Early in their first-round series against the Utah Jazz, before the Denver Nuggets made history to become the first team to rally from two 3-1 deficits in the same playoffs, coach Michael Malone expressed his love for Artūras Karnišovas and called his former boss and the Bulls' new executive vice president of basketball operations "a sweetheart."
So it's safe to say Karnišovas has heard privately the very public endorsement that Malone gave to his lead assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr., who is emerging as a strong candidate for the Bulls' head coaching job.
"Wes Unseld should be a head coach," Malone said late Tuesday night.
With the Bulls' coaching search headed for the finalists stage of interviews, there is growing momentum for Unseld's candidacy. Malone gushed about Unseld after the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference finals to face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers with an absolute masterpiece of a Game 7 victory over the Clippers.
The Nuggets limited the Clippers to just 89 points on 37.8 percent shooting. That included 6-for-22 and 4-for-16 nights for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, respectively.
Guess who's in charge of the Nuggets' defense?
"He manages our defense. I trust Wes to do his job. Our defense in the last three games has been phenomenal," Malone said. "To hold that team to 33 points in the second half? I think last game they scored 35 in the second half. Against the highest-rated offense in the first round of the playoffs? That's unheard of.
"We gave them a gameplan. We made the adjustments. Our players bought in and went out there and got the job done. It speaks volumes about our group."
Having worked for the Nuggets until the Bulls hired him in April, Karnišovas worked with Unseld for all but this NBA bubble portion of Unseld's five seasons in Denver. So he knows him and the resilient group of which Malone speaks well.
Speaking after Malone, Nuggets star Jamal Murray also praised Unseld. And Tim Connelly, the Nuggets' president of basketball operations, vouched for Unseld earlier Tuesday. He said on Jim Rome's show that Unseld "is going to be a rockstar head coach when someone smart enough hires him."
There is precedent for the Bulls agreeing to terms with a coach working in the playoffs. In 2010, John Paxson and Gar Forman interviewed and agreed to hire Tom Thibodeau as he worked in the NBA Finals, serving as Doc Rivers' associate head coach for the Boston Celtics. Both franchises agreed to wait to officially announce the news until after the Finals against the Lakers concluded, though multiple news outlets reported the agreement.
Unseld is part of a large group of at least nine known candidates on Karnišovas' original interview list. On the Sept. 9 night that Billy Donovan and the Thunder mutually agreed to part ways, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Bulls "are expected to have an interest in considering Donovan." But there's been little linkage since that night to make Donovan the 10th candidate.
The Bulls are set to begin group workouts Sept. 21 and are currently undergoing daily testing for COVID-19 as players participate in individual workouts at the Advocate Center as part of a three-week voluntary program. Following last month's draft lottery, Karnišovas downplayed a question on whether that timeline would accelerate his efforts to hire his first head coach as Bulls' lead executive.
If Unseld is the one, he'll be busy anyway. Devising game plans to try to defend James and Anthony Davis should be fairly time consuming.