Basketball

John Paxson says Bulls ‘are on the right track.’ Plenty of fans aren’t buying in.

Near the end of his nearly 35-minute postseason media session Thursday at the Advocate Center, Bulls executive vice president John Paxson didn't hesitate when asked if he still enjoys the challenge.

"There's no question," Paxson said. "We undertook something that was difficult, but we knew it going in. I believe that we are on the right track."

Plenty of Bulls fans disagree.

When Paxson took over for Jerry Krause in 2003, he and Gar Forman built a team centered on young draft picks that qualified for the playoffs and that fans loved. Those chants from the 300 level of "No-ci-oni!" for the hyper Andres Nocioni have long faded, replaced by skepticism on social media and sports radio.

Even if Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen stay healthy and take the next step, even if Otto Porter Jr. becomes more than just super solid and even if Wendell Carter Jr. morphs into Al Horford, there's belief among the fan base that these Bulls will be what those try-hard Bulls of Nocioni, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon were – good enough to make the playoffs, not to win a title.

Paxson, who will be armed with a high pick after the May 14 draft lottery, is focused on the short term. He has been consistent about pleading for patience since trading Jimmy Butler.

"The first part is through the draft and to get relevant again," Paxson said. "I'm not ruling out Zach or Lauri being significant players in this league. Zach just turned 24 and had a really good year. He grew in a lot of ways where I think he's going to get better. Lauri's still a young guy. As I've mentioned many times, the internal growth of our guys is a key part.

"And I do believe when we establish winning again that this city is a draw, that this organization is a draw. But that's down the road. That's why we made the deal at the trade deadline for Otto. We felt that was a significant piece to becoming a much better basketball team. Over that stretch where we had him and we were healthy, we were playing at a level that I could see us playing at in the future."

The Bulls won six of nine after acquiring Porter. In those six victories, they averaged 12.5 made 3-pointers, well above their league-worst 9.1 per game for the season.

Nevertheless, Paxson defended coach Jim Boylen's offensive approach, which placed an emphasis on attempts from the paint.

"I personally don't subscribe to the theory that you have to shoot 50 3s a game to win at a high level," Paxson said. "Jim's thing is getting to the paint and drawing defense. If you have shooters out there with them that can space the floor, that's valuable too. What we are talking about and will continue to talk about is versatility in our lineup."

The Bulls' 3-point shooting should improve merely by Porter, LaVine and Markkanen staying healthy. Paxson talked about adding "versatile wings" and using lineups in which Markkanen plays center and Porter power forward in a shooting-oriented, small-ball look. Boylen's multiballhandler system also achieved offensive prowess when players were healthy.

Paxson said that whom the Bulls draft will drive their free-agency plans but that adding mental and physical toughness is paramount.

"We are going to target veteran guys that are professional, can play the game and will help our young guys along," Paxson said. "That's vital to us right now."

And in a public plea harking back to Paxson joining Michael Jordan's "breakfast club" offseason workouts at the Berto Center, the Bulls' top basketball executive wants those young players working out at the Advocate Center.

"We have everything here for them to work and improve this summer," he said. "For players to endure an 82-game season, they have to get stronger and get more powerful. They need to spend more time in the (weight) room. I think our training methods are excellent if the players will buy into them."

Right now, plenty of fans aren't buying in.

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