On Monday, the Chicago Bulls made just the second leadership change to their front office in the past 35 years. Arturas Karnisovas was hired from the Denver Nuggets to replace John Paxson as vice president of basketball operations. General manager Gar Forman was dismissed.
Paxson, who will remain with the team in an advisory role, had been in the lead job since 2003 after replacing longtime GM Jerry Krause. Forman had been with the team since 1998. To put the steep fall in context, Forman and Pat Riley tied for NBA Executive of the Year in 2011, the season Riley’s Miami Heat signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Here’s a look at how one of the longest-tenured front offices in professional sports — GarPax, as they were referred to in Chicagoland — went flat.
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: “Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization — staff, players, coaches, management and ownership. When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head-coaching position is required.”
Forman: “When Tom was hired in 2010, he was right for our team and system at that time, and over the last five years, we have had some success with Tom as our head coach.”
The subtle digs in these prepared statements illustrated just how nasty the relationship between coach and front office had become — it had festered for years. Thibodeau won 50 games twice and 60 games once during that span despite star Derrick Rose missing 213 games. Overall, he had a .647 winning percentage. Thibodeau lost three times in the playoffs to LeBron James (with both Miami and the Cleveland Cavaliers), but James was a secondary opponent to the civil war within the Bulls’ facility. It was a bad look after the Bulls’ previous coach, Vinny Del Negro, had been fired after quarreling with management as well.
Five days later, the Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State on a $25 million deal. The move had been telegraphed for some time — Forman and Hoiberg had been close since Hoiberg’s playing days at Iowa State, where Forman was an assistant coach. After Hoiberg played four years for the Bulls to start his NBA career, Forman bought Hoiberg’s house when Hoiberg signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2003. Forman said the search for Thibodeau’s replacement would extend to “anyone around the country we want to talk to,” but the Bulls had already made up their minds.
Jimmy Butler: “I’m sorry, I know Fred’s a laid-back guy, and I really respect him for that. But when guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, you got to get on guys, myself included. You got to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re out there playing basketball. … We weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing, what we wrote up on that board before the game. And nobody spoke up about it.”
After winning 50 games the previous season, the Bulls were off to a modest 15-10 start, but cracks were beginning to show after a 16-point loss to the New York Knicks on Dec. 19, 2015, one night after a four-overtime loss to the Detroit Pistons. Hoiberg was a mild-mannered offensive specialist who favored a more modern, up-tempo style of basketball. He was the complete opposite of the gravel-voiced grinder in Thibodeau, who drilled his teams about defense and was unfailingly demanding. Holdovers such as Butler and Joakim Noah weren’t clicking with the new coach. First-round pick Doug McDermott, for whom the Bulls traded up, wasn’t having an impact early. Pau Gasol, a splashy free-agent signing the year before, was being mentioned in trade rumors.
Butler’s undermining of Hoiberg’s style kicked off waves of criticism. As the Bulls lost six of seven and headed into the All-Star break at just 27-25, Forman, who initially lauded Hoiberg’s communication skills, found himself having to issue a vote of confidence for his hand-picked coach just months into the tenure.
Forman: “Under the circumstances, Fred has done well. … [Hoiberg] has an extremely bright future here.”
The Bulls ended up winning just 42 games and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. After the season, Paxson said he and Forman were accountable for the team’s performance and declared they weren’t going anywhere.
June 22, 2016: Derrick Rose traded to New York
Forman: “We are committed to exploring every option to improve this team. This trade is a significant step in that process. Our goal is to get younger and more athletic. And this trade moves us in that direction and allows us to start changing the structure of our team.”
The Bulls acquired Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and young prospect Jerian Grant in a trade with the Knicks as the team moved on from the Chicago native and former MVP Rose. He hadn’t shown the same explosion since a series of knee injuries and had talked about wanting a large, new contract the previous season.
The problem with the stated plan of getting younger and more athletic is the Bulls backed up the trade by signing 34-year-old Dwyane Wade and 30-year-old Rajon Rondo. Wade’s signing was huge news — in a surprise departure from Miami, Wade was returning to his hometown. But the price tag, two years and $48 million, was steep for an aging player with knee problems. The Bulls had told teams they planned to sit out of the free-agent market before leaping in to grab Wade.
When he was hired, Hoiberg had planned to have a fast-paced team with multidimensional players who could spread the floor. But the acquisitions of Lopez, Wade and Rondo made the Bulls a slower team with a worrisome lack of shooting.
Jan. 25, 2017: The fall of the ‘Three Alphas’
Wade: “These games are supposed to hurt. I don’t know if that is in guys in this locker room. Hopefully, they can prove me wrong. But I will challenge them to see if losses like this hurt. … This just can’t be acceptable if you want to do something besides have an NBA jersey on and make some money. That’s all we’re doing around here.”
Butler: “Motherf—ers just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the T. Be a star in your role, man. That’s how you win in this league.”
Rondo: “My vets [in his Celtics days] would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
This was a bubbling disaster. The Bulls had just lost to the Atlanta Hawks to fall to 23-24 on the season, and the veterans who didn’t fit together on the court were now sniping at each other. Some of the younger players grumbled that Wade was taking them to task for not working when he often wasn’t able to practice because of knee issues. Hoiberg showed little ability to control the situation.
A streak of six straight winning seasons came to an end as the Bulls finished Hoiberg’s second year at 41-41. Chicago got the last playoff spot by winning a tiebreaker on the final day of the season. The Bulls briefly scared No. 1 seed Boston by going up 2-0 in the series, but Rondo broke his thumb and Chicago lost four straight. As Game 6 ended, fans at the United Center chanted “Fire Hoiberg.”
