MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For the third consecutive year, the Chicago Bulls did not make a move at the NBA trade deadline.
But executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas swears the inaction was a purposeful decision by a front office that still believes success is right around the corner.
While teams such as the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors made significant moves to bulk up their rosters, the Bulls were motionless Thursday in the hours leading up to the 2 p.m. deadline. They have not made a trade at the deadline since 2021 — and have made only one trade since August 2021.
“We didn’t see anything that was going to make us better,” Karnišovas said. “We would take a step back, which we don’t want. We want to stay competitive. We have an obligation to this organization and this fan base and this city to stay competitive and compete for playoffs, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Competitive. Karnišovas used that word 12 times in his post-deadline news conference to describe the current state of the Bulls. He cited the growth of young players such as Coby White, the leadership of veterans such as DeMar DeRozan and the promise of injured players Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine as central tenets of his decision to stick with virtually the same roster he constructed in 2021.
So far, that group has translated to a 110-105 regular-season record over the last 2 1/2 years, a five-game first-round ouster by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2022 playoffs and a play-in tournament exit against the Miami Heat in 2023.
The Bulls entered Thursday night’s game in Memphis in ninth place in the Eastern Conference at 24-27 — good for another play-in tournament berth but 4 1/2 games behind the sixth and final automatic playoff spot.
Karnišovas repeatedly emphasized that the East is “bunched up” and insisted that as long as the Bulls make the playoffs — whether through the play-in tournament or a top-six seed – that would reflect that the team lived up to his goal of “competitiveness.”
“The shake-up doesn’t guarantee you success,” Karnišovas said. “At this point, any adjustments will be made in the future. But this group is really good.”
The Bulls spent most of this season with a seemingly clear goal in the trade market to move LaVine, who made it apparent in November he was ready to leave Chicago. But those plans were ultimately fruitless as LaVine’s foot injury kept him sidelined for most of the season, finally resulting in a season-ending shutdown and surgery on Thursday.
With LaVine off the board, the Bulls attempted to pivot. They had potentially tempting trade attractions in DeRozan and backup center Andre Drummond, and defensive specialist Alex Caruso was an evergreen option if Karnišovas decided to break the glass and truly dig into restructuring the roster.
Instead, the Bulls stuck with their comfort zone — inaction.
Karnišovas took a major deadline swing in his first season with the Bulls, acquiring Nikola Vučević and Al-Farouq Aminu from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks. Despite growing pains with Vučević in Chicago, Karnišovas has stood by this decision throughout his tenure and re-signed the center last summer to a three-year, $60 million extension.
But on Thursday, Karnišovas dismissed the productiveness of making moves in February.
“I think at (the) trade deadline, usually those trades don’t make you better,” he said. “Last year, we were 14-9 after the trade deadline and that was one of the best records. So how do you improve even better at (the) trade deadline? It’s very hard to do.
“The options that were on the table, we were taking a step back, which we obviously have no intentions to do.”
Karnišovas made clear the decision to stick with the current roster came from him, not Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf or President/CEO Michael Reinsdorf. If he had chosen to take more risks at the deadline, Karnišovas said he would have had the Reinsdorfs’ full support.
But sticking with the script brings its own risk, especially financially. If the Bulls bring back the current core roster — including Ball, whom the team expects to return next season from a 2 1/2-year injury absence — they would be over the luxury-tax threshold.
Karnišovas previously said the Reinsdorfs would be willing to incur the luxury tax if it guaranteed a run at a championship. It’s hard to argue the current roster would meet that standard as it struggles to maintain a play-in position.
But Karnišovas brushed off any luxury-tax concerns, saying the salary cap wasn’t a focus for the front office at the trade deadline.
“Those conversations are at the end of the season,” he said. “Right now, our focus is about how we can finish the season and get to the playoffs. The cap gymnastics, we can talk about it after the season.”
With an open roster spot, the front office still has the option to add a player in the buyout market, a move that might be necessary if Patrick Williams continues to be sidelined with a left foot injury.
But with the trade window firmly shut, the Bulls will have to wait for the summer to make any major move for the future. In the meantime, the team will attempt to live up to the front office’s promises of competitiveness.
“I’ll take responsibility for failures,” Karnišovas said. “But at this point, it’s very early to say what is success, what is not success. We have 30 games to go. We’ll see what this team can do.”