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Why Karnišovas returned most of Bulls roster, for now

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Any basketball executive worth their paycheck looks for opportunity.

Typically in the NBA, the biggest opportunities for, well, opportunity are the offseason and the trade deadline.

Thanks to an unprecedented 2020-21 season impacted by a global pandemic, the latter date hasn’t been set yet. And the former time period just passed with Artūras Karnišovas, the Bulls’ new executive vice president of basketball operations, returning 13 of the 15 players who won 22 games and didn’t receive an invite to the league’s restart in the 2019-20 campaign.

We were pretty happy with the roster that we had. We didn't have a lot of wiggle room to work with. We added players that are versatile. We added some leadership, experience to the roster we already had and that was the mentality,” Karnišovas said. “And also preserving cap room for next summer and using this season to look at our roster and evaluate and see what the long-term goals will be following this season.”

Take Karnišovas' words with a grain of salt. If the right opportunity presents itself at the still-to-be-determined trade deadline -- particularly since it will come after a significant evaluation period of games -- now is a good reminder that Patrick Williams and Garrett Temple are the only players that fall on his acquisition resume as a Bulls executive.

That’s not to say he doesn’t value Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen. Or that his philosophy to preserve a potential $25-30 million of salary cap space for a star-studded free agency class in 2021 isn’t sound. Or that his previously publicly-stated belief that he wants to build through the draft and focus on player development is just lip service.

It’s more to say Karnišovas has a clear vision for his foundation and philosophy. And if the right opportunity presents itself along the way, well, actions speak louder than words.

So any words uttered as the Bulls kicked off media week in advance of training camp should be taken with perspective.

We are building the program. Cohesion and learning how to win takes time. We will build it the right way, no skipping steps. Continuity is huge in our league, so our main objectives are focused on player development, getting better every day,” Karnišovas said. “The only perception we care about is what’s in this building. Our confidence level and what we think about ourselves cannot come from social media or what others think about us. It’s all about this group on a daily basis and what we think about ourselves, what are our goals. In this consistently changing environment, we are taking it one day at a time.

“My impression was (the roster) was better than I thought.”

Along those lines, what Karnišovas said about LaVine perhaps most eloquently illustrated the fine line he is walking between supporting and appreciating inherited pieces while making clear he seeks more to fit his vision.

Think about it. On the one hand, he praised LaVine’s offseason, calling him “tremendous.” In the next breath, he said LaVine’s unique scoring ability has to be “in a team setting.”

That’s not a shot at LaVine. LaVine knows as well as anyone that he hasn’t tasted playoff basketball. He wants to do so -- badly -- in Chicago.

But if it happens, it will happen because he assimilates his game into Karnišovas' vision.

“Zach has been tremendous in this offseason. He’s been communicating with me every day and with the coaching staff. The communication has been great. He cannot wait to get on the floor with his teammates and to figure out the ways we can win the game,” Karnišovas said. “Moving forward, he’s been an unbelievable individual player. He has a skillset that is hard to find in our league. We just have to put it in a way that is going to be in a team setting.

“It’s all about results. It’s a result-driven league. We’ll try to figure out how to win games.”

Similarly, new coach Billy Donovan, while citing his preferred style of play, echoed Karnišovas in simultaneously praising LaVine and emphasizing a team-first approach.

LaVine is a willing passer and all about buy-in with coaches, so this shouldn’t be an issue. Entering his seventh season, Donovan marks LaVine’s sixth different coach.

“With this group we’ve got to run, and we’ve got to be really willing to move and to cut and to help each other generate shots,” Donovan said. “Zach is such a dynamic player offensively. But we can’t always rely on him being so dynamic. We’ve got to rely on each other.

“So how can we build out a system offensively where we’re not only playing into guys’ strengths, but we’re creating a situation where maybe the sum is greater than the parts, where we’re all helping each other? And I do think a lot of that is we’re going to have to move and cut and work to generate good shots. I think that starts on the rebound, being able to get out and run in transition. And I think it really starts in the halfcourt.”

Karnišovas cited Temple’s “versatility, experience, leadership” when asked for a scouting report on his lone free-agent acquisition on a guaranteed contract. He said Noah Vonleh, whom he knows from shared Denver days, is “going to compete in training camp.”

That potentially suggests a willingness to waive a guaranteed deal of, say, Cristiano Felício or Luke Kornet should Vonleh outplay one of them. But that’s a back-end roster scenario.

To get to where Karnišovas wants to take the Bulls, the front end of the roster must improve. For now, given his limited offseason changes, that improvement must come from within.

When I joined the Bulls during the Spring, objectives were established for change,” Karnisovas said. “We continue to evolve as a team on all levels, and I’m confident that we are moving in the direction that will revitalize our organization. This process would not be possible without the stewardship and support that we have received from Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf. They’ve been tremendous. They are just as committed as I am to make the city of Chicago proud of the Bulls once again.

“The excitement at the Advocate Center is tangible. We’re ready to get things underway and look forward to sharing the season with the city of Chicago.’’

 

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