Bulls

Breaking down the four front office candidates the Bulls plan to interview

Bulls

The Bulls’ search for a new lead basketball executive with “full autonomy for basketball operations” begins next week.

Reports of an impending front office shakeup have burbled since All-Star weekend, but now, for the first time, a semblance of a concrete timeline has emerged. Not only have the Bulls put out a number of formal requests to begin that interview process, they also want the hire made before the NBA’s current hiatus ends, according to reporting by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and our K.C. Johnson.

In that reporting, four names have emerged above the fray: Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, Raptors general manager Bobby Webster, Pacers’ general manager Chad Buchanan and Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon. Those four constitute the list of candidates the Bulls plan to request the right to interview.

So, perhaps it’s worth getting to know them. All four are accomplished and respected in their own right, but each’s path, strengths and record slightly differ. Let’s examine:

Arturas Karnisovas - General manager, Denver Nuggets

Karnisovas is in his seventh season with Nuggets — the first four as assistant general manager, the second three as general manager. 

Simply put, he’s one of the most respected veteran executives in the league. With the Bulls formally requesting to interview him for their lead executive spot, this is now the fourth time in five years Karnisovas has drawn significant interest for a front office spot. In 2016, he advanced to the later stages of the interview process for the Brooklyn Nets GM job, in 2017 he interviewed for the same position with the Milwaukee Bucks and in 2018 he reportedly turned down an interview for the Philadelphia 76ers’ gig. Seemingly in response to the Bucks’ pursuit, Karnisovas was promoted to GM of the Nuggets in 2017 to continue serving as right-hand man to Tim Connelly, who had just been elevated to president of basketball operations. 

Connelly and Karnisovas both made their starts as international scouts (Karnisovas with the Houston Rockets in 2008), and built from scratch one of the highest-touted international scouting departments in the NBA in Denver. Karnisovas was assistant GM when the franchise snagged Nikola Jokic with the No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, but Bulls fans will remember their draft-day trade for the rights to Jusuf Nurkic (No. 16) and Gary Harris (No. 19; all for Doug McDermott) that same night. Karnisovas is also at least partially credited for the Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. finds, and snagged solid backup point guard Monte Morris with the No. 51 pick in the 2017 draft. 

His track record as an evaluator, both at home and abroad, makes him an incredibly attractive candidate, especially considering the Bulls’ stated desire to revamp their scouting department. Before the NBA suspended its season, the Nuggets were on pace for their second straight 50-win season in a stacked Western Conference and are well-positioned for the future with Jokic and Murray inked long-term.

Fun fact: Karnisovas was also quite the ballplayer in his day. He spent four years at Seton Hall playing for P.J. Carlesimo and — a native of Lithuania — appeared in two Olympics (1992, 1996) for his home country. In fact, Karnisovas was on the Lithuania team that the ‘Dream Team’ shellacked by 51 points in the semifinals of the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Bobby Webster - General manager, Toronto Raptors

Widely considered the ‘man behind the curtain’ in the Toronto Raptors organization, Webster, 35, is perhaps the most accomplished young executive in the NBA. His basketball journey began as an intern with the Orlando Magic in 2006; from there, he took a job in the league office for seven seasons, then shipped up to Toronto to work under the vaunted Masai Ujiri in the Raptors’ front office in 2013. 

Webster is known as a cap savant, but also boasts quite the talent evaluation record in his time in Toronto. Consider some of these draft-day finds by the Raptors since Webster started on (he was promoted to GM in 2017 at the ripe age of 32). Of course, it’s difficult to say exactly how much credit to afford him versus Ujiri, but the record in unassailable:

  • Delon Wright — No. 20 in 2015

  • Norman Powell — No. 46 in 2015 (trade with Milwaukee for Greivis Vasquez)

  • Pascal Siakam — No. 27 in 2016

  • Fred VanVleet — Undrafted in 2016

  • OG Anunoby — No. 23 in 2017 (pick also acquired in Vasquez trade)

And all of that is without mentioning turning No. 9 overall pick in 2016 Jakob Pöltl (along with DeMar DeRozan and a first) into Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green; or Wright and Jonas Valanciunas into Marc Gasol. Moves that resulted in a title. Even if Webster didn’t have final say in all those transactions, he’s seen what it takes to win at the highest level in this league.

