Bulls Insider

7 observations: Karnišovas won't rebuild, vows to improve


Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas held his season-ending news conference on Saturday and, in his opening statement, said he “wanted to kind of take you on a journey where we started.”

That should’ve been the first clue to how he answered the final question to the nearly 27-minute session: Would he undertake another full rebuild, like the one the previous Chicago Bulls' managerial regime undertook in 2017 by trading Jimmy Butler?

“That's been thrown around all this season---‘blow up, rebuild.’ It's not on our minds,” Karnišovas said. “I think the moment we changed our minds in the 20-21 season to kind of focus on winning and try to build a sustainable program here, I think that's what we're focused on right now. How we can help this group and how we can improve from this year? That's what our offseason's goal is going to look like. We're going to consider everything and how we can compete with the top teams.”

So if that’s not Karnišovas’ well-worn proclamation of continuity, it’s close.

Yes, Karnišovas emphatically stated the need to address the Bulls’ woeful 3-point shooting, which ranked last in both makes and attempts. The Bulls were the only team in the league to attempt fewer than 30 3-point attempts per game.

And he said he’s always looking to add physicality to help limit opponent second-chance points and for the pursuit of 50-50 loose balls.

But Karnišovas also talked about his desire to re-sign potential unrestricted free agent Nikola Vucevic and restricted free agents Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu, which is a near impossibility unless the Bulls become a luxury tax team. And that’s something ownership has paid only once in franchise history.

“The way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path,” Karnišovas said.

That’s debatable, particularly since the Bulls failed, at least record-wise, to improve upon last season or return to the playoffs. And Karnišovas’ publicly stated preseason goal was improvement over last season.

Karnišovas said he saw improvement in other forms.

“The recent things obviously are positive. If you were going to have told me we're going to be a top-5 defensive team in the league prior to the season, I would think that we would struggle defensively, instead of offensively. We struggled most of the year on offense. We were the 24th-ranked offense in the league. We were 16th post All-Star, although we were number one defensive team post All-Star,” Karnišovas said. “I think this group had more experience together and the ups and downs were a little less drastic than the first half of the season. A lot of times we would come off a good two, three wins in a row and then we would have a letdown of two, three hard-to-understand losses. Second half of the season was much better. “

So it’s clear Karnišovas is going to try to get creative this offseason in the quest to keep winning, not undertake another full rebuild. The roster will look different next season. But the philosophy of trying to win now will remain the same.

Here are seven other comments that stood out from Karnišovas’ session, with analysis following:

Karnišovas: I wanted to kind of take you on a journey where we started by getting a trade with Vooch and bringing him here in addition to Zach (LaVine) and having all the additions of DeMar (DeRozan) and AC (Alex Caruso) and Lonzo (Ball). The idea was to have those three guys be surrounded by those defensive, high-energy guys---kind of like an engine. That was an idea behind the summer of 2021. Leading into 2021, we turned the roster around and built the expectations by being successful pretty fast and going to the playoffs in 2021-22 season. But we were beating bad teams and losing to good teams. We flipped the script in 2022-23, going in with high expectations and a lot of uncertainty due to injuries. We didn’t know what to expect from our group. And we were more competitive, but we lost a lot of close games. We stayed in a lot of games. But getting to All-Star game, we lost 16 out of 33 games to last shot, last minute or overtime. That’s a lot of games to lose that are close. Last year, we finished 7-15 post All-Star. This year, we were 14-9, which was a positive. Made a run at trying to make the playoffs. The word of this year is probably inconsistency.

Analysis: While it’s true the Bulls majorly regressed with their record in clutch games, defined as being within five points with 5 minutes to play, they only finished 21-30 against over-.500 teams. They did own high-profile victories over the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, among others. But their real downfall was moving from tying for third in 2021-22 for most clutch victories at 25-16 to tying for second-fewest such victories at 15-23 this season. Still, the fact Karnišovas referenced the Vucevic trade and the extremely active 2021 offseason seems telling. He’s not going to do a massive overhaul to this roster. He’s going to try to find the right moves to augment what sounds like a decent amount of the core returning.

Karnišovas: My responsibility is to look at everything. At the end of the day, to be a .500 team is not good enough. It’s not good enough for this organization. It’s not good enough for the fan base. They deserve better, so I’m going to have to look at everything. How can I help this group to do better? We have to move forward. But I’ll be open to anything.

