Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.
Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term | What happened to Lauri Markkanen?
The Bulls’ formal search for a new head of basketball operations began this week, and developments so far serve as a crucial reminder of two things:
This is as much an interview of the Bulls as it is for the Bulls
We are currently experiencing a staggeringly unprecedented time in NBA history
What developments drive those points home? Well, the Bulls entered the first weekend of April with four primary interview targets — Denver Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas, Toronto Raptors GM Bobby Webster, Indiana Pacers GM Chad Buchanan and Miami Heat assistant GM Adam Simon — for their lead executive spot. They entered Tuesday with just one of those four left on the market: Karnisovas, though Justin Zanik rose from the ashes with reports that the Utah Jazz general manager conducted a virtual interview for the gig Monday afternoon.
The reason for the inaccessibility of the other three isn’t a matter of public record, but based on pertinent reporting, we can infer a fair amount. Buchanan withdrew consideration first for reasons relating to his comfort level and “strong personal situation” in Indiana, according to our K.C. Johnson. Then, on Monday, seemingly in one fell swoop, Webster and Simon were off the board, as well.
Some rushed to categorize these developments as slaps in the face — surefire signs that talk of the substantive change many are hoping for was smoke and mirrors. And that’s a valid first instinct to have. But the reality is greater are forces in some part at play. In the case of Webster, specifically, Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported a litany of reasons for the Raptors planning to reject the Bulls’ interview request — ranging from uncertainty surrounding the team’s impending free agents to the expiration of both president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse’s contracts after the 2020-21 season. With so much uncertainty in the post-coronavirus NBA landscape, can you blame Toronto for not letting their brightest young mind stroll out the door to interview for his (sort of) hometown team? Or Webster for passing up a chance to potentially grab the reins in Toronto down the road?
This is not to dismiss all skepticism. Despite a storied history, the Bulls are no longer an organization of enough repute to pluck top-tier talent from top-tier organizations at will — player, coach or front office. As much as these issues are more complicated than we often make them out to be, that dynamic is inescapable.
So, how should the Bulls navigate this search — one that is so crucial for the fate of this rebuild and future of the franchise? Beginning interviews when they did is a good start. The faster the onboarding process moves, the more time the new hire will have to pass judgement on every layer of the Bulls organization, and set into motion subsequent hires and transactions. If the NBA does find a way to resume its regular season (not likely it seems, but also not impossible) and they’re able to get an intimate look at the Bulls’ day-to-day operations and game action before the offseason, all the better.
Then, there’s the pitch — again, this is as much an interview of the Bulls as for them. Contrary to popular cynicism, this team can put together an attractive one for accomplished candidates.
For one, any new hire coming in walks right into a pretty flexible roster situation, in spite of this team being locked in as-is for the 2020-21 season. While the salary cap ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet known, these books beyond the 2020-21 season are about as clean as one could hope for (figures via Spotrac):
|Total Cap Allocations||$106,027,707||$65,249,867||$9,344,636||$0|
That 2021-22 column is one many will be focused on: The summer of Giannis. Lauri Markkanen’s impending extension looms over that ~$65 million figure, but that number also includes fully guaranteeing the third years on Thad Young ($6 million partial guarantee) and Tomas Satoransky’s ($5 million partial guarantee) contracts, picking up Ryan Arcidiacono’s third-year $3 million club option, inking Chandler Hutchison’s two-year team option and a couple other extenuating factors. Even if the cap stayed static at roughly $109 million (or takes a slight dip) through then, that's a hefty amount of room, and they'll be flexible.
This isn’t meant to be a cap-dissection column, but the point is: The crucial cogs on this team are young and cost-controlled — to the extent the Bulls wish them to be — on rookie deals. On the court this season, we saw the detriments of having one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. These are the benefits.
And speaking of youth, whatever your gripes with the John Paxson/Gar Forman era, they didn’t frivolously throw away first round picks. The Bulls own all of their first round selections for the foreseeable future, so they won’t be working entirely from behind in that respect, á la the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets of the mid-2010s. They’re due for another top-10 selection this season, albeit in what many consider an underwhelming draft.
Market considerations matter, as well. The Bulls haven’t been a free agent destination for some time, but the franchise’s tradition and top-notch facilities do mean something for prospective candidates Zooming/Skyping in and envisioning the infrastructure they’ll attempt to build.
Of course, devil’s advocate must be played. While this job is more desirable on its face than many give it credit for, it’s not a utopian situation. The biggest hurdle in that regard are questions about the power structure — chiefly, if Paxson and (to a lesser extent) Forman will truly cede full autonomy to the new hire. Many interpreted the early exits of Buchanan and Simon from consideration for the job as an indication that we might be in for more of the same in that regard.
For what it’s worth, Paxson reportedly played a part in initiating this search in the first place and has also reportedly expressed an intent to fully comply with the new hire’s desired role for him — however involved or absent that may be. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the new hire is interviewing for Paxson's title. Even all of that won’t be satisfactory to some, but it’s the state of affairs. We know at least that this ownership group is not one notorious for over-meddling in basketball operations.
Further, that question of the true nature of the Bulls power structure ripples through every layer of the decision-making process for candidates. If full autonomy really means full autonomy, the new hire can come in assured they will be afforded the opportunity to assess and reshuffle the Bulls organization from top to bottom — from roster to coaching staff to scouting department and beyond — and move freely in whatever direction they so choose. If this hire is to be nailed, preserving that dynamic is crucial.
From there leads into another hurdle, which could actually be viewed as a perk, depending on your perspective. Most agree this Bulls’ core is talented, albeit underachieving to this point. But even the most optimistic of evaluators wouldn’t peg any of the team’s current core — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. or Coby White — as slam-dunk, transcendent, franchise-altering stars at this point. For that reason, there’s a non-zero chance whoever this new hire is is going to have to get creative and make some difficult decisions on who to prioritize and invest in at some point in their tenure, perhaps even early on.
That could prove difficult to be sure, but the hope is that any talented executive — young or veteran — would embrace such a challenge. Isn’t that what one gets into the business for? The thrill of the rebuild? It’s in situations such as the one the Bulls can present that executives dream of walking into: Clean books, some young talent, a balanced draft budget and full control of every strata of the organization.
For all of that to be executed well, you need a 'dispassionate evaluator' in the big chair — a term I picked up from this feature on Minnesota Timberwolves executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.
What does a dispassionate evaluator look like in the Bulls' case? Someone who, say, didn’t live and die by every Markkanen 20-10 game in February 2019. Someone who is unbothered by letting Kris Dunn walk inviting the perception of ‘losing’ the Jimmy Butler trade. Someone who can cooly and rationally look at the situation before them and do what is necessary to accelerate the Bulls’ path to contention.
All of this is to say, even with a number of prospective candidates already out of the running, the Bulls are not in a bad spot — not yet is it time to sound alarms. This week, two external, veteran and accomplished GMs with experience building relationships, management structures and winning programs will weigh what the Bulls have to offer them from a personal and career perspective.
The good news is, the Bulls might just have more to offer than you’d think — at least on paper.