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Column: Chicago Bulls core could be on its last legs with the NBA trade deadline approaching

What’s going on in Artūras Karnišovas’s head could decide the fate of the Chicago Bulls for the next several seasons.

When last we heard from the Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations, just after Thanksgiving with his team nine games under .500 and on a five-game losing streak, Karnišovas gave a brief and cryptic response to the team’s sluggish start.

“We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated,” Karnišovas said to Bulls reporters in Boston. “We’re disappointed, but I’m not running from it. It’s my responsibility.”

From someone who speaks to the media as infrequently as Karnišovas, that qualified as a filibuster.

But the Bulls boss has been running in place since, waiting in vain for a trade market for Zach LaVine to develop and watching his team make incremental improvement in the Eastern Conference race.

With the Feb. 8 trade deadline looming, LaVine out again with a sprained right ankle and the Bulls looking at another battle for a play-in spot, Karnišovas’ options appear limited.

  • Triple down on the core and hope it can continue its improved play since learning how to succeed without LaVine (10-7) and then with LaVine in a complementary role (5-2).

  • Hold out hope LaVine’s return in one to two weeks coincides with a newly created market for his services, allowing Karnišovas to end this drawn-out saga.

  • Or forget about waiting for a trade market for LaVine that might never heat up and instead focus on dealing one of his two most valuable assets, DeMar DeRozan or Alex Caruso.

Stay the course or reboot?

In 19 days we’ll know the answer.

After Saturday’s 125-96 victory against the Memphis Grizzlies at the United Center, the Bulls embark on a three-game West Coast trip that begins Monday in Phoenix, moves to Los Angeles for a Thursday matchup against the Lakers and ends Jan. 28 in Portland, Ore.

It’s not exactly the circus trip — those long, early-season ventures necessitated by the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the old Chicago Stadium or the United Center — on which coach Phil Jackson would give his players books they would pretend to read.

But by the time the Bulls return to the West Side on Jan. 30 against the Toronto Raptors, Karnišovas should have a better idea of whether it’s time to turn the page on this core and start a new chapter.

LaVine, as has been pointed out frequently, is difficult to deal with nearly $140 million left on his five-year, $215 max contract on top of two left knee surgeries before his recent foot and ankle injuries. If he returns after the trip, he would have four games to show he would be healthy and back to his norm before the trade deadline.

DeRozan, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, seemingly would be the most likely player to be dealt because of his contract status and ability to mesh with any contender. At 34, he’s still a viable scorer and has been a positive influence on the younger players, notably Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu.

DeRozan has said he would like to end his career in Chicago, where he quickly became one of the city’s most likable athletes. But as far away as the Bulls are from contending for a title, Karnišovas might be doing DeRozan a favor by giving him a chance to go for a ring.

Caruso, who earned his first NBA All-Defensive First Team selection last season and would be in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year if he could stay healthy, should be a bigger target for teams than DeRozan because he has another year left in his four-year, $37 million deal. He ranked 21st entering Saturday in 3-point shooting percentage (.418) and second in deflections (3.4). Once known for his hustle, he’s now an all-around player.

The Suns and the Lakers, Caruso’s former team, figure to be interested if the Bulls decide to actively shop him. Could you imagine Caruso teaming with Suns guard Grayson Allen, whose flagrant foul in Milwaukee two years ago fractured Caruso’s right wrist? Or back in Los Angeles with old pal LeBron James, where he began his career and became a cult hero to Lakers fans?

Of course Bulls fans would be apoplectic if Caruso were dealt, a factor that could give Karnišovas pause before pulling the trigger. Who wants to be booed during a future Ring of Honor ceremony?

Perhaps Karnišovas will make a less splashy move, such as selling high on center Andre Drummond, whose 19 rebounds per 36 minutes is far and away the best in the league. Drummond’s work ethic and steady performance in a backup role to Nikola Vučević has made him one of Karnišovas’s most underappreciated signings.

The emergence of White since LaVine first was sidelined Dec. 6 with inflammation on the exterior of his right foot makes Karnišovas’s deadline decisions that much more difficult to make. Perhaps for the first time since January 2022, before Lonzo Ball’s injury ended their chance at contending and started the Bulls on the treadmill of mediocrity, they’re once again fun to watch.

While still streaky, White has become a verified star. He has averaged career highs in scoring (18.6 points), assists (4.9), 3-point shooting percentage (.397) and field-goal percentage (.454) while coming up in the clutch when given the opportunity from DeRozan. White has already recorded 19 games of 20 or more points, a career high with almost a half-season remaining.

Give LaVine some credit. His willingness to sacrifice his game since he returned — taking fewer shots, distributing the ball and boosting White on and off the court — shows he’s not a sulking star just waiting to get on the first plane out of town.

But as much as the Bulls appreciate his unselfishness, LaVine probably needs to become more aggressive offensively when he returns for the Bulls to succeed. He’s still a star and has been one of the team leaders for six seasons, through thick and thin, setting an example for the kids.

Still, in the three seasons of the LaVine-DeRozan-Vučević era, the Bulls have been consistently inconsistent. Through it all, Karnišovas has kept the faith, and the latest stretch suggests he still might be right in the long run.

But the clock is ticking on this team — and maybe on this era.

Nothing lasts forever.