"The Isiah Rules" II: Media Gives John Paxson Free Pass
"Isiah Rules" III: Media Mob Calls for David Stern Intervention
Just like the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls are off to a slow start this year (3-10). Unlike the Knicks, they were picked to be a top Eastern Conference contender this year. Unlike Isiah Thomas, General manager John Paxson has been held up as a shining example by mainstream media as “the right way” to rebuild a franchise. And unlike Thomas, there has been virtually no media mention about an end of his tenure (local or national). Paxson defenders will tell you that the Bulls have made the playoffs the last three years, they have also recovered from slow starts in the past, and any comparison of Isiah Thomas is ridiculous. They might also say that the notion that Thomas has out-performed John Paxson is blasphemous. And while MSM skewers Thomas with every loss, turnover, and missed defensive assignment, John Paxson is being given a free pass.
What if I told you that Doc Rivers is the best coach in all of basketball? What if I pointed to his “miraculous turnaround” of the Celtics as proof of his newfound coaching genius? And what if I conveniently forgot to mention the names Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen? Would that be dishonest of me? Meet the mainstream sports media. For the last four years Isiah Thomas and John Paxson have been judged WITHOUT CONTEXT. Isiah Thomas and John Paxson were both hired as General Managers in 2003. If "context" doesn’t appeal to you, then you will talk about Paxson-vs.-Isiah won-loss totals during the last three years. If we want a fair assessment of Isiah vs. Paxson, we will have to dig a little bit deeper, a little bit fairer, and a little bit more HONEST than our mainstream sports media. Honesty starts with telling readers about the 2003 squad that Thomas and Paxson inherited. The truth is: Red Auerbach couldn’t have turned to Knicks around in less than four years, and that Redd Foxx (yes, even the dead Redd Foxx!) could have built a contender with the 2003 Bulls.
A) Two Inherited Rosters:
2003 New York Knicks: What if NBA GMs received scores on inherited rosters the way college football coaches do on Division I recruiting classes? Imagine that you took over a NCAA roster that was dead last (not 20th, I’m talking 120th!) in recruiting for the previous four straight years? Meet Isiah Thomas. With hindsight, the Knicks team that Thomas took over looked absolutely nothing like the 2003 Bulls, only the 1999 Bulls that averaged 19 victories for the next six years. Here are the best remaining 4 from Knicks 2003 Roster on the day Isiah took over in 2003 (with CURRENT age):
1) Antonio McDyess (age 33);
2) Kurt Thomas (age 35)
3) Othella Harrington (age 33)
4) Dikembe Mutombo (age 67)
The 2003 Knicks team was AT MINIMUM a five year turnaround project. There exists almost no historical precedence of turning around such an aging roster with no trading assets in a 3 – 4 year period. The inherited roster would outline Isiah’s only achievable goal for the next 4 years: turn the dead bodies into young talent. Through impeccable drafting, and through a multitude of trades exchanging old for young, Isiah has accomplished this goal despite some mistakes.
2003 Chicago Bulls: Now imagine you took over another NCAA job that had top recruiting classes the previous years? Meet John Paxson. Here are the best 4 players from the Bulls opening day roster in 2003 (with CURRENT age):
1) Eddy Curry (age 24)
2) Tyson Chandler (age 25)
3) Jamal Crawford (age 27)
4) Kirk Hinrich (age 26)
With 4 future starters including two young 7-footers, John Paxson walked into an absolute dream job that few GMs could ever mess up. If Paxson opted for the trade route, he had young assets that any team around the league would have interest in giving back value. But even if for the next 4 years John Paxson never made one single trade, made his yearly draft picks (he had the #3 pick after his 1st full season), and sipped margaritas on the beach, he would have gone down as “a great GM”. Even the slightest bit of positive tinkering would help the Bulls achieve its own 4 year goal: Become Title Contenders. Through poor action or inaction, John Paxson has failed to achieve this goal.
B) Two Stages of Roster Rebuilding:
Stage #1 – Get some young talent on Your Roster. It is a very rare occurrence that a new GM does not inherit at least SOME young talent. The 2003 Knicks were a very rare team. Isiah was blessed with Mike Sweetney, Maceij Lampe, and Frank Williams. Stage #1 would start from scratch. By 2007, Thomas added a slew of young players 25 and under along with still young Crawford and Randolph. In a perfect world, a GM can get talent and build chemistry at the very same time, but NOT without any trade assets s from the outset. Thomas had no such luxury. Perhaps Jamal Crawford doesn’t play much defense, but it’s not like Othella Harrington (sent in Crawford trade) was tearing up the floor at both ends.
