Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson believes there’s a path out of NBA hell — and even beyond mediocrity — for the Bulls.
He made that clear last week in his end-of-season address at the Advocate Center.
And while the skeptics are legion, the Bulls’ front office tunes out doubt and criticism better than most organizations around the league.
So when Paxson was asked just how his team would be capable of that leap — especially without a true superstar — his optimism shone through.
“The first part of that is through the draft and to get relevant again,’’ Paxson said. “I’m not ruling out Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen being significant players in this league. Zach just turned 24, and I thought he 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 said many times, the internal growth of our guys is a key part of that.’’
Both players know they need to carry the weight of the franchise, and that works in Paxson’s favor.
LaVine already has mentioned working on his post-up game, as well as fine-tuning his repertoire, while Markkanen — cleared for all basketball activity after his rapid-heart-rate scare — will focus on building his body first, then he’ll hit the court to get his game to the next level.
But even if both take jumps and reach All-Star level — a big ask — that still doesn’t solve the problem of landing an elite talent.
That could change May 14 with the draft lottery. The Bulls had the fourth-worst record and have a 12.5 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick and grabbing Zion Williamson.
If that doesn’t happen, however, Paxson still sees a path.
“I do believe when we establish winning again, that this city is a draw, that this organization is a draw,’’ he said. “But that’s down the road. That’s why we made the deal at the trade deadline for Otto Porter Jr. We felt that was a significant piece to becoming a much better basketball team. Over that stretch where we had him and were healthy, we were playing at a level that I could see us playing at in the future. So we’re trying to build toward what you’re talking about.’’
Having $20 million in cap room doesn’t hurt as they try to add more veteran voices to buttress Porter’s.
The backcourt will be the focus. The Bulls will be searching for help at the point and are looking to add a two guard who can shoot. Coach Jim Boylen would benefit from the bump in talent and leadership, and no one knows that more than Porter.
That backcourt strength was a key to the formula employed by the Wizards, Porter’s former team, during their multiple playoff runs.
Young players follow success and the money. Porter, who is the highest-paid player on the roster, has had both, and the fact that he had Boylen’s back carried a lot of weight.
“That’s something I was able to see,’’ Porter said. “Once the guys started seeing me follow that model that continued to help us, continued to understand what it takes, [they saw] how much hard work you have to put into it and into preparing.’’
Paxson is counting on more of that.
Then again, Paxson will be counting on a lot of things to go in the right direction.