Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
BOSTON --- During the 2021 offseason, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas and his staff completely revamped the Chicago Bulls in an array of transactions and salary-cap machinations that pushed the franchise into win-now mode.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Chicago sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
It worked---for a half season, as the Bulls led the Eastern Conference and Lonzo Ball served as the ultimate connecting piece.
Since then, despite Ball’s knee injuries placing his career in jeopardy, missing the playoffs last season and advanced metrics that don’t factor favorably, Karnišovas has clung to his core of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević through thick and thin. Karnišovas has chosen to augment those players with complementary pieces rather than break them up.
Continuity is cratering. The Bulls carry a four-game losing streak and a 5-13 record into Tuesday’s matchup with the NBA-best Boston Celtics and face a daunting schedule moving forward.
“We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated,” Karnišovas said Tuesday in a short conversation with beat writers. “We’re disappointed, but I’m not running from it. It’s my responsibility.”
Indeed, a feeling of imminent change hung over this franchise even before Zach LaVine and his representative made it clear to Karnišovas earlier this month that LaVine for the first time would be open to a change of scenery. And with Karnišovas being given the green light from ownership to address the myriad issues facing this team how he sees fit and with coach Billy Donovan recently extended and internally respected, those changes are coming via personnel---not the lead executive or head coach.
It's a matter of when, not if, for personnel changes.
That said, the league doesn’t really open for business until Dec. 15, the date most players who signed during the offseason are first eligible to be traded. And even then, particularly with the introduction of the play-in format, most teams are in wait-and-see mode on whether they’re contenders or pretenders until closer to the February trade deadline.
In the case of the Los Angeles Lakers, who are expected to register interest in LaVine, some of their assets aren’t eligible to be traded until Jan. 15. With three more seasons and $138 million left on his deal past this season, LaVine is a tricky contract to move.
But LaVine’s future is the main focus. NBC Sports Chicago reported over the offseason that the Bulls held exploratory trade talks centered on LaVine and that the franchise has fluctuated in its belief in LaVine’s consistency as a lead option---issues that sources now say played a part in LaVine and his representative taking their frustrations to management.
That said, multiple sources said the relationship between management and LaVine and his camp remains cordial and professional.
Then there’s the matter of LaVine’s on-court fit with DeRozan and Vučević. While LaVine and DeRozan are close off the court, their on-court chemistry---or lack thereof---remains a consistent storyline hovering over this team.
As does the question of whether or not LaVine wants to remain with the Bulls.
“I talk to Zach all the time. The good, the bad, the ugly comes with being in this occupation and one of the best players on the team,” DeRozan said. “He understands that.”
As far back as training camp and following the third game of the season, LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević have directly stated they believe this is their last season to make it work. And it’s currently not working.
“We’re still connected for sure. And I think that’s where a lot of the frustration is coming from. We’re connected. Everybody is comfortable having those tough conversations that we didn’t have before,” DeRozan said Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of having it all click. And that comes with winning. Everyone is eager and hungry to win.”
The Bulls entered this season with postseason expectations. The hope was for DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević to continue their scoring efficiency while young players like Coby White and Patrick Williams took a step forward and free-agent additions Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig not only solidified a top-five defense led by Alex Caruso but helped a quicker offensive attack featuring more 3-point shots and paint attacks and less isolation.
Instead, the Bulls enter Tuesday’s game ranked 26th in offensive rating, 21st in defensive rating and 23rd in net rating. They’re last in PACE, last in assists and 27th in restricted area field-goal percentage. DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević all are shooting well below their career percentages.
And past the numbers, there’s the nuance of familiar themes like Donovan asking his team to play with more force and physicality. Too often during adverse times, the Bulls play with compliance, not competitiveness.
Such moments aren’t lost on management.
“I don’t think it’s from a lack of toughness,” DeRozan said. “I think it’s just from a lack of understanding and IQ so to speak. You kind of get overly scrambled and overthink a situation a lot of times. And that can cause it to be more a little more chaotic. That’s when we have turnovers or missed assignments. You don’t have to overthink the game.
“I don’t ever think it’s from a lack of toughness. It’s just a lack of understanding and IQ in certain points of the game that becomes critical. And that kind of just steamrolls us. We miss shots or make mistakes defensively, turn the ball over. Next thing you know, we’re down 10 when we just got back in the game.”
While it’s too early to know if a LaVine trade can be made or whether that’s the only major move, it’s important to remember that Karnišovas inherited a rebuilding situation and pushed his chips into win-now mode first with the Vučević trade. So undertaking a full rebuild may be too painful a path to choose.
Stay tuned on that. For now, the Bulls are merely trying to right the ship before this season careens completely out of control. Playing better and winning more also could help restore some players' trade value.
“When you get in a hole or face any type of challenge in your life, it’s how you step up to it,” DeRozan said. “Of course it’s going to be frustrating because we all want to win. . . . You can’t carry all the negative stuff that happened prior. Worry about the next game and hopefully you get a rhythm game-by-game.
“We have a good week, good two weeks, the whole narrative changes. It’s on us to control what we can control. And that’s why we come to work every day.”