Paxson provides sunny Chicago Bulls outlook; LaVine believes in himself
Sunny and warm described the atmosphere Thursday inside the Advocate Center, with the chance for rapid improvement.
Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson shared his positive views on the state of the rebuild, after the regular season ended with a lopsided loss to Detroit.
There wasn't much news to be shared. The Bulls expect most everyone back next season, coach Fred Hoiberg's job security is not in question, and the Bulls do not expect to be players in free agency this summer.
The mildly interesting tidbits were Paxson confirming center Robin Lopez as a piece for the future and essentially handing Cameron Payne the backup point guard job.
"I think we're in a better place today than we were at this time last year," Paxson said in his opening statement.
There were positive signs during the Bulls' 27-55 season.
Kris Dunn was impressive during the team's 14-7 surge in December and January, rookie Lauri Markkanen has some unique skills, and Zach LaVine delivered some good moments after returning from ACL surgery.
The rebuild is off to a good start, but the NBA's eternal question is whether a young group will improve into a Finals contender or stall halfway up the hill.
The main issue for the Bulls heading into next season is how to get Dunn, Markkanen and LaVine thriving together. It's tricky because based on what we've seen so far any of the three could turn out to be the Bulls' best player.
"There's always some type of pecking order, but that doesn't mean one guy … I think it's the responsibility of our all our guys," Paxson said. "They have to be themselves and play within the team concept. So you can't get caught up in terms of this guy is your finisher.
"That's not what team basketball is about."
When the Bulls made the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota, LaVine appeared to be the key piece. He could end up becoming that guy, but he hasn't proven anything yet since he played in just 24 games for the Bulls this season.
Dunn, who barely played as a rookie with the Timberwolves, was the Bulls' most pleasant surprise. He was the catalyst of the 14-7 surge, showing he can be a solid defender and capable late-game finisher.
Markkanen averaged 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and has a steep upside.
Asked Wednesday if he has any expectations of being the Bulls' leading scorer, LaVine gave a reasoned, aggressive response.
"You get back (next season) and you work all that out," he said. "But I'm trying to be the best Zach LaVine I can be. The best me I know can be a very good talent. I'm not going to stop working until I'm an elite player in this league. I feel like I have the talent to, I have the drive to, and I want that.
"With that, you have to help the team and your teammates have to help you and we all have to be together. So it's very exciting."
LaVine believes the Bulls can create some chemistry this summer, among the three main guys and whoever else wants to join in.
"The dudes, we've already been talking about meeting up together and working out together and stuff like that," LaVine said. "I'm going to try to orchestrate a lot of that because this is my first summer being with them.
"So I want to build some chemistry, obviously. I think you can definitely build chemistry in the off-season, especially if dudes put their mind to it and actually want to get down to work.
"I don't need any vacation. I sat out enough (with the knee surgery). I'm ready to get going right now. I'm really excited to get back in the gym and working and see how high I can take my game."
LaVine will be a restricted free agent this summer and re-signing with the Bulls appears inevitable. There aren't many teams with enough cap space to tender a significant offer sheet, and no one expects the Bulls to let him walk away without matching.
David Nwaba also is a restricted free agent. The Bulls would like to keep him, but it seems more likely he gets an offer sheet from another team. Outside of the two-way players, everyone else on the roster is under contract for next season except Noah Vonleh.
There does seem to be a sense of relief throughout the organization that the orchestrated struggle is over and the team has clearance to start climbing next season, if it's good enough.
"It's not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again," Paxson said of the rebuilding season. "It goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in, but it's the way the system is set up."
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls.