By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — It was in April 2003 that John Paxson left the broadcast booth to become the Bulls’ general manager. His opportunity came about because the franchise’s post-Jordan dynasty rebuild had bombed.
Now 14 years later, Paxson has pushed the reset button himself.
The Bulls altered the direction of organization Thursday during the NBA Draft by trading star wing Jimmy Butler and their No. 16 pick to the Timberwolves in a blockbuster deal. In return Chicago received point guard Kris Dunn, guard Zach LaVine and rights to the No. 7 pick, which it used on Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen.
A year after stressing the need to get “younger and more athletic,” the Bulls finally followed through. Dunn is 23, LaVine 22 and Markkanen 20.
In the process, the Bulls also acknowledged the tumble they’re about to take. They haven’t been under .500 since 2007-’08, but as Paxson pointed out, success in today’s NBA is only judged by your results at or near the highest stage, not whether you squeak in the playoffs.
“We understand what this means — it’s going to be a difficult process, because that’s what rebuilding is about,” said Paxson, now the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations.
Paxson insisted the package the Bulls received Thursday evening was the best they’d been offered for the three-time All-Star Butler since trade talks surrounding him first surfaced a year ago at the draft. While the trade received plenty of outside criticism for its return on the Bulls’ end, this represented the last quality chance for Chicago to deal Butler, who has two more years left on his contract, then a player option.
Paxson and general manager Gar Forman sensed that. Also factoring in to their thinking was that Butler could be in line for a designated player exception “super-max” extension well north of $200 million in the future, and the 2018 draft is already believed to have three or four players at the top with star potential.
The Bulls expect to be in the running for those spots.
“As we look forward, it’s not just about today,” Paxson said. “We added three really talented young pieces to our team. And as we go forward, we anticipate having other high draft picks. And you’ve seen teams turn it around through the draft. That’s going to be our job now.”
One of Paxson’s most notable comments came in his opening statement, when he mentioned the Bulls were going to build around “young players we believe can play a system Fred (Hoiberg) is comfortable with.” While complimentary of the new additions, viewed through another lens, it was yet another acknowledgment that the talented, often-methodical Butler wasn’t a fit for Hoiberg’s preferred space-and-pace system.
How exactly Butler took the news remained unclear. He was vacationing in Paris on Thursday, and the Bulls informed his agent prior to the start of the draft of the seriousness of trade talks after they couldn’t reach him directly. In Minnesota, he’ll be reunited with former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, under whom he blossomed.
Back in Chicago, the focus was on the three youngsters. Dunn is a player the Bulls were enamored with ahead of the 2016 draft, when they tried to trade up to get him. LaVine impressed last season in averaging 18.9 points, but a torn ACL in his left knee cut his season short in early February after 47 games. His rehab is going “great,” general manager Gar Forman said. The team is confident he’ll make a full recovery, though it will err on the side of caution in not rushing him.
“There’s always risk in anything,” Paxson said of LaVine’s injury history. “But here’s a guy that’s 22 years old and averages 20 a game. He can score the basketball, he can run. He can shoot the basketball. He shot over 40 percent from three. That’s an area we’re deficient in.”
In Markkanen, the Bulls acquired a 7-foot, 230-pound Finland native who hit 42 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman behind the shorter college arc. Scouts are impressed by his shooting skills, fluidity, ability to play the pick-and-pop game and put the ball on the floor. The concern among talent evaluators is that Markkanen was a poor rim protector in college, a below-average defensive rebounder and needs to add strength.
“We’re really excited about his potential – as good a big man shooter, maybe as good a shooter that was in the draft this year,” Paxson said. “And the way our game is going, those big mobile guys that can space the floor give your guards opportunity to create and find gaps, it’s an important piece.”
Perhaps more than anything, Thursday brought an acknowledgment on the Bulls’ behalf that they’d given Hoiberg a roster ill-equipped to suit in his system the last two years. Finally, they made some moves with his preferences in mind as he enters his third season.
Only time will tell whether it plays out any better than the last time the Bulls underwent such a drastic rebuild.
“It’s all about building the type of team that you want,” Paxson said. “And we’ve been able to reset that tonight, and we’re going to go about it in that fashion.”
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.