In defense of Gar-Pax? Well, maybe a little.

Former Bulls execs John Paxson and Gar Forman rightly have been ripped for trading Jimmy Butler. But they’re the ones who drafted him.

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The Heat’s Jimmy Butler dribbles against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bulls drafted Jimmy Butler in 2011 and traded him to Minnesota in 2017.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I’m a big fan of fairness, so I’m going to tweak the historical record of former Bulls execs John Paxson and Gar Forman. It’ll honk off some, maybe most, Bulls fans. That’s OK. They’re usually in mid-honk anyway.

Gar-Pax’s decision to trade Jimmy Butler in June 2017 is a hot topic of discussion again, thanks to the eighth-seeded Heat’s improbable run to this season’s NBA Finals, led by the former Bull. The debate is whether trading Butler and a first-round pick to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and a first-rounder that became Lauri Markkanen was the worst deal in Chicago sports history. That discussion is more than fair. Butler stayed great, while the Bulls never got traction with LaVine and the rest.

Paxson and Forman are still getting ripped for trading the physically talented, mentally tough Butler, who eventually landed in Miami. But who had drafted Butler six years earlier? That would be Gar-Pax, whose names at some point were combined and abridged for ease of derision.

This is where the lack of fairness comes in. Paxson and Forman get almost no love for taking Butler with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Here are some of the players who were drafted before him: Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Jimmer Fredette, Alec Burks, Iman Shumpert, Chris Singleton and Norris Cole, whom the Bulls drafted with the 28th pick and traded to Minnesota.

I’ve spent an inordinate, possibly unhealthy amount of time mocking the Bears’ 2017 decision to draft Mitch Trubisky ahead of Patrick Mahomes, who might end up being the best quarterback in NFL history. It was a mistake of massive proportions, one that probably cost former general manager Ryan Pace his job. So when Gar-Pax get slammed for the Butler trade, something pulls at my sleeve. Fair’s fair, right? The easy thing to do is criticize them for not being very good at their jobs — and Lord knows I’ve done it — but it’s weak to ignore the initial good thing they did just to fit a gory storyline.

Paxson still gets teased for winning the lottery with a 1.7% chance in 2008, allowing him to draft Derrick Rose, which we’re told a potbellied pig could have done. But he and Forman get very little credit for doing what 28 teams failed to do — choosing an athletic small forward out of Marquette.

Rose’s injury problems changed the entire outlook of the organization. Remember, the 2010-11 team went 62-20 and lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat. Butler joined the Bulls the next season and didn’t play much. Rose blew out a knee in the first game of the playoffs and was never the same. The excellent group Paxson had built, which included Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, never reached the heights of the 2010-11 season. What followed was NBA purgatory, with average to below-average Bulls teams having no chance of winning a title.

That’s part of what pushed Gar-Pax to make the 2017 trade. Butler had averaged 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists that season, but the Bulls went 41-41.

So Gar-Pax took a chance. They took a chance on Dunn and were wrong. They took a chance on LaVine, who they thought could lead the team to new heights, and were wrong. They took a chance on Markkanen, who didn’t have a breakout season until 2022-23 – with Utah.

There were plenty of wrong decisions before and after that trade. Paxson didn’t seem to have a fondness for any of the coaches he hired, and the Bulls let go of a very good one in Tom Thibodeau. It was a messy breakup. (By the way, it took Thibodeau a long time to figure out how to use Butler.)

Gar-Pax became a punching bag in Chicago, and most of the heavy blows were warranted. But their biggest sin wasn’t of their own making. They kept their jobs much too long. The amount of abuse they took had a lot to do with chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s aversion to firing people. The bad seasons piled up, and so did the animosity over the inaction of ownership. In 2020, the Bulls finally fired Forman, reassigned Paxson and hired Arturas Karnisovas as vice president of basketball operations. A city of exhausted basketball fans let out a sigh of relief.

So here’s where Gar-Pax gets the credit they rarely get: They drafted Jimmy Butler.

Just don’t ask them what they did with him.

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