Back in December, as a team-wide outbreak of COVID-19 ravaged the Chicago Bulls’ roster, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas and his staff would arrive at the Advocate Center early each day, braced for anything and everything.
“Somebody is COVID positive, somebody just tweaked a knee, somebody is out,” Karnišovas said Friday at that same Advocate Center in his season-ending media session. “So for (coach) Billy (Donovan) and his staff and what they had to deal with — and our performance staff was wonderful too — this gym was just every day busy with our player development guys trying to keep guys that had low-minute runs, keep those guys in shape. Our performance staff worked guys back from injuries. So it’s been a very challenging year.”
And it’s over. A season that featured the Bulls’ first postseason appearance in five years also featured 29 different starting lineups — or roughly the number of times the word “continuity” has been used from players, coaches and now the most important decision-maker in basketball operations over the past few days.
“I hope for continuity because we’re constantly competing against teams that have been together for three, four, five years. Results come obviously when you keep the same group together longer,” Karnišovas said. “We’ll figure out what additions we need. Is that shooting, is that defense, is that size, athleticism? We’re going to sit down and figure it out with the group.’’
This echoes what Karnišovas said after standing pat at the February trade deadline, noting the amount of change he and his staff had enacted by flipping the entire roster it inherited over save for Zach LaVine and Coby White in just two years.
“I think this group is still forming,” he said on Friday. “They’re going to have another summer. Leading into the training camp, there’s going to definitely be improvements being together for a longer time.
“Again, you’re playing against Milwaukee, against Philly, against Boston, against Miami. They’ve been together for a long time. Continuity is valuable. And this experience from playing together for seven months for them is going to be a good experience.”
The Bulls own the 18th pick in the June NBA draft. They hope to retain LaVine, who is an unrestricted free agent and seeking a maximum contract. They own salary-cap exceptions in free agency, which will be determined by whether or not they project to be a tax team upon resolution of the LaVine situation.
This management regime has always looked for opportunities and aggressively addressed needs. But look for the core to return.
“My expectations are those. But, again, we've always been ready for what comes our way,” Karnišovas said. “Hopefully we can keep the core together and work around the margins.”
That core includes Nikola Vučević, who Karnišovas acquired at a high price at the February 2021 trade deadline as the first major roster-shifting move. Vučević averaged a double-double this season but, in his new role as a third primary scorer behind LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, struggled with an inconsistent shooting season.
“He was one of our most durable players. And I think if you think about the rotations, guards going in and out, wings going in and out, I think he would have been probably the hardest guy to replace,” Karnišovas said. “But he stayed available, and he's been a vital part of what we run on offense.”
Look for the front office to try to shore up the bench with improved shooting and rim protection. But, again, continuity is king.
Along those lines, Karnišovas praised DeRozan’s plan to assemble teammates — most notably, Patrick Williams — for offseason workouts in Los Angeles.
“I love that,” he said.
Karnišovas acknowledged the disappointment of flat playoff performances in Games 3 and 4 against the Bucks before a raucous United Center crowd that was thirsty for relevant basketball again. He knows plenty of work remains.
But he also remembers a weeks-long stay atop the Eastern Conference by a more fully whole team that had a strong identity at both ends.
“The small sample we had at the beginning of the season I thought was pretty good. We understand our roster and any shortcomings,” he said. “I think it’s also a long season, lots of lineups, so it’s very hard to find your identity defensively when your lineup is constantly changing. We had a very hard time especially in the second half with that when our defense dropped to the 20s. There’s definitely a lot of room to improve. For us to compete, we have to be top-10 in both offense and defense. We’ll try to figure out how to get there.”
The journey has begun. When Karnišovas took over for John Paxson, he cited his desire to return the Bulls to championship contention. At the very least, this season represented a return to relevancy.
“I was pleasantly surprised last summer how many people wanted to play in Chicago — just the history of this franchise, the city of Chicago. And I think anybody that steps into the United Center, they feel the energy and passion,” Karnišovas said. “And talking to a lot of people, they agree that it's great that the postseason came back to that building.
“I think a lot of people want to play in Chicago. I think Billy's a huge part of it and stability in terms of (us) doing our part and our relationships with players. Current players, they talk. Just trying to be ourselves. Chicago is gonna be always a great destination for any players.”
New ones will be here in the 2022-23 season. But expect plenty of familiar faces to return.
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