The 2017 draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen is widely considered the catalyzing point of the Bulls’ current rebuild — a period that has produced just a 71-158 record to this point, and a front office facelift in recent months.
Ask the people that took the reins of the organization amid that overhaul, though, and the time for “rebuilding” is over.
“We're trying to bring this team back to relevance, absolutely,” new general manager Marc Eversley said on a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday. “This is the Chicago Bulls, it's an iconic brand. There's a tremendous amount of history. But with that, we also take tremendous — it's a responsibility. And I think we've embraced that, [Artūras Karnišovas], myself, (vice president of player personnel) Pat (Connelly) and (assistant GM) J.J. (Polk) in terms of leading this franchise back to relevance.
“We've talked a lot about how this is not a rebuild. We're looking to retool this thing and we think (new head coach) Billy (Donovan) is going to put us in a position to do that in the foreseeable future. So, yeah, there's a little bit of pressure in terms of responsibility of getting this franchise back to relevance, but we embrace that.”
Indeed, a recurring theme throughout Karnišovas, Eversley and even Donovan’s on-record comments since their hirings has been a belief that the Bulls’ current roster can be better than 2019-20’s 22-win tally indicates. “This team is better than a 22-win team, the talent is,” Eversley later said.
That makes the new regime and Donovan’s commitment to player development all the more crucial. And even if optimistic chatter around existing players is lip service — there’s no reason to believe it is, but it’s always possible — the Bulls are armed with assets moving forward to enact that retooling process quickly.
“I like a lot of the players on this roster. I think if we put together an efficient, effective player development program, I think you will see a quick turnaround in terms of the output that these players give,” Eversley said, adding that the Donovan hire will be crucial to that player development program. “I don’t know if it’s going to be immediate, but they’re going to grow. We do have assets going forward in terms of the flexibility a year from now.”
Those assets include the No. 4 and 44 picks in this year’s NBA Draft — with a Karnišovas-run team, you have to include the second-rounder — and the potential for oodles of cap space in the 2021 offseason.
As of this writing, per Spotrac’s tabulations, the Bulls have roughly $65 million in salary committed for the 2021 season — not accounting for a potential Lauri Markkanen extension, but including fully guaranteed third years on Thad Young ($14.19 million total, but just $6 million of that is guaranteed for 2021-22), Tomáš Satoranský ($10 million, but just $5 million of that is guaranteed for 2021-22) and Ryan Arcidacono’s ($3 million club option for 2021-22) current contracts.
The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the salary cap moving forward isn’t fully known. But if it hangs around the roughly $109 million figure for 2019-20 — or begins to bounce back and increases at all by the 2021 offseason — it goes without saying the Bulls will have some room to cook.
Future flexibility was one of the tenets of Karnišovas’ pitch to Donovan, a coach who’s resume left many shocked at his decision to grab the keys to the Bulls amid a market flush with desirable head coaching vacancies.
“I pretty much was just trying to sell the relationship that we're going to have once he gets here. The resources that are here available, I mean from practice facilities to the market to the history of Chicago Bulls to ownership,” Karnišovas said at Donovan’s introductory press conference. “And again, the vision of us building a program and developing players. We spoke about different ways of building a program from the draft to trades to free agency. And the biggest attention that we will have to pay attention to is player development.”
That last piece is the crucial one. The only way the ancillary assets can matter is if the organization displays an ability to elevate the guys already in their building. Then, the “retool” can truly take hold.