Artūras Karnišovas isn’t one to mince words. Take his perspective on Zach LaVine from media week in advance of the 2020-21 season as one example.
“He’s been an unbelievable individual player. He has a skillset that is hard to find in our league,” Karnišovas said of LaVine on Dec. 1, 2020. “We just have to put it in a way that is going to be in a team setting.”
The subtext was clear. Coming off a 2019-20 season in which he averaged a then career-high 25.5 points, LaVine had proven himself as an exceptionally rare talent. But his exploits hadn’t yet translated to team-wide results. In that 2019-20 campaign, the Bulls posted a 20-40 record in games LaVine played. Spanning back to his Minnesota Timberwolves days, he’d never played for a team that eclipsed the 31-win mark in a season.
In fact, he still hasn’t. And that's, of course, not all on LaVine. But compare those preseason words to the ones Karnišovas uttered Monday evening -- 32 games into his first season working with LaVine, who earned an All-Star selection in February -- and the contrast is striking.
“He’s deserving right now (of) his accolades and made an All-Star game and we are really proud of him,” Karnišovas said. “We (are) constantly in games because of his play. So he’s been establishing himself as a leader of this team, and we’ve improved dramatically because he is impacting winning.
“Besides his numbers of 29 (points per game), 5 (rebounds) and 5 (assists), which are amazing, he’s also impacting winning. So that’s why this team is fighting for a playoff spot.”
The numbers are, indeed, sensational. LaVine’s 28.5 points per game coupled with 52.2 percent field goal shooting -- 43.3 percent from 3-point range (8.1 attempts) -- place him among the NBA’s most elite and efficient scorers. He’s the nucleus of an offense that’s crawled to a league average offensive rating after languishing in the basement of the league the past three seasons.
But Karnišovas’ -- and LaVine's -- focus is on 15-18. That, while uninspiring in a vacuum, is the Bulls’ best record through 33 games since the start of LaVine’s Bulls tenure. It’s a mark that has the Bulls in contention for a play-in or playoff spot in a cramped Eastern Conference, and on pace for a 32-40 finish, equivalent to 37-45 in an 82-game season.
The Bulls ultimately have their sights set higher than any of that. But to hear their chief evaluator tell it, LaVine has been the driving force behind incremental progress. Given where the conversation around LaVine started, it appears his breakout year is making quite the impression.