Analysis: Except a full rebuild. The safe guess is that Karnišovas will look to get creative this offseason, as he did in 2021, by maximizing trade scenarios and using salary-cap exceptions to address needs. The Bulls are almost certain to operate as an over-the-cap team this offseason, even if Nikola Vucevic signs elsewhere in free agency. That wouldn’t create some massive amount of cap space anyway, probably somewhere around $15 million if all cap holds are renounced. Their usable exceptions would be around that amount anyway, if not more. Look also for the Bulls to try to aggressively negotiate with the Portland Trail Blazers on the loosening of protections on the first-round pick that Portland owes. Could the Bulls wring another asset out of that situation, which Portland needs to resolve before it can try to make major moves to appease Damian Lillard?

Karnišovas: It’s difficult to project now because obviously (Lonzo Ball) had surgery in March, so I don’t know what his timeline is right now. I have confidence that he's going to come back. In terms of timeline, I don't have that timeline right now because he just had his procedure. I don't have regrets (about not more aggressively addressing point guard last offseason) because I had to wait for clarity. We were going with hopes he was going to play with us, and that didn't happen and I had to adjust afterwards. I don't know his timeline, but we're going to make adjustments and tweaks to the roster to address that.

Analysis: The Bulls need a starting point guard. Karnišovas said he wouldn’t comment on whether the Bulls would apply for a disabled player exception. It sounds like, at least from the outset of the offseason, the plan is to monitor Ball and see where his progress is and make decisions from there. Already, there is speculation that he could miss all of next season too.

Karnišovas: It will be a priority for us to kind of change our shooting profile because it's very difficult for us to go into every game with such a (3-point shooting) deficit. We're last in 3-point rate, last in 3-point field goals made. It's almost like we're going into every game with an eight-point deficit to make up for it. We're going to look at it. First is the shot creation and then obviously our personnel. So we're going to try to tweak that shooting profile for sure. . . . But we have a lot of good shooters as well who are developing. We created a lot of shots. At times they turned them down for drives.

Analysis: This one doesn’t take much unpacking. As previously stated, the Bulls were the only team in the league not to attempt at least 30 3-pointers per game. Golden State, the league leader, took 43.2 per game. The intriguing part to monitor will be that this same issue presented itself last offseason and the Bulls only added Goran Dragic and Dalen Terry to try to address it. As for good shooters who are developing, Terry’s shot needs an overhaul. Coby White fits that category, but he’s a restricted free agent. Stay tuned.

Karnišovas: (Vucevic) has been awesome for us. He’s been available in all 82 games. He’s been our iron man together with Patrick Williams. He's a double-double machine as a top-three player in double-doubles this year. So he's a huge part of this team. We hope to retain him.

Analysis: As previously stated, if Vucevic is elsewhere next season, it’s not like the Bulls become a team flush with cap space. He may not be a perfect player for today’s modern NBA, but he’s durable, highly skilled and a high IQ player who fits into almost any role. The Bulls would be best served by figuring out an extension before he even becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, especially given the price tag they paid to acquire him. Would a three-year deal worth $66 million get it done?

Karnišovas: Coby (White) has gotten better in every aspect of his game. I think that's a good example of a player that's developing and taking strides, from decision-making to defense to 3-point shooting. Especially in the second half of the season, he's been really good for us and has been key in a lot of wins. So he's gotten really better.

Analysis: Karnišovas answered “absolutely” when asked if he’d like to re-sign White, who will be a restricted free agent. Coach Billy Donovan followed by saying White “is a lot more equipped” to be a starter in this league. With Ball almost certainly out for most, if not all of next season, retaining White should be a priority. Would a three-year, $42-45 million deal get it done?

Karnišovas: Zach (LaVine) had an unbelievable second half of the season. He's back to ‘Healthy Zach’ and he averaged 27 points a game as a high-efficiency scorer. Obviously, the example of Toronto game, we don't win that game without Zach. He was a huge part of it and the way we won the game in the second half. He's done very well for us. I think the biggest thing for us is to find how this group collectively can find ways to win more games. I think it falls on all of us, players, coaches and front office to figure that out.

Analysis: That’s the thing because the Bulls’ Big Three was remarkably durable. Vucevic played all 82 games. LaVine sat out four of the first eight games as part of his knee injury management plan, then didn’t miss another game from Nov. 6 until he rested in the penultimate game in Dallas. LaVine finished third in the league in total minutes played, Vucevic fourth and DeRozan 11th. That three-man unit logged more minutes than any other three-man unit in the league with 1,642 shared minutes---and posted a net rating of minus-0.4. So if the Bulls retain that core, they need the right pieces around it. Ball and Alex Caruso together made it work. That same success has eluded the Bulls since Ball went down.

In closing, Karnišovas praised the support he receives from ownership and said it’s “obviously going to have to be justified when we’re ready to push forward” as far as asking to go into the luxury tax. Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago last season that the franchise would pay the tax for a championship contender.

The Bulls are far from that. This offseason will be a critical one for Karnišovas and his staff.

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