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Thursday, May 10, 2007
The War in John Paxson's Mind


John Paxson
John Paxson may look calm on the outside.
(Getty Images)
Chicago Bulls general manager John Paxson took over a lousy team four years ago. Without breaking the bank (yet) Paxson has assembled (Insider) what is likely the finest collection of young talent in the NBA, starring players like Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, and Andres Nocioni -- to go along with the legendary Ben Wallace. Paxson's youngsters are so good they just swept the defending champion Heat, who star Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.

It gets even better: there's another great lottery pick on the way, and talent like Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha in the pipeline.

Everyone knows this team is headed in the right direction. Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard cited the Bulls a couple of days ago as a model of rebuilding, saying they should be excellent for almost all of the next decade.

These are good times. John Paxson is one front office executive who ought to be able to sleep well at night.

Right?

Not so fast.

Tonight is the third game of the "Baby Bulls'" second-round playoff series against the Detroit Pistons. The first two games have served to make the Pistons look like champions. They have not been even a little tiny bit close. Tonight the Chicago Bulls will find out if they are a team of today and tomorrow, or exclusively a team of tomorrow.

Chicago's most obvious shortcoming? A big man who can draw a double team in the post -- scoring points, drawing fouls, and creating scoring opportunities for talented wing players like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng. A big man like ... Pau Gasol of Memphis, the former rookie of the year who Paxson reportedly declined to trade for at the trade deadline in February.

Grabbing Gasol would have cost Chicago quality young talent -- reportedly Deng -- but would have been a powerful sign that Chicago was going for it in a moment in time when the Eastern Conference is as wide open as ever.

Not going for it? That's a gamble too.

With insight from ESPN's Jeff Weltman, David Thorpe, Marc Stein, and Royce Webb, I imagine the voices in Paxson's head as he tries to fall asleep.

CRANKY JOHN:

You're falling asleep? Now? WAKE UP JOHN! Let's think about this for a second. Your greatest accomplishment since you hit a couple of shots in the playoffs is assembling players who might win one day? That's your biggest accomplishment? Tomorrow may never come, dude. You have problems today. Just last summer you spent a fortune in cash and cap space on an aging, win-now big man, and you're getting humbled by the team that replaced him with a cheap free agent. And sure, you have some nice young pieces, but there isn't a proven "go to" guy in the bunch. In fact much of the time your offense could be described as "terrified."

Luol Deng
Too Deng good to trade.
(Getty Images)

You could have had Pau Gasol. Get up and watch the video again. He gets to the line. He draws double teams. He scores in myriad ways. He wins world championships.

Pau Gasol solves a big problem of yours, and causes problems for Detroit. With him, you could have won the East this year, and then who knows what would have happened in the Finals?

What is it going to take for you to just do something! Do I have to quote Bill Simmons to you again? "When the media guide for the No Balls Association is released," Simmons writes, "I demand that John Paxson appears on the cover."

Gasol is an All-Star caliber, post-scoring big man in the bloom of youth. You got another one of those stashed somewhere? When, if ever, do guys like that come available? And, now that you have not used P.J. Brown's expiring contract to get a big man, will you ever be able to match the salaries necessary to land a player with a max contract? It'll take both arms and both legs, that's for sure. Next time this kind of deal comes around (you know that I know that you fantasize about Kevin Garnett) it will cost you substantially more.

EVEN-KEELED JOHN:

The only way you could have gotten Gasol was by giving up Luol Deng. L-U-O-L D-E-N-G, John. Your guy. The one who will be the Finals MVP next time Chicago wins a title.

Deng has the size, the athleticism, the desire, and the work ethic. (And, did you notice? Really long arms.) Sure, he's still marinating, but he's already the most valuable asset on the entire squad, and he's not getting worse.

You might give up a guy like Deng to win an NBA title, sure. Same goes for anyone short of Michael freakin' Jordan. But is Gasol the guy who gets you that? If you have Gasol starting alongside Ben Wallace, who's going to guard the new breed of athletic, wing-scoring power forward? Pau can't. Ben can, sure -- but then you keep him away from his stronghold of blocks and rebounds around the hoop. You're going to take a team that is the best in the league at one thing and one thing only -- team defense -- and bring it back to the pack?

More importantly, on a team that is about potential, you don't give up the player with the best potential. And besides, without Deng, you wouldn't have swept the Heat.

Pau Gasol
The World Championship MVP is apparently not landing in Chicago.
(Getty Images)
How long would Gasol be here, happy, and contributing anyway? He doesn't love playing in the U.S. nearly as much as he loved playing in Europe, he has already both had a major injury and soured on his first team.

Total NBA playoff victories for Gasol thus far: donut hole. Why would you hitch your wagon to that guy, especially when you are about to get an incredible draft pick that could solve all your problems?

CRANKY JOHN:

Nice front line, genius. Cap hog Ben Wallace could never score and has always been way undersized, but is now old in basketball years and noticeably slowing down. How many good years can grit get you? Two more decent ones, maybe? P.J. Brown is a real deal defender, but he's also old and likely moving on. That's your starting frontcourt. Who do you have waiting in the wings? Tyrus Thomas can jump to the moon but is greener than green. Andres Nocioni is a close second to Dirk Nowitzki for the "biggest playoff flameout" award. You said before that Luol Deng would be MVP of the Finals one day soon? Oh yeah? With Michael Sweetney starting alongside him?

EVEN-KEELED JOHN:

Deep breath, amigo. Remember: patience is a virtue. There are always question marks on young teams. (Even when the championship Bulls were assembled around Michael Jordan in 1991, all season long everyone wondered if it was the right mix.)

It's not quite time yet for this team to peak. Next year, the year after -- while Ben Wallace is still good. Then let's talk. Besides, there are assets here. Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, and Viktor Khyrapa are all young and can all play. They all have expiring contracts. There's the Knicks' draft pick. (By the way, pessimist John, what happened to your promise to chill out until after the lottery? If Greg Oden walks in here, let's both remember that you were once all panicky.) There are the salary cap exceptions.

This is the team that Michael freaking Jordan made famous. This is Chicago. We're the Bulls. We're a team of the future. Maybe we'll even have a little cap space. There are 7,000 different ways to get a big man who can play a little D and draw a foul inside once in a while.

CRANKY JOHN:

You mean like Tyson Chandler? Who was statistically superior to Wallace (Insider) in the regular season, is eight years younger, and is also cheaper? The dude you booted to get P.J. Brown's expiring contract which we thought was supposed to be trade bait but is now a big pile of nothing?

EVEN-KEELED JOHN:

Well, Tyson Chandler wasn't perfect.

CRANKY JOHN:

Perfect ain't hanging around.

EVEN-KEELED JOHN:

I'm trying to get some sleep if you don't mind.

CRANKY JOHN:

How's that going for you?

EVEN-KEELED JOHN:

You know what? I think I'm going to watch that Thabo Sefolosha video again.