June 22, 2017: Butler traded to Minnesota
Butler, to the Chicago Sun-Times: “I guess being called the face of an organization isn’t as good as I thought. We all see where being the so-called face of the Chicago Bulls got me. … You know what I’ve learned? Face of the team, eventually you’re going to see the back of his head as he’s leaving town, so no thanks.”
Paxson: “It’s an exciting day for us. We’ve defined our direction and we’re going to make decisions based on that direction from this day forward. … We made the playoffs nine out of 10 years and it wasn’t good enough. We have to now reset what we’re about. … I’m not worried about perception. We understand this will take time and is a process. … Our fans, if they give us time and are patient, we’ll show them results.”
On the night of the 2017 NBA draft, the Bulls acquired No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn from the Minnesota Timberwolves to kick off another rebuilding plan. It wasn’t made clear publicly, but the trade coincided with a decision to demote Forman. Paxson had by choice ceded some power during the previous few seasons but had seized control again. Hoiberg got his third totally different roster in three seasons. The Bulls were initially panned as Butler was reunited with Thibodeau in Minneapolis and given a hero’s welcome during a news conference at the Mall of America.
As part of the rebuilding maneuver, Rondo was waived and paid $3 million. After weeks of posturing and negotiations, Wade conceded $8 million of his $24 million salary in a buyout and left to sign in Cleveland. The “Three Alphas” of Rondo, Wade and Butler were all gone.
After trading Butler, the Bulls signed Cristiano Felício to a four-year, $32 million extension.
Oct. 17, 2017: Bobby Portis knocks out Nikola Mirotic
Portis: “I’m wrong for what I did. I want to publicly apologize to Niko. I feel like I let my fans, the Bulls organization and, most importantly, my teammates down. This is not who Bobby Portis is.”
Mirotic, on Feb. 1, 2018: “It was really hard for me. Especially because he was my teammate. Especially the timing, the timing was basically two days before opening night and everything. After I put all the work in during the summer.”
Paxson: “Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself. But only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected, and for us, that is inexcusable.”
Hoiberg: “My job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group. And I’m confident that our guys will do that.”
Mirotic was hospitalized, had a concussion and two broken bones in his face and missed the first 23 games of the season before later being traded. Portis was suspended for eight games. Both players had been key first-round picks and were supposed to be a central part of the rebuilding process. The team was young, and this gave the impression that Hoiberg didn’t have control. The Bulls started the season 5-23.
Paxson: “We were in a similar situation last year at this time … but the entire energy about this group was different back then. We felt that here in the last several weeks, that something is different. What we’re lacking is an energy and a spirit about our team. And we need to get that back.
“[Boylen] has a passion and an energy to him that I think our players will respond to. It’s different when you’re an assistant than when you’re a head coach. I think he’ll be able to take his personality and get these guys to buy into what he’s doing.”
Boylen: “We’re old-school. We get on the line. There’s no shortcut to conditioning. We’re going to do it every day.”
Guard Ryan Arcidiacono: “We’re doing a lot of running. We’re getting up and down the floor. I can’t emphasize enough. We’re doing a lot of running. I think we’ll be getting in better shape.”
After taking over with a mandate from management to toughen the team up, Boylen led two marathon practices that featured lots of running and drills. At the end of that week the Bulls tied an NBA record, losing by 56 points at home to the Boston Celtics in Boylen’s third game as coach. He pulled the starters midway through the third quarter on the second night of a back-to-back.
Boylen: “We’re going to practice tomorrow. Why have them play in a game that’s going to be difficult to win when the benefit to me is going to be practice tomorrow and get better. That was all premeditated.”
It is unheard of to practice after back-to-backs in the NBA. After hearing the plan, a large group of players banded together and discussed not showing up for practice in a form of protest. They ended up coming to the facility to hold a team meeting. Boylen said he never planned on actually having the team practice.
April 11, 2019: Confident in direction
Paxson: “We’re confident we have a foundation in place and confident in the direction we’re headed. We made a change in midseason with our coach. Jim Boylen in our estimation has done terrific things as far as establishing what we want in this building and in this organization.
“We knew when we traded Jimmy that it wasn’t going to be easy. … Rebuilds are difficult. Sometimes it takes years and years. I still believe given a really good offseason and our draft pick that we have coming and with our ability to get some veteran players in here alongside our young guys that we can make a substantial leap. I did tell the players … I think our goal next year is to be in the hunt.”
April 13, 2020: A new beginning for Chicago
Forman, in a statement: “It has been an honor and a privilege to work for the Chicago Bulls for more than two decades. There is no better ownership group in professional sports than the Reinsdorfs, and I want to thank Jerry and Michael for their support during my tenure. The Bulls organization will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Arturas Karnisovas: “Our ultimate goal is clearly to bring an NBA championship to the city of Chicago. That is what every team in the NBA strives for. All we can control is our approach and the process behind every decision. A firm foundation is absolutely vital. I’ll build that here in Chicago. No skipping steps.”
Paxson and Forman have overseen basketball operations in Chicago in some form since 2003. Karnisovas, who worked for the Nuggets since 2013 and has been the team’s GM since 2018, inherits an underperforming roster full of young pieces that have yet to reach their full potential. But after a five-year record of 154-235, three coaching changes and a series of missteps, the Bulls finally appear to be ready to chart a new course.