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Column: Chicago Bulls find themselves in a familiar spot as the trade deadline nears

Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas might be the most patient man in local sports since former Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, the guy who thought day baseball could last forever.

Karnišovas has waited for his core to prove itself through two straight NBA trade deadlines and offseasons, and could triple down on Thursday by doing nothing once again.

It’s the definition of insanity, but with no pressure from his bosses, Jerry Reinsdorf and Michael Reinsdorf, to blow it up and try something new, it’s looking like Karnišovas will cross his fingers and hope for the best once again.

Maybe the Bulls can still make the play-ins like last year, and management can spin it as a gutty team overcoming the loss of Zach LaVine?

We can only hope it’s not a bad recurring dream.

Tuesday’s 129-123 overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves could’ve been the last time we saw some of the Bulls’ stars, though there was no widespread melancholy apparent at the United Center from fans who may or may not have realized they could be saying goodbye to DeMar DeRozan or Alex Caruso.

Coach Billy Donovan said before Tuesday’s game that the players all understand the situation when the trade deadline is on the horizon. Anything can happen, even though it’s likely most of them will be around Thursday in Memphis when the 2 p.m. CST deadline arrives.

No one in the front office has asked Donovan his opinion on any potential player to be dealt, he said. This is not a recording.

The loss of LaVine for the rest of the season due to right foot surgery has only increased the degree of difficulty for the Bulls to make it past the regular season as anything other than a play-in team, so dealing someone like DeRozan or Caruso could be an admission from management that this season is a lost cause and it’s time to move on.

Would the LaVine news change the way the Bulls operate at the deadline?

“I did not get from Artūras and/or (general manager Marc Eversley) anything like, ‘Hey, we were kind of going down this path, and now we’ve kind of had a course (correction) to go here,'” Donovan said. “That has not happened at all, at least in my conversations with them. I’m sure they have to look at that, right? Because the hope was when he did go out the second time with that foot (injury) that he would return and come back. That was the anticipation by everybody.”

The possibility of dealing LaVine appeared to be slim to none even before his latest injury, which put the focus on DeRozan, Caruso and backup center Andre Drummond, who could be the most likely one to depart.

Nothing against Drummond, a warrior who does his job without complaint and little attention, but few in Chicago would cry over his departure if it happened. Most would consider him lucky.

The same could not be said for DeRozan, the leader of the team and the man most responsible for rejuvenating the franchise in 2021-22. Or Caruso, the fan favorite who refuses to acknowledge that throwing his body around for loose balls might shorten his NBA career. If they go, it’ll be sad for a good percentage of fans.

Both DeRozan and Caruso are throwbacks to the pre-Jordan Bulls of the 1970s, when the team was defined by its blue-collar mentality and players like Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier were beloved no matter how far the team went in the postseason. The effort was what mattered most, and there was never any doubt when you walked into the old Chicago Stadium that the Bulls would come to play.

Michael Jordan changed everything, of course, and nowadays the United Center is packed with fans there for entertainment, not just to watch the game.

Donovan said he has a personal attachment to his players, “so selfishly, I love being around these guys all the time.” He added if something happened at the deadline he’d be “disappointed” to see one of his guys go.

“But I know the front office is always going to be looking at ‘How do we make our team better? How do we improve our team?'” he said.

That’s easy to say, but there is nothing to show the Bulls have done anything to make the team better since losing Lonzo Ball the month before the 2021-22 trade deadline, except picking up Patrick Beverley last February after the veteran guard had been waived by the Orlando Magic following a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. Beverley provided a late-season spark, but it wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs.

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Karnišovas is perhaps the least accessible sports executive in Chicago, so it’s hard to get into his head. He usually speaks to the media before the season, after the trade deadline and after the season, so at least we can expect him to address the team’s direction on Thursday, or in the coming days.

After the Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, he was asked how far they were from being a true championship contender.

“I understand that this roster is just one year old,” Karnišovas replied. “I think besides their age, it’s playing together for a longer period of time that is going to contribute to familiarity and feeling more comfortable in tough situations.”

Now the roster is going on three years … and counting. Everyone is familiar with each other and comfortable in tough situations, but the results haven’t really changed.

Karnišovas’s patience could be wearing thin, but who knows?

The Cubs eventually got their lights, though it came 11 years after Wrigley’s death, and under a new owner.

Bulls fans won’t have to wait that long for change, right?