John Paxson said all the right things Thursday in his state-of-the-Bulls address: season-ending edition.
And why not?
Paxson, the Bulls’ vice president of basketball operations, took a hands-on approach to Year 1 of the rebuild, re-emerging as the face and voice off Bulls management and allowing general manager Gar Forman, the target of public ire, to scurry back behind the curtain.
He went on most road trips, watched the coaching staff, witnessed the growth of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen with the knowledge that he had two first-round picks in his back pocket in the June draft and cap money to spend if necessary.
Paxson spoke like a man who had his finger on the pulse of the franchise.
One dicey topic remains: the pending contract negotiations with soon-to-be restricted free agent Zach LaVine.
And Paxson wasn’t in a position to clear things up.
“Well, the market dictates a lot and how things go,’’ Paxson said. “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple of years since the spike. We obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.
“Gar will get with his agent at the appropriate time and begin discussions about that, and it will play out the way it will play out. But we think he fits the direction we’re going, and we have great faith in his ability that he’ll have a great summer in terms of his work and his improvement as a player, and we’ll see. It’s up in the air and not defined yet, but we’ll do it the way we feel is right, and we’ll have good communication with Zach and his agent.’’
Paxson’s right about the situation not being “defined’’ publicly.
Privately, things haven’t gotten contentious, but both sides have their feet firmly planted.
According to a source close to the situation, LaVine and his camp believe that if he isn’t a max player, he’s certainly close to it. The thinking is that he was the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade with the Timberwolves and was a star attraction before his injury.
The feeling from the Bulls is that LaVine brings an athleticism they’ve missed for several years, but he needs serious work on his defense and still has to show consistency in his offensive game after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Hence the expected stalemate.
In the past, the Bulls have been passive in negotiations with restricted free agents, lowballing Butler and leaving him to insist that he was “betting on himself.’’ They ended up having to throw a lot more money Butler’s way the next offseason when Butler’s bet paid off.
More recently, they let the market dictate Nikola Mirotic’s value last summer, and when no deal from an outside team materialized, they swooped in and gave him what they thought was fair: two years, $15 million.
Paxson went out of his way to compliment LaVine but also showed his hand a bit with his “up in the air’’ comment.
Either way, expect all eyes to be on LaVine this summer and how much work he puts in by himself, as well as with teammates.
“I think, historically, guys who come back from ACLs are better the second year,’’ Paxson said. “We’re confident in Zach.’’
At the right price.