Who is laughing now? Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson still may not be with practically an entire series against the defending champions yet ahead.
But with how the Bulls’ season has progressed, he has a reason to smile…and perhaps chuckle a bit.
“The Bulls should have picked Michael Beasley."
"The Bulls should have hired a respected and experienced coach."
"The Bulls should have traded Ty Thomas (and perhaps Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich or Luol Deng) as part of a package for someone big and strong inside. Say, Kevin Garnett?"
"The Bulls should have got rid of Ben Gordon when they had the chance."
"The Bulls should have done this, done that.”
For those who thought these thoughts, so far you’re dead wrong. So far, at least.
The Bulls, through all their recent struggles in the last year, have won the first game of the divisional series in Boston against the defending champions and continue to roll.
As the hottest team in the Eastern Conference beyond the Cavaliers, it is the 13th win of their last 17 games.
With every one of those wins being huge, in hindsight, for their road to the playoffs, some of those important games came against top teams like New Orleans and…Boston.
But the story within the story is that the decisions Paxson has made—criticized heavily by fans and writers across the country—appear to be paying off for the storied franchise.
Going back to the beginning of March, the Bulls have won 15 of 23 and forced themselves into the playoffs as the seventh seed, passing several teams in the playoff race including division rival, Detroit.
This run has not only put the Bulls back in the playoffs, it has solidified that several of Paxson’s decisions, despite the criticism, were crucial to Chicago’s success.
First, the very important streak leading into the playoffs proved that Paxson’s decision to trade Andres Nocioni—a key player for the Bulls in their last playoff appearance—and Drew Gooden among others to the Kings for Brad Miller and John Salmons was ultimately a good one.
Brad Miller, beyond having been a Bull before and thus knowing Chicago, gives the youthful Bulls’ big men a veteran presence off the bench to continue learning from.
Salmons, on the other hand, has filled the void in the starting lineup (because of Luol Deng’s season-ending injury) beautifully to say the least.
Averaging over 18 points, Salmons has scored in double figures in all but two games as a Bull.
Secondly, head coach Vinny Del Negro has shown the ability to both earn the respect of his players and, thus, get the most out of the roster.
“My belief right now is with Vinny’s leadership ability and his communication skills, he’s going to invest time with players. That’s what today’s young player wants. X’s and O’s, he’s not done it before, but his ideas are very good and creative. The philosophy he has is intriguing to me,” Paxson said for the Chicago Tribune in June of 2008 after hiring the first-year coach.
Leading the team to a mere 41-41 record, Del Negro is intent on building off of the year’s experience to develop this still-young group. Del Negro has said that player development is essential to a team’s success. The Bulls give him the perfect opportunity to practice his words.
Both Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, who’ve been highly criticized before this stretch as well in their own right for their, um, underdevelopment, are proving that by coming up big as of late they are developing quite nicely.
Together, they have formed a pretty decent duo on both ends, especially on the glass and defensive end.
How does this relate? It was John Paxson who decided to draft these two players. Sure, they taken a while, but they’re coming on.
In the first game of the playoff’s opening round, Ty Thomas added 16 points to the 105-103 overtime victory. The “coming up big” part was scoring the game-winning jumper from a bit inside the three-point line with 51 seconds on the clock.
But even Thomas’ performance was no match for their guard’s tremendous debut playoff performance, which leads me to the acquisition of Derrick Rose.
When Chicagoan, Derrick Rose was selected as the first overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, many people felt the Bulls had doomed themselves by not acquiring the potential big man of the future they needed in Michael Beasley.
Sure, Rose was tremendous for Memphis in their 2008 run to the NCAA national championship, but he had an array of talent surrounding him that was almost unmatched in college. So, how would or could he transition into the NBA?
Well, Rose transitioned into the NBA’s rookie of the year, beating out Brook Lopez and, yes, Michael Beasley.
Along with Thomas, Rose can come up big too and did on Saturday. Scoring 36 points in his playoff debut, Rose tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for most points by a rookie in their first playoff game. Not bad.
Yet Rose has been carrying the Bulls all year long. Averaging 16.8 points and 6.3 assists, Rose’s work is even more impressive when you factor in the carousel of forwards and centers that Rose has had to deal with this year. Still, he has found a way to gel with two in particular: Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah.
Now, Paxson hasn’t done everything right. That is for sure. But, right now, his best decisions are outweighing his worst ones.
Heck, the Bulls, as hot as they are, may not even win the series. It’s definitely going to be tough. But they have taken the first step in, not only taking away Boston’s home-court advantage, but also giving Paxson (and the Bulls fans) something to smile about.