeau last May was a “miscalcuation,” saying the change was made for many reasons that ran deep.
Still, Paxson made clear Hoiberg — who has admitted his message didn’t reach his team — must improve his in-game coaching and off-the-floor approach to players.
“Fred is going to have to work at it,” Paxson said. “He’s going to have to devote a lot of time and energy to determining what he wants to be as a head coach and how he wants his teams to play. And we have to give him the resources to do that. And we will. We’re confident spending with Fred and going forward, we’re going to turn that part around. I left a final message with our group and told them this year wasn’t acceptable.”
Perhaps the biggest miscalculation during 2015-’16 by management was the decision to not move big man Pau Gasol at the trade deadline, even as the season unraveled and Gasol made clear he’d opt out of the final year of his deal to become a free agent. Forman’s reasoning was that there was nothing offered to the Bulls for Gasol that they viewed as short-term or long-term value.
It was another case of the Bulls sitting pat. As they enter a crucial offseason, they claim they’ll change their modus operandi.
How that reveals itself remains anyone’s guess.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Paxson said of himself and Forman. “We’re going to work it through and do what we can to make the necessary changes to get this team back on track.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.