Stage #2: Build Chemistry. With Curry, Chandler, Crawford, and Hinrich, Paxson had most of “Stage #1” completed before he presided over a single game. Previous GM Jerry Krause – despite mistakes — provided it through the PREVIOUS four year rebuilding stage. And to his credit Paxson also had a great start on the job despite only 23 wins. After his first year he drafted Ben Gordon, the talented Luol Deng (7th pick), and Chris Duhon (2nd round) while also acquiring Andres Nocioni as a free agent. All the pieces fit structurally, and if Paxson never touched this roster again, they would likely be title contenders this year. All they had to do was build chemistry through playing together. The often criticized Curry-Chandler pairing could work precisely because each player’s strengths complemented the other’s weaknesses – if only each were given more time to develop. If Paxson was forced by his organization to trade Curry because of a heart problem (Curry refused to take a DNA test), it would be Paxson’s job to replace that interior offense via other means. Paxson never did.
C) Two Salary Cap Strategies:
Absorb Big Contracts to Acquire Young Talent: Signing big free agents through cap space was not an option for Isiah Thomas. Upon taking over the league’s highest payroll in 2003 Thomas had only one advantage over Paxson and every other GM in the NBA: his owner’s permission to go over the salary cap as much as he likes. Despite media ridicule, Thomas smartly wielded this advantage by absorbing large contracts (see Malik and Jalen Rose) to obtain draft picks that turned guys like Nazr Mohammed and Antonio Davis into young guys like David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, and Mardy Collins. While NBA media analysts love to talk about “getting under the salary cap” as the preferred rebuilding strategy, they are only perpetuating “The Salary Cap Myth.
Get Under the Salary Cap: Going over the cap limit was not an option for John Paxson (see owner Jerry Reinsdorf). Two years ago, Paxson cleared enough cap space to sign Ben Wallace — the one-per-year free agent prize. To create future salary room for Wallace, they traded away Tyson Chandler for PJ Brown’s expiring contract and JR Smith. In reality, Wallace wasn’t free at all to Paxson, but operated more like a trade. The great irony is that in giving up on Chandler too soon, Paxson essentially exchanged a younger version of Ben Wallace for an older declining one. Want more “getting under the cap” irony? Okay, here: When Grant Hill was a prized free agent ready to sign with the Orlando Magic in 2000, it forced a sign-and-trade. Who did the Detroit Pistons receive? A young promising Ben Wallace.
D) Two Trades Between Thomas & Paxson:
Jamal Crawford Trade: Initially this trade was a definite “win-win” for both teams. The Knicks received a talented scorer while giving up almost nothing and the Bulls received the salary cap flexibility they desired. But considering the Bulls subsequently used that salary cap space on Wallace, this move takes on a newfound light. Also, it remains to be seen if #3 pick Gordon ever reaches his all-star promise or becomes just a slightly better replica of Jamal Crawford.
Eddy Curry Trade: Knicks receive Eddy Curry and draft pick (Wilson Chandler) and Bulls receive two draft picks that become Ty Thomas and Joakim Noah. This trade still cannot be fully judged until we see the continued development of all four players involved (note: Curry is still only 24). However, given the current structural flaws of both teams at this moment, it would seem that each team might benefit in the short-term from a retraction.
E) Two Structurally-Flawed Rosters:
Defensively-Challenged: Although very talented, the 2007 Knicks roster is structurally-flawed with an imbalance of “offense-first” players who can’t defend very well. In short, the media will tell you that: Thomas is an utter moron; he knows nothing about team “chemistry”, and "can’t put a team together". They will point to all the shooting guards and laugh about Isiah’s silly Curry-Randolph low post experiment. The “chemistry critics” simply don’t take into account his non-existent trade bait. If Isiah could have nabbed Jermaine O’Neal for Steve Francis and Channing Frye, he would have done so. Zach Randolph was available, so the Knicks HAVE to make that deal. Period. The Knicks who now have young talent, expiring contracts, and a very deep roster are finally in a favorable position to address any final chemistry concerns via one or two more trades.
Offensively-Challenged: Although very talented, the 2007 Bulls roster is structurally-flawed with an imbalance of “defense-first” players who can’t shoot very well. The media will make excuses for Paxson: they won’t insult his basketball IQ; they won’t say that he doesn’t understand “team chemistry”; and he will get credit for taking the “best player available” in the draft. When Thomas collects redundant talent he doesn’t understand basketball, when Paxson does it (see drafting of defense-first Ty Thomas and Joakim Noah in successive years), he is keeping an eye on the future of the franchise. Paxson HAD talent from the outset and after a good first year had all the pieces. Through his subsequent moves Paxson CREATED his current “roster imbalance". The media just assumes that Paxson will make another trade to correct the imbalance, but continually write about the Knicks roster as the final end product.
