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Why Bulls are expected to keep LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic

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Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas established his expectations for the Chicago Bulls’ 2022-23 season back in September on the eve of training camp.

“We have to do better than last year,” Karnišovas said in an appearance on NBC Sports Chicago with Jason Goff, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill. “Yearly improvement, that’s what I’m looking for. Ultimately, obviously, winning it (all). That’s the goal.”

That doesn’t sound like an executive prepared to move off one of his three core players before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. Karnišovas specifically targeted and acquired two of those players in Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan. Karnišovas inherited Zach LaVine from the previous regime but signed him to a max contract extension worth $215 million last offseason.

Obviously, plans can change. And this inconsistent season can test Karnišovas’ publicly stated goal for roster continuity, particularly since Lonzo Ball hasn’t played in an NBA game since January 2022.

But as of Tuesday, rival teams continue to operate under the premise that Karnišovas wants to see what his core can accomplish down the stretch run. This stance would be consistent with Karnišovas’ preseason expectations to improve on last season's 46-victory campaign and first-round playoff exit.

The stance, which obviously could be altered before Thursday’s deadline by an unforeseen, beneficial offer, certainly carries risk. Vucevic, for one, could become an unrestricted free agent if an extension isn’t reached by July 1. DeRozan becomes extension-eligible when the NBA’s fiscal year starts anew on July 1.

But there’s also some logic behind the position.

For the short-term, micro view, the Big Three is playing better together more consistently, finally nudging into the black with a plus-0.2 net rating over 1,070 shared minutes. And if improvement over last season is the goal, trading one of the three---presumably to recoup a cupboard low on draft capital, plus either a young player or one long-term contract---wouldn’t aid playoff chances. Topping last season's regular-season victory mark is a longshot, so playoff improvement has to be the goal.

On the big-picture, macro view, the Bulls’ first-round pick is headed to the Orlando Magic as part of the Vucevic acquisition, provided it lands outside the top-four picks. Trading one of the core pieces wouldn’t worsen the Bulls enough to drastically improve their draft lottery odds; they’d likely need similar luck to when they drafted Derrick Rose to land in the top-four. Plus, a source said no substantive, serious offers have been fielded for any of the core pieces.

Also, the Bulls remain confident in their ability to re-sign Vucevic, who is having a strong season in his contract year. Trading away Wendell Carter Jr. and two first-round picks to lose Vucevic for nothing would be harmful, and management appears intent on not letting that happen.

After a slow start to the season, LaVine has rounded into scoring and shooting form, although his late-game decision-making has regressed at times. His true shooting percentage of .590 represents the third-best of his career, just behind his two All-Star seasons.

Trading him for the media-created hypothetical package of Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 is essentially trading him for two far-off firsts since Westbrook owns an expiring deal and he wouldn’t likely fit into future plans. Any potential cap space created by such a deal would begin a search for a scorer like LaVine.

Karnišovas already pivoted off the youth movement he inherited when he acquired Vucevic for Carter Jr. and the two first-round picks. Acquiring DeRozan doubled down on this desire for competitive relevancy.

The Ball injury has currently impacted this core’s ceiling, but this iteration of the team has only been together for 18 months. Given his amount of roster overhaul over the last 23 months, Karnišovas’ desire to see his work play and grow together isn’t merely lip service.

And with his publicly stated goal of winning a playoff round, a minor “buy” move is more in the cards before Thursday than a major “sell” move. Those can come at another time, too, if this season doesn’t reach Karnišovas’ goals.

If he isn’t extended, DeRozan will be an expiring contract next season. LaVine’s continued upward trajectory this season could make him attractive to suitors near the NBA draft in June, the other historically active time for trade talks.

Trade deadline week always is fluid. But as of this writing, the expectation is for it to be a quiet one in terms of major Bulls’ moves.

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