Why the Bulls should explore trading down in 2020 NBA Draft


If there’s anything Artūras Karnišovas has proven in his short stint as Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, it’s that he has a thorough plan and he’s aggressive.

He picked the day after the conclusion of the disjointed 2019-20 regular season to fire Jim Boylen, not paying attention to outside noise that swirled in his first four months on the job analyzing the delay in the decision. 

He hired Billy Donovan as Boylen’s replacement after interviewing 10 other candidates, quickly pivoting to pursue an unexpected opportunity.

So to think he doesn’t have an exact strategy for how he wants to attack the Nov. 18 NBA draft might be unwise.

The difference this time? If he wants to trade up or down, it’s not a unilateral decision. He needs a second team to tango.

The Denver Nuggets traded down twice in Karnišovas’ six drafts as he worked under Tim Connelly, that franchise’s president of basketball operations. The Bulls should try to do the same this year.

At first blush, the idea seems ludicrous. After all, the Bulls have either drafted seventh or acquired the draft rights to the seventh pick in three straight drafts — this year, they finally landed some lottery luck to own the fourth overall pick. The team is coming off a 22-win season. Karnišovas has gushed about never owning this high a pick before.

But this isn’t a typical draft.

Forget the initial talk of this being a three-player draft in Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball. Even early projections for those players representing the top-three picks have fluctuated in most mocks.

Karnišovas alluded to as much on the lottery night that the Bulls moved from the seventh to the fourth pick.

“There’s going to be variations of opinion,” he said in August. “Some teams are going to look at that player at (No.) 4. Some teams are going to look at him at 18.”

That’s where Karnišovas, Marc Eversley and the front office staff have to do their homework. Find the team that covets a player at No. 4 so fervently that it adds the right sweetener to move up to nab him.

It may prove too difficult. And in the event of a trade-down, it would also be incumbent on the Bulls to identify a prospect later in the lottery that can still provide upside to the team. From, for example, Tyrese Halbiurton, to Devin Vassell, to Killian Hayes and others (if available), there should be a few, but staying put at No. 4 ensures the widest range of options.

This idea isn’t predicated on punting on a high draft choice entirely. For all the optimism surrounding the Bulls, a lack of results throughout the rebuild shows the team is operating at something of a talent deficit. Drafting well from a high position is a surefire strategy to correct that. 

But the new front office regime has also publicly stated their desire is to “retool,” not “rebuild.” Maximizing future assets while addressing the underachievement of the current roster is the fastest avenue to achieve this. 

Beyond finding a second team to dance with, an issue is roster spots. Assuming Otto Porter Jr. chooses the no-brainer route of exercising his $28.5 million player option, the Bulls have 12 guaranteed contracts entering the 2020-21 season. That doesn’t account for pending decisions on potential restricted free agents Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Shaquille Harrison, or any draft choices (the Bulls also own pick No. 44, a point Karnišovas has emphasized).

Karnišovas dodged a question in August about whether he believes in the “draft-and-stash” philosophy, wherein an international player currently under contract overseas is drafted for future use. From Bulls lore, think Nikola Mirotić or Toni Kukoč. From Karnišovas’ time in Denver, think Nikola Radičević, Petr Cornelie or Vlatko Čančar (all taken in the second round).

But Karnišovas comes with a reputation for knowing the international game and owning international contacts. So perhaps the Bulls can entice, say, the New York Knicks or Boston Celtics, who both possess multiple first-round picks, to move up to No. 4. That way the Bulls could add one rookie for this season and draft an intriguing international player for down the line.

Would the Knicks include Kevin Knox? The Celtics, Romeo Langford or Grant Williams? Do the Bulls even like them, or any of the possible late first round international prospects such as Leandro Bolmaro, Aleskej Pokusevski or Theo Maledon, to name three?

Another option would be trying to find a team that would include a future first-round pick. This scenario would almost certainly feature the Bulls taking on a large contract. But as long as that deal is an expiring one, and the Bulls were hypothetically willing to part with Tomáš Satoranský or Thad Young to make the money work, snagging an extra pick would be worth it.

Studying drafts that Karnišovas and Eversley have worked on, it’s clear their teams’ draft philosophy centered on trying to maximize value. In other words, their respective teams didn’t go into the draft set on one idea. Those staffs read the night’s proceedings and made the play they felt brought the most value.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. This just in: The draft is hard.

With the unprecedented nature of this year’s draft process and the scouting opportunities lost to the pandemic, this year’s draft is even harder. But it still presents an opportunity for the Bulls to turn the No. 4 pick into multiple assets.

The Bulls are on the clock.

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