Bulls' Artūras Karnišovas, Billy Donovan emphasize team chemistry

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Karnišovas, Donovan must pass Bulls' chemistry class originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The NBA is a players’ league. Always has been and always will be.

The best coaches and front office executives know talent trumps all and makes them look smart. Ball don’t lie.

That’s why even after one of the most active and headline-grabbing offseasons in the Association, Artūras Karnišovas wasn’t taking any victory laps on Bulls media day on Monday.

Think about this: Not only did Monday mark the first time that Karnišovas addressed reporters since landing DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and other roster-changing pieces, he either didn’t fully understand or fully answer a question about why he didn’t appear alongside those players at some introductory news conference during the offseason. Even in the age of COVID-19, that’s standard practice for teams.

“You gotta add talent to the roster. But because there were so many changes, that’s what the scary thing is. Now you have to figure out the team chemistry and how long it will take,” Karnišovas said at the United Center on Monday. “(Coach) Billy (Donovan) mentioned before the high basketball IQ gives us a better chance to figure it out quicker.

“I think the guys that we added, we added a lot of basketball IQ. We also added NBA length and athleticism at a lot of positions. So there’s a lot of excitement. But we have to see it and prove it every day. We’re going to have to earn respect.”

These remarks dovetail with Karnišovas’ post-season evaluation following the Bulls’ failure to even make the play-in tournament following his bold move to acquire Nikola Vučević at the March trade deadline. He acknowledged the short-term disappointment of that but stood by his decision, pointing out that adding All-Star players to the roster typically pays dividends.

And lo and behold, there was DeRozan on Monday, acknowledging Vučević's role — along with other factors, like the ascension of Zach LaVine — in his decision to join the Bulls.

Opinion is still divided among league prognosticators about how high the Bulls’ ceiling can be. But it’s seemingly indisputable that management upgraded the talent level. And now it’s on Donovan and his staff to make all the pieces fit.

“When you turn the roster over as much as we did, there are going to be some ups and downs,” Donovan said. “But having a chance to spend time with a lot of these new guys, just in terms of their competitive makeup and their character and experience, I think they understand that’s going to be a challenge.”

Donovan indeed pointed to the high basketball IQ of the additions as an optimistic bent to why he believes this challenge can be overcome.

“I think we have guys who have a really, really good feel on how to play,” Donovan said. “I do think last year there was a lot on Zach’s plate from ballhandling and creating and generating points and offense for us. I think now we’ve created a situation where we have multiple handlers.”

The primary one, however, will be Ball. The Bulls have been linked to Ball since the March trade deadline, engaging in talks with the Pelicans centered on Lauri Markkanen. When those didn’t bear fruit, management instead struck so quickly in free agency that the league is currently investigating whether the Bulls committed tampering violations.

Karnišovas respectfully declined to comment on the status of that investigation. But he did address the addition of Ball for the first time publicly.

“He likes to play fast. He likes to advance the ball, to guard. He can be a primary ballhandler, or he can play as a secondary ballhandler. He improved his 3-point shooting. He became close to 40 percent 3-point shooter on eight attempts, which is really good number. The versatility. And then he can rebound the ball,” Karnišovas said. “We were asked about the rebounding. I think we have a couple good guards who can rebound the ball. So there were a lot of things that were attractive.

“Collectively right now, we have a lot of guys who can handle the ball. As many ballhandlers as we can get, then we can be more versatile. Teams can struggle defending us and (can’t) have one gameplan to stop one player. I think the versatility gives us a chance every night.”

It's a players league, but the vision of Karnišovas, general manager Marc Eversley and Donovan is taking shape. Only LaVine and Coby White remain from the regime led by John Paxson and Gar Forman.

The Bulls targeted their players in free agency. And then they got them.

“Well, I think starting on trade deadline moves, I think that showed that winning is important. And I think the pitch this summer to free agents was we’re building something, and we want to win,” Karnišovas said. “So I think that helped, together with having Zach and having Vooch as two All-Stars already on the roster.

“We were pleasantly surprised that a lot of guys wanted to play in Chicago. It obviously says a lot about building a new staff. It says a lot about the players like Zach and Vooch and players wanting to play with them.”

It says a lot about a lot of things. And now it has to work. After shelling out over $100 million and spending draft capital, anything less than a playoff berth will be a failure.

“It’s so hard to sit there and make predictions or project what is or is not going to happen,” Donovan said. “I just know we have a lot of work ahead of us. I’m excited about the work because I’m excited about the guys."

That work begins at the first official practice Tuesday.

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