F) Two Types of “Mistakes”:
The No-Loss Mistake: Isiah Thomas tends to make the GOOD kind of mistake: he rarely gives up substance in return. Everyone and their mother has heard media tales of the acquisitions of Steve Francis, Jerome James, and Jared Jeffries. But do you know what Thomas actually lost to acquire those three?: Trevor Ariza and Demetrius Nichols. That’s right, two second round picks and a lot of money that is only James Dolan’s problem. Despite winning landslide exchanges that resulted in the acquisitions of at least 5 young players, it looks like Thomas has thus far only clearly been on the wrong side of one exchange (probably the Marbury trade unless he plays the next two years like last night).
The Franchise-Changing Mistake: Although hailed at the time by some sports writers as the Bulls final championship piece, the Ben Wallace signing and subsequent related trade of Tyson Chandler is the kind of error that may have cost the Bulls a legitimate championship run for years to come. Wallace, whose skills are in rapid decline, will be retired in a few years, and Chandler will be one of a handful of frontline defensive stoppers in all of basketball. The day Paxson made this move was the day he decided that the Bulls would try to WIN NOW. However, this acquisition began a string of lesser mistakes that blatantly contradicted that vision. They are:
· Giving JR Smith Away: JR Smith was received from the Hornets in the Chandler trade. He was immediately traded away to Denver for 2nd round draft picks. JR Smith might be a coaching handful, but there is one thing that the man can do very well that the Bulls can’t: score two points.
· Not Replacing Curry’s Offense: When Curry was traded away, so was the Bulls only source of low post offense. Paxson then loaded up on more defense-first players while not replacing the offense he traded away. With the 2nd pick in the 2006 draft, he opted to do a draft day trade for defensive Ty Thomas instead of select interior scorer Lamarcus Aldridge. The next year he selected defensive Joakim Noah instead of use the pick in part of a trade for low-post scoring.
· Not Trading for a Frontline Stud: The Bulls had as many trade chips as anybody in the entire NBA. Some had reported that Gasol could have been had for PJ Brown’s expiring contract, Luol Deng, and Ben Gordon. Paxson said “no” because of Deng’s upside. Of course, that logic would be fine if he hadn’t signed Wallace and kept Chandler. The only reason to pass on Gasol is if you believe you have a better shot at Kevin Garnett – a trade that never materialized. In fact, Wallace’s window is closing faster than John Paxson’s ability to engineer ANY trade that makes Big Ben relevant. By the time Deng peaks, Wallace will be through.
· Did Paxson Hold his Cards Too Long? Besides Deng, every single Bull’s trade stock seems to be lowering in 2007. PJ Brown’s expiring contract has, well, expired. While the Bulls have recovered from slow starts in recent years, this team just looks different. This year’s team is no lock for the playoffs like previous years. And if they do make the playoffs, they simply can’t contend for a championship without frontline scoring. While the difference squarely starts with the declining Wallace, it also has something to do with the somewhat slow rate of improvement of Gordon, Hinrich, and Thomas. But in reality, the Bulls are most likely not fighting for a championship right now only because of The War in John Paxson’s Mind.
 The very rare exception is to gain that lucky #1 draft pick during one of those special years where there is a player who can turn around a franchise all by themselves (see Lew Alcindor going to the Bucks).
 Paxson was hired before the 2003 draft and inherited the #7 pick. He used the pick to select Kirk Hinrich. Point guard TJ Ford was also on the board and selected with the very next pick. In other words, any GM looking for a point guard would have picked one of these two individuals. Both are equally competent point guards.
 The Knicks gave up an aging Dikembe Mutombo, Frank Williams, and Othella Harrington.
 The Bulls concern was to include Jerome Williams contract in the deal.
 Bulls also received other players, none of any consequence.
 Stephen A. Smith was the one rare exception who questioned the Bulls draft day pick of Joakim Noah as redundant. Overall it was met with praise.
 Demetrius Nichols represented this past year’s second round pick (#53) who was cut at the end of training camp in favor of Jerome James roster spot.
 Note: There is some ambiguity here on this trade offer as there are conflicting media reports about whether the Grizzlies were also asking for Ty Thomas in this deal along with Brown, Deng, and Gordon. If this report including Ty Thomas were true, it would be foolish to trade for Gasol.