With his former employer in town for the first time since he left the Denver Nuggets to become the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, Artūras Karnišovas wore a suit and a smile as he addressed reporters Monday night for the first time since training camp.
And why not? The Bulls are widely considered to have exceeded modest expectations to this point. Karnišovas’ moves -- hiring Billy Donovan, drafting Patrick Williams, signing Garrett Temple, extending a qualifying offer to Denzel Valentine but not an injured Kris Dunn -- have largely worked.
At Monday’s morning shootaround, Wendell Carter Jr., in addressing his relationship with Karnišovas and Karnišovas’ overall impact on the franchise, offered glowing praise. So there’s a lot of positive momentum building at the Advocate Center.
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Against that backdrop, Karnišovas fielded questions for 16 minutes. Here are his four most important answers, with analysis of each:
Karnišovas, on his relationship with Billy Donovan: “I think he’s doing a great job. I’ve watched all the media availabilities by him. You’ve done, all of you, a great job covering the team. Great questions. And I think the one question that’s always coming up is, ‘When do they meet? When do they talk?’ We talk every day. We talk before every practice. We spend time during practices, talk after practices, before games, after games. So the communication is always there. I expected that and more, so there’s no misunderstandings from my side or his side. There’s always a clear understanding of what do we think after every game. How we can make this group better? What are the areas we can improve moving forward? So it’s unbelievable communication and I’m thankful to have him around.’’
Analysis: It’s well documented that Karnišovas, who had already conducted 10 interviews, pivoted quickly to try to hire Donovan when the former Oklahoma City Thunder coach unexpectedly became available. Both men talked about the connection they felt and expressed excitement for the partnership ahead.
But it’s easy to spout platitudes during a courtship. Now that two basketball lifers have worked together daily during an NBA season unlike no other because of all the challenges that COVID-19 presents, the fact that their relationship only has strengthened is meaningful.
Ownership signed off on a significant financial commitment to hire Donovan at a time the franchise has no income from game operations and is still paying previous coach Jim Boylen. It’s because Karnišovas made it clear how Donovan aligned with his and Marc Eversley’s emphasis on player development. The early returns are strong.
On the March 25 trade deadline: “Expanding the playoffs to 10 teams and then two or three are still delusional and think that they can make it to 10, I think that makes a very interesting trade deadline. But you know Billy and I spend more time talking about how we can improve this group, and focus now on this group that we have, that’s actually playing well and had a first month of winning in February. Last couple games they had some slipping, but I think overall this group is doing so much better and looking forward to seeing the next 40 games...
“I never look at player as trade commodities. Right now, we’re focused on winning games, because the separation between fourth and 10th place is a game-and-a-half. So this group is doing pretty well. I think now 12 or 13 are in (the playoff mix) in the East. So I just think teams are going to try to improve, and there’s not going to be a lot of sellers. So I think we’re just going to focus on our guys and how to get them better.”
Analysis: Obviously, unexpected opportunities can develop. But this certainly sounds like an executive focused on player development and maximizing a season that he previously had called one of evaluation. Given that crucial players on this team, most notably Zach LaVine, never have tasted playoff basketball, even experiencing an opening round can be beneficial to development.
Karnišovas and Eversley and Donovan have worked hard to establish relationships and build culture. Obviously, all players understand the NBA is a business. And Karnišovas knows he has to weigh the big picture if the right deal presents itself. However, given the emphasis on being a player-friendly organization, don’t look for him to make a deal just to make a deal.
On whether Zach LaVine has proven to be a franchise cornerstone: “He’s deserving right now of his accolades and made an All-Star game and we are really proud of him. We’re constantly in games because of his play, so he’s been establishing himself as a leader of this team and we’ve improved dramatically because he is impacting winning. So that’s why besides his numbers of 29 (points), 5 (rebounds) and 5 (assists), which are amazing, he’s also impacting winning. So that’s why this team is fighting for a playoff spot.”
Analysis: The fact Karnišovas cited LaVine’s impact on winning is huge here. It suggests he doesn’t fall into the camp that believes LaVine, who, as previously mentioned never has been in the playoffs, can’t contribute to a winning program after years of scoring for bad teams.
Karnišovas can try to renegotiate LaVine’s contract that runs through next season this offseason if he wants to avoid having the All-Star guard hit unrestricted free agency. There are two avenues to do so. The more lucrative one is utilizing $14.2 million of the Bulls’ projected salary-cap space to offer a four-year deal worth roughly $152 million based on current cap projections (Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus first broached this idea in the media world).
There’s no guarantee LaVine would agree to such a deal, of course, since he’d be able to likely make more in unrestricted free agency. But the fact rival league executives are under the impression LaVine is off limits suggests a potential long-term relationship here.
On Lauri Markkanen: “I think development is the No. 1 thing with all of our players and especially with Lauri. The things that before the season we set the expectations for Lauri, I think he met. Obviously before he got hurt, he was 19 (ppg) and shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40 from the 3. I think that’s what he can do on a daily basis. We can’t wait for him to come back and help this team win games.”
Analysis: Karnišovas consistently has sung Markkanen’s praises. It’s why such optimism existed for the two sides to hit on an extension of his rookie contract before the season. When that didn’t happen -- NBC Sports Chicago previously reported the difference in the first-year salary alone to be roughly $4 million -- questions about Markkanen’s future burgeoned. Markkanen’s latest injury setback has only intensified them.
But Karnišovas always talks about valuing shooting, and Markkanen’s production in that department is meeting his potential. Markkanen's inability to stay healthy -- he now has a sprained shoulder -- could end up making the price Karnišovas set in extension talks more realistic.
Either way, the Bulls will have the ability to let the market determine Markkanen's price and then decide whether to match or not. That will be obviously the definitive answer to this question.