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Assessing Karnišovas' first season as Bulls' executive VP originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
How to judge Artūras Karnišovas’ first season as executive vice president of basketball operations for the Chicago Bulls?
On the one hand, each of his significant moves mostly drew praise in the court of public opinion. But on the court, the Bulls fell short of the play-in tournament, no small detail in a middling Eastern Conference.
The Bulls enter the offseason in an intriguing position. Internally, there is widespread excitement, optimism and momentum. Externally, there remains the need for achievement to exceed expectations.
“We will continue being aggressive in our efforts to make this team better, whether that’s through trades, free agency or the draft. We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnišovas said following exit interviews with players. “We have an important summer coming up. We will evaluate this season and line up our priorities for the offseason.”
If nothing else, Karnišovas proved he and his staff are process-oriented workers who pounce quickly — aggressively? — when they see an opportunity. Just look at the timeline of Karnišovas’ brief tenure.
Fired Jim Boylen
After hiring general manager Marc Eversley, vice president of player personnel Pat Connelly and assistant general manager JJ Polk to form his inner circle, Karnišovas dismissed Boylen. Karnišovas explained his decision to take four months to make a decision that had been widely speculated since his hire.
“Officially the last day of the regular season is today,” he said in August 2020. “So I thought the timing was right, going into the lottery and the draft process and it's an official offseason for us. We thought that it was good timing.”
Karnišovas tuned out the outside noise to take his time and build his case to present to ownership, which signed off on the previous regime’s recommendation to extend Boylen. And he had a logical date to then act on his decision.
Hired Billy Donovan
Karnišovas interviewed upwards of 10 candidates, a pool that, besides former Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, largely consisted of assistant coaches looking for their first opportunity. Sources at the time indicated that Denver Nuggets lead assistant Wes Unseld Jr. was at least one of the leading candidates.
But when Billy Donovan unexpectedly split from the Oklahoma City Thunder’s planned rebuild, Karnišovas quickly pivoted.
The story is well-documented by now. Karnišovas called Donovan as he drove from Oklahoma City to his home in Florida and asked to visit him immediately. Donovan needed some time with his family but then quickly connected with Karnišovas and Eversley upon their initial visit.
“Those that have played for Billy trust his coaching acumen and perhaps more importantly trust him as a person,” Karnišovas said upon Donovan’s hiring. “In all of my conversations and my personal meetings with Billy, two things stood out: First, he’s a great communicator and values his relationships with others. And second, he has the ability to inspire enthusiasm in others to strive for a common goal.”
Players praised Donovan’s leadership and transparent communication throughout the season. The big-money move — Donovan’s $6 million salary dwarfs what any first-time coach would’ve commanded — showcased Karnišovas’ ability to change plans based on opportunity, which could come into play this offseason.
For instance, let’s say hypothetically that Karnišovas prioritizes restricted free agent Lonzo Ball to solve the point guard issue. But if Ball lands with the New York Knicks, which is a strong possibility based on chatter in some league circles, he will have to pivot.
Expanded player development staff
Karnišovas built out a department that he and Eversley targeted as too small. And, in the cases of player development coordinators Henry Domercant, Ronnie Burrell, Ty Abbott and Max Rothschild, he added an intriguing element while doing so.
“When we’re in practice and we maybe cannot have 5-on-5 or a lot of contact, having those player development guys run through the other team’s plays or run through different things defensively that we can really guard is invaluable. It’s been really helpful,” Donovan said of the former players. “And those guys have developed good relationships with the players because there’s a lot of sweat equity there where they’re investing a lot of time with those guys personally. When you can have somebody to bang against on a consistent basis to really work on your game, it’s only going to make you better.”
Drafted Patrick Williams and Marko Simonović
Having worked for a Nuggets franchise that landed Nikola Jokić and Monte Morris in the second round of the draft, Karnišovas’ past creates some intrigue for Simonović. Karnišovas said the 6-foot-11 stretch four “is in our plans, for sure” but wouldn’t commit to that for being next season yet.
As for Williams, word leaked out late before the draft that Karnišovas had honed in on the physical wing from Florida State, even though Williams didn’t start but finished most games during his freshman year. Williams flashed both major potential and bouts of passivity during his mostly solid rookie season, which featured him starting and handling difficult defensive assignments.
Both picks could be considered unconventional. But they underscore Karnišovas' trust in his and his staff's scouting process. This obviously needs to be followed by more draft hits than misses as Karnišovas begins to shape the franchise and roster in his philosophy.
Signed Garrett Temple
This move didn’t move the needle much and surprised those, including NBC Sports Chicago, who figured he’d address point guard. But Temple proved to be a strong defender and mostly reliable shotmaker who provided leadership and toughness.
Whether or not Temple returns is less important than the larger point of Karnišovas identifying players who address specific needs. In Temple’s case, though he didn’t address point guard, he did bring leadership and defensive grit that helped in the culture-building aspect for a new regime.
Trade deadline day
This is the big one. This is the one that shifted the franchise from a young, developing team into win-now mode. That the acquisitions of Nikola Vučević', Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr., Al-Farouq Aminu and Javonte Green didn’t immediately produce a playoff berth is troubling, particularly since Karnišovas sacrificed two first-round picks and Theis could be headed elsewhere in free agency.
But the previous managerial regime drew criticism for being too conservative. These moves, while certainly risky, provided a foundation of two All-Star players around which to build.
And so now Karnišovas and his staff must make it work. They must address the point guard position — word around the league, for the second straight offseason, is that it’s a priority — and stuff the roster’s back end with development pieces, not dead weight. Historically, ownership has frowned upon buyouts, but now contracts like Cristiano Felício's are expiring and give management ample opportunity to reshape roster with multiple open spots.
Plenty of work remains. But the hope internally is that a revamped roster and more normal season will produce a dynamic team equal to the positive momentum within the franchise.
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