The busiest Bulls offseason since Gar Forman took as over as general manager and John Paxson became vice president in 2009 came to a close Monday with the unofficial start of the season. The Bulls begin training camp Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Advocate Center, and they’ll do so with eight new faces on the floor, and without perhaps the two biggest faces of the franchise in the 2010s.
But Paxson admitted in his press conference at media day “it was time” to turn the page on a talented group once expected to compete for an NBA title that never lived up to that billing. The decision to trade Derrick Rose and move on from free agent Joakim Noah – as well as Pau Gasol – were difficult ones given those players’ place in Bulls history, but also necessary to move the franchise forward into a new era.
“I didn’t feel that group had a collective fight to it,” Paxson said. “And I think all of us looking back on it, that was true. Change was necessary.
“We had ridden that group a long way. With a little more luck we might have had more success, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. And we just felt it was necessary to try to take some steps forward.”
And while the sweeping overhaul of the roster was noticeable on paper, management is also seeing a different culture transforming on the Near West Side of Chicago they hope will usher in this new period of Bulls basketball.
It’s the reason Forman and Paxson were excited to bringing in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. With a combined 23 NBA seasons, 260 playoff games and four NBA titles, the two longest-tenured NBA veterans on the roster have already begun leaving their mark.
Forman noted specifically that Rondo has been around the team’s facility “a good part of the summer,” and that his work ethic and time spent in the community has rubbed off on his teammates. Wade walked around the Advocate Center floor with a certain larger-than-life persona, and the future Hall-of-Famer’s accolades speak for themselves. Paxson referred to Taj Gibson as “the ultimate pro,” and Jimmy Butler even noted Monday that he wants Fred Hoiberg to coach him harder than any player on the team, to use him as an example in practice and to “get on me about every little thing.”
“That’s another reason changes were necessary,” Paxson said of helping younger players progress. “And it’s created an environment in this building. We have to start from a base level, and a base level is culture and how guys go about their jobs every day. That’s why we’re talking about accountability.”
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Forman and Paxson are also excited about the balance they’ve created. There was some criticism about the Wade and Rondo signings after Forman had said the team was looking to get younger and more athletic – both Wade and Rondo have dealt with serious knee injuries in the past. In that sense, management feels as though they’ve done just that.
In addition to drafting Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine and German wing Paul Zipser, both of whom are 22, the Bulls received 23-year-old Jerian Grant and 28-year-old Robin Lopez in return for Rose. Add 23-year-old Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Canaan (25), and as Forman noted the Bulls will have 12 players in camp under the age of 27, in addition to 10 players with three years or fewer NBA experience.
“And in doing that (retooling with youth) you still want to create a culture that’s conducive to professionalism, a team-first attitude. Some of those things, those intangibles, that are so important. And having that type of veteran experience around your young guys is critical as we go through this phase that we’re changing over the roster.”
Of course, simply overhauling a roster to management’s liking won’t produce wins. That won’t automatically place the Bulls back in the playoffs after they missed out last season for the first time in 2008.
All the pieces need to fit together – no executive, coach or player who spoke Monday seemed overly concerned about Wade, Butler and Rondo (the three Alphas) sharing the spotlight – and head coach Fred Hoiberg will need to show improvements in his second season.
With a plethora of young talent comes training-camp battles that Paxson said will be healthy for the team. Players like Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, Valentine and whoever wins the back-up point guard spot will have not just the opportunity to learn from Wade, Rondo and Butler, but to play alongside them in expanded roles. Paxson went as far to say that how the Bulls’ role players perform “will probably dictate how well we do.”
It began with Forman and Paxson overhauling the roster, and continued into a busy summer full of individual workouts that impressed both upper management and the coaching staff. But now the speculation and critiques of the roster are over. The start of a new era has arrived in Chicago.
“The vibe that’s with this group right now is just really positive. I think ultimately the expectation (over the summer) was that they had to be professional in their approach every day,” Paxson said. “There’s going to be accountability to everything that they do, and that if we’re going to have any success in any way it’s going to come from us being together and giving great effort.
“That’s the great thing about a new season starting and putting together a team: it’s all out there in front of us.”
On June 25, 2004, Robin Ventura took the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning of a 13-0 loss to the then Anaheim Angels.
It was Ventura’s lone pitching appearance in his big league career, one that ended that season after 16 years.
And who was behind the plate? Current Cubs catcher David Ross, who’s in the final season of his own lengthy major league career and who experienced quite the moment on Sunday night. In the Cubs’ final regular-season home game, a packed Wrigley Field stood in recognition of the backup catcher and his career ahead of each of his three plate appearances — the second of which ended in a solo home run — and then again when manager Joe Maddon lifted him from the game in the seventh inning.
The roaring ovations were unusual for a backup catcher who’s batting .233 (after hitting just .176 last season on the North Side), but according to Ventura — a teammate of Ross’ in L.A. in 2003 and 2004 — they were absolutely deserved.
“It’s great. Anything he gets I think is great,” Ventura said. “Not often do you see a backup catcher with such a response. But he’s a different guy, and he’s earned that. They wouldn’t do that if he didn’t deserve it. Inside their clubhouse, that’s probably where it comes from, and then it exudes outside, spills over outside of that. I’m sure I’ll talk to him in the offseason.”
Ross hasn’t received a city-by-city sendoff the likes of which Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz and even White Sox legend Paul Konerko have received in recent years. But he sure has enjoyed his final season in the big leagues. And he might enjoy it further as the Cubs have the best record in baseball and World Series expectations.
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Ventura had his own final season in the bigs a dozen years ago, and he was the manager during Konerko’s final year in 2014.
“I know a little bit of what he’s going through. But when a guy is at the end and he knows he’s at the end, you can have a little more fun,” Ventura said. “Paulie had some of that his last year where you can exert some energy elsewhere. And it’s still fun, and you spread it around the clubhouse a little bit more than you do just as a player.”
It might be difficult for fans who haven’t closely followed the Cubs over the past two seasons to figure out why Ross has become so beloved. But as Ross’ former teammate, Ventura understands.
“Numbers-wise, he’s not going to jump out off the page to you. But the guys that play in there understand what he brings to it,” Ventura said. “It’s hard to sit there and for people to understand that, as grueling as the season is and the personalities are in that clubhouse. But when you’re talking about a guy that’s played as long as he has, been on some winning teams and continues to bring the enjoyment and really the boyish stuff that he brings. And that’s part of his charm is there’s still a kid in there, even at 40 — what is he? — he looks like 48. There’s a kid in there, and that comes out when you see him or you’re around him.”
So back to that pitching appearance. Ventura fared just fine, giving up just one hit in a scoreless ninth inning. Ross must’ve been calling a good game, right?
“He never put down a signal,” Ventura said. “I didn’t throw hard enough for him to put down a signal.”