Paxson had seen enough
And so with Thanksgiving Day approaching, the Bulls cut off the head of their team -- coach Cartwright -- as general manager and former teammate John Paxson fired Cartwright with two games left on a Western Conference road trip with a dispirited team at a disappointing 4-10.
It was the continuation of a facelift that would no more be simple cosmetic surgery. It became time to radically alter the complexion of what was too recently one of the great franchises in all of professional sports.
That, of course, was the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, perhaps the most feared team of all time the way they, led by Michael Jordan, intimidated and defeated teams throughout the 1990s. They hold the NBA's all-time record for wins in a season and only the Boston Celtics won more titles in a decade. They were probably the greatest attraction basketball ever has known, riding Jordan's celebrity and unparalleled skill, Dennis Rodman buffoonery and Phil Jackson's excellence and eccentricities to the point where sport and entertainment merged seamlessly.
But then it all came to an end, and bitterness evolved from the brilliance. Jackson and Jordan left in a huff and Scottie Pippen was traded. Rodman wandered on, and the team's face, never quite as jowly and hidden behind the curtain of success, was Jerry Krause, the odd general manager.
Several years of ignominy and defeat led to Krause's departure last spring. John Paxson, the handsome Dorian Gray face of the Bulls' success, replaced Krause but mostly in image.
Things would change now. A cloud of distrust and mistrust was lifted from the organization, but in spirit only. Jordan returned to the building, if not the organization, coming to games, something he would not do when Krause was in charge, and Pippen returned with a contract and a friendly welcome. Presumably, it would be a place once again where free agents would feel free to come and play and not be burdened by Jordan's and Pippen's harsh assessments.
But the hand of Krause remained, in coach Cartwright and in the painful five-year plan to produce an eventual dominating team. It cost one coach, Tim Floyd, several years of fruitless free agency and countless high draft picks, predominantly youngsters barely 20 to be given time to grow, mature and eventually produce.
But when it all started so badly, Paxson showed about as much patience as he did when that ball came to him in Phoenix in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 1993 with seconds left. He reacted, just as he did this week after still another lopsided, embarrassing loss.
Paxson didn't have to do anything. He was flying under the radar this season, presumably as an observer. It wasn't his coach. It wasn't his talent. It could fall under its own weight, and then he could start his own clock ticking. But Paxson's own internal alarm rang. This thing was about to go off.
So Paxson fired Cartwright and went about searching for his remedy, one of immediate demands and responsibility. It was why a taskmaster like former no-nonsense Suns coach and NBA veteran Scott Skiles was mentioned as a possible successor along with hard-nosed Mike Fratello and hometown Chicago favorite Isiah Thomas.
Paxson is not the patient kind, and he felt Cartwright was being just a little too kind to a bunch of spoiled kids who needed a kick in their baggy shorts. Likewise, Paxson didn't like what he was seeing in effort. Or intensity, even pre- and postgame dress. He even had to order Eddy Curry to hike up his droopy shorts during games or get fined. Nothing seemed to fit.
Especially the pieces on the court, Paxson believes.
So he started talking with teams. You want a Jalen Rose, a Jamal Crawford, an Eddie Robinson, Marcus Fizer or Donyell Marshall. We've got one of each and they come cheap. It would be addition by subtraction, some call it. What would be left, though, would be unclear.
Paxson wants to make a trade to repair team chemistry as much as to send a message: You've fired enough coaches with your poor play. Now it's time to fire some players. It's sort of like hitting that mule with the two-by-four to get his attention.
|This may yet not be a winning team or a playoff team this season, but it's going to become a team in Paxson's image -- hard-working, tough-minded, serious and respectful.|
The problem he has is too many high schoolers who've been coached too little and have been given too much. It's a problem the entire NBA has, but Paxson is up to fixing one disaster area at a time.
Perhaps everyone expected too much of Curry and Tyson Chandler. After all, Chandler is just 21 and Curry gets there next week. The dream was not unreasonable. Here are two 7-footers that complement one another. Take a look at the Eastern Conference. In a few years, they could be dominant, the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside that would make the old Army football guys look like, well, old Army football guys. Curry has soft hands and quick feet and as a 20-year-old finished last season as the league's field-goal percentage leader. And Chandler was the better one, a poor man's Kevin Garnett, though not that poor. He'd roam the perimeter and Curry would police the inside. But in their third season, they can't get arrested. Which is about the only good news for the NBA.
Chandler is hurt, on and off, with a bad back. Should 21-year-olds have constant back problems? Curry is a little heavy, a little disinterested and a big disappointment. Krause constantly urged patience. Perhaps he was right about big kids not maturing as quickly as perimeter kids like Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis and Kobe Bryant. Or perhaps he was becoming an enabler, accepting their indifference and allowing them to become accustomed to losing so regularly.
Paxson is having none of that. He could preach patience as well, especially since he's not responsible for their arrival or the trade of Elton Brand. But Paxson is taking responsibility and demanding that the players do the same.
He expects them to produce. He wants to make sure Crawford plays the defensive end of the court as well as he plays the offensive end. He'll push Rose and the others until their priority is wins.
It may not work. There's an old saying in the NBA that by your third season you are what you are. No, you don't get sayings worth writing down from the NBA. If it's true, the Bulls are in trouble. They believe it's not. They believe there's something more to Curry, Chandler, Crawford and the rest just has to be pulled out with them kicking and screaming if need be in a sort of basketball liposuction. Scrape away the fat and years of disuse and there may still be something to look at.
It's time for more than just cosmetic changes for the Bulls.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.