For fun facts and an infinitely in-depth breakdown of Webster’s life (his dad is from Chicago and Webster grew up a Bulls fan) and career, this profile from The Athletic is superb. Telling from that feature: Webster was apparently instrumental in the development of the Raptors’ G League affiliate, Raptors 905, which is a badge of honor considering their recent success developing unheralded players into solid contributors, and even stars. Plus, this quote from Ujiri:

“He’s (Webster) going to head a team, at some point.”

Chad Buchanan — General manager, Indiana Pacers

Buchanan is a grizzled vet. He made his name in the Portland Trail Blazers organization working primarily as director of college scouting under Kevin Pritchard through the aughts and early 2010s. His claim to fame with the Trail Blazers: As interim GM in 2011-12, Buchanan flipped Gerald Wallace to the Nets in a deal that yielded the pick that would one day become Damian Lillard. He also worked in the organization at the time of Portland drafting LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy in 2006 (via draft-day trade).

After leaving Portland, Buchanan spent a spell as assistant GM to Rich Cho with the Charlotte Hornets. During Buchanan’s time in Charlotte, some of the team’s notable moves included drafting Frank Kaminsky No. 9 overall in 2015, and signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams to big-money, multi-year deals — though it’s hard to know how much blame to assign Buchanan for those foibles.

His hiring as general manager (working, again, under Pritchard, who is currently president of basketball operations for the Pacers) in Indiana was reported on June 29, 2017. On June 30, the Pacers agreed to trade Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. 

Since that date, one that seemed to spark a rebuild, the Pacers are 135-94, and Oladipo and Sabonis (both locked in long-term) have developed into bonafide stars. Again, it’s difficult to know the exact delineation of responsibilities in the Pacers’ front office, but last summer’s sign-and-trade for Malcolm Brogdon and acquisition of T.J. Warren also stand out as prudent.

In terms of his MO, Buchanan is known for embracing analytics. Our K.C. Johnson talked to Thad Young, who played for the Pacers during Buchanan’s tenure, about Buchanan at length back in February, which is worth checking out.

Adam Simon — V.P. basketball operations/assistant GM, Miami Heat

Simon has been in the Heat organization for 25 years — in that period, he has climbed from video room intern (working under current coach Erik Spoelstra) to what the Heat’s website calls ‘V.P., Basketball Operations/Assistant General Manager.’

Also of note from his directory entry:

“During his time as Assistant GM, Simon has played an integral role in Miami drafting Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and KZ Okpala and acquiring undrafted players such as Derrick Jones, Jr., Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Hassan Whiteside.

That should certainly be music to the Bulls’ ears. Like the Raptors, the Heat organization has earned sterling reputation as one that knows how to unearth and develop talent off the beaten path. Simon spent six years as General manager of the Heat’s G League affiliate, the Skyforce, a program that bolstered many of those names listed above. 

It should also be mentioned that, while Simon’s quarter-century tenure with the Heat is impressive, he is the only name of these four to have never held a general manager position with an NBA team.

Guys to cross off

Those hoping for a seismic splash in the form of Sam Presti or Masai Ujiri will have to temper expectations. It always felt unrealistic that the Bulls would shell out the capital required to pull in one of those two names — now, it appears unrealistic has turned to impossible. 

From our K.C. Johnson:

“The big-money scenarios of wooing Thunder vice president and general manager Sam Presti or Raptors president Masai Ujiri, both of whom are under contact, won’t happen, a source said.”

Johnson also reported that Bulls ownership isn’t expected to explore candidates with agency backgrounds (à la the New York Knicks and Leon Rose of CAA), which would rule out the likes of Justin Zanik, general manager of the Utah Jazz, or, say, Mark Bartelstein, founder of Chicago-based Priority Sports and Entertainment.

That might perturbe some, and a modicum of skepticism that this search will yield substantive change to the organization’s power structure is certainly valid. But the list of accomplished candidates growing should certainly register as encouraging for the time being.

How the interview process plays out will be telling.

Editor's note: Since the publishing of this piece, Buchanan has reportedly pulled out of consideration for a front office position with the Bulls, and Webster and Simon are reportedly not likely to receive permission from their teams to interview. The Bulls plan to interview Karnisovas, as well as Zanik, despite previous reporting by NBC Sports Chicago that the organization wouldn't go the player-agent route.

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