Bulls put up united front at Media Day, but is it just a front for higher expectations?


There were no “playoffs or else” mandate coming from the powers-that-be at Bulls Media Day, as John Paxson set the tone of ambiguity while being parroted chapter and verse by Gar Forman and head coach Fred Hoiberg.

Bulls President and COO Michael Reinsdorf stood inconspicuously in the background, as he often does, shunning the spotlight and blending in amongst the crowd.

Perhaps they were giving Hoiberg a brief reprieve from the drama they’ve seemingly had hands in over the past few years, the passive-aggressive march to no-man’s land.

If you were looking for hidden messages about hot seats or direct expectations surrounding a talented but uneven Bulls team, they were not to be found and clearly the gamut was laid well before Monday’s news conference.

However, just because Paxson and Forman chose not to add fuel to a fire they refuse to acknowledge doesn’t mean the fire doesn’t exist, and that there aren’t internal expectations for this roster and for Hoiberg headed into the 2018-19 season.

They can deny it all they want, but it’s in the air and the journey will begin at the very ground the brass has tried to suppress the outside noise, the practice floor of the Advocate Center when training camp officially begins Tuesday morning.
Paxson deftly sidestepped the question of whether this season was another developmental year or if things should be sped up.

“We’re not going to get caught up in the label,” Paxson said. “This is about that this is the first opportunity we’re going to have for a consistent period of time of getting them to play together, so what that means is still open. Every year is a blank slate.”
Paxson noted every position is two deep, which means competition will be fierce. And the top executive made sure the Bulls matched a lucrative offer sheet to Zach LaVine while also snagging Chicago native Jabari Parker to a deal that’s worth $20 million annually, if only for two seasons or even one.

And the Bulls would like to lock Bobby Portis to a long-term extension before hitting the tricky waters of restricted free agency.

So while it seems Paxson could rightfully say the summer spending was the cost of doing business in today’s NBA, it also reflects how he feels this roster should progress this season in an Eastern Conference that no longer has the boogeyman waiting for everyone at the end of the yellow brick road.

LaVine is healthy and should be a more explosive, consistent player this season. Kris Dunn took a giant step of sorts last season, and wants to continue on that trajectory this time around.

Lauri Markkanen should make the expected leap from wide-eyed rookie to franchise cornerstone with a growing game and emerging voice.

“I’m definitely trying to improve leadership skills and trying to be more vocal,” Markkanen said. “I think I’ve always led by example. But I’m trying to be more vocal for sure.”

Add in two first-round draft picks that were widely accepted as the right moves by even the most ardent Bulls critic, there’s no reason to expect the Bulls would hope to be in a similar position next February as they were seven months ago.

“I said earlier this summer after we went to the draft and through free agency that we were pleased in terms of where we are in the rebuild,” Paxson said. “With that said we also understand that we have a lot of work to do. But there is an excitement with the group that we have.”

And the work will have to be put in by Hoiberg, who has the task of establishing a pecking order if there is one, keeping egos in check and setting a culture of sacrifice from a group of players who haven’t been traditionally inclined to do so.

“As far as what I want to accomplish, I want to get our guys to buy into competing and being the hardest-playing team every night,” Hoiberg said. “I want to see growth. I think last year guys made significant progress in their careers. But it’s our job to take that to the next level.”

Hoiberg is entering Year 4 of this situationship with the Bulls, coaching his fourth different team after a drama-filled but somewhat gratifying 2017-18 season where a strong midseason stretch validated his personal belief that his message and his system can work at this level.

“We had a lot of discussions this summer about our roster and how we want to play. I think this roster could potentially be more conducive to how Fred wants to play,” Paxson said. “We’re very comfortable with where we’re at in terms of Fred and his relationship with us and his relationship with the players and how we want to play. And I thought he did a lot of really good things last year.”

Whether the Bulls decision-makers fully believe in that remains to be seen and his job status will be topic for fodder at the first sign of a losing streak.
“I told the guys in there that we may be young but we’re not as inexperienced as when you look on paper,” Paxson said. “Lauri played 60-some games last year. That’s two college seasons. And we have other young guys that have played quite a bit. I think it’s why last year was important for us.”

Listen to Paxson long enough, and take his fiery competitive nature into account, it’s clear he’s expecting more than baby steps from the baby Bulls—even if he tries to tell you otherwise.

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