Bulls

Should Arturas Karnisovas, Bulls be thinking big this offseason?

Should Arturas Karnisovas, Bulls be thinking big this offseason?

As Arturas Karnisovas prepares for his first chance to head up an NBA team’s basketball operations, you can bet he’s already been looking at game tape of the new players he’s inheriting with the Bulls and thinking of ways to get more out of the current roster.

Before his seven-year stint in Denver, Karnisovas worked in the Houston front office under the ultra-aggressive Daryl Morey, so you know he’s familiar with a risk-taking approach to roster construction.

In their excellent analysis piece on the Bulls’ front office, my colleagues K.C. Johnson and Tom Haberstroh offered this quote from Morey on his former international scout: “Arturas is one of the best executives in the NBA, I am so happy he is getting this opportunity. He was instrumental in our success when he was with the Rockets and then he went on to turn Denver into the contender they are today. I am also thrilled he is in the Eastern Conference now!”

Morey is known for his willingness to make any moves necessary to bring all-star level talent to Houston, acquiring high profile players like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook to team up with prolific scorer James Harden in recent years. It will be interesting to see if that aggressiveness rubbed off on Karnisovas as he tries to improve the Bulls’ roster for the 2020-21 season.

RELATED: How Bulls' new EVP Arturas Karnisovas will prioritize player development

At first glance, the Bulls’ new front office boss might want to take a conservative approach this offseason. The Bulls won’t have any cap space to use in free agency and still have incomplete grades on young core players Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White.

And, as most NBA fans are aware, the 2021 free agent class is loaded, with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Gordon Hayward and Jrue Holiday potentially hitting the open market. The Bulls should have ample cap space in 2021 after getting the contracts of Otto Porter Jr. and Cristiano Felicio off the books, plus buyout options on the final year of the contracts signed by Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky last summer.

Problem is, Davis will most likely decline his player option for 2020-21 and sign a long term contract with the Lakers this offseason, ending Bulls fans’ dream of a Chicago homecoming. Meanwhile James, Leonard and George are likely to stay in Southern California to chase championships.

Antetokounmpo is the wild card, but if he doesn’t sign a max contract extension with Milwaukee this offseason, chances are he’ll look to join ready-made contenders when he reaches free agency in 2021 rather than seriously consider an offer from the Bulls.

So, where does that leave the new Bulls’ front office this offseason?

RELATED: 5 takeaways from 1-on-1 sit-down with Bulls boss Arturas Karnisovas

It seems like just about every year all-star caliber players become available on the trade market, either because of unhappiness with their current teams, injuries or contract realities. One team to watch this offseason is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have already handed out max contracts to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris and could be looking to shake things up if the season gets canceled or they get bounced out of the playoffs in an early round.

Brooklyn could make point guard Spencer Dinwiddie and young wing scorer Caris LeVert available as they get ready to cater the offense around superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving next season. San Antonio should be looking to move veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge as they start a rebuild, while DeMar DeRozan is also available with a player option for next season. And, a lot of NBA teams are wondering if Bradley Beal will eventually get tired of all the losing in the nation’s capital and try to force a trade.

Karnisovas may want to see some of the Bulls’ young players over an extended period next season before deciding which of them should remain part of the core group going forward. Another former Rockets’ front office executive, Gersson Rosas, did exactly that when he became head of basketball operations in Minnesota last summer.

Rosas used the first half of the season to evaluate the roster, then made several trades moving players like Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh off the roster, while acquiring former all-star D’Angelo Russell in a trade with Golden State. Rosas will now try to build a playoff contender around Russell and high-scoring center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Salary cap considerations always play a part in roster construction. Markkanen is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this offseason, and even though he took a step back in Year 3 of his NBA career, you can expect the 7-foot forward will be asking for a max or near max deal. With the Bulls wanting to preserve cap space for 2021 free agency, the prospect of working out an extension with a new front office in place looks problematic. Markkanen then would become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2021, with the Bulls retaining the right to match any offer.

Karnisovas will most likely want to see Markkanen play on a nightly basis to make his own evaluations about the young forward, who turns 23 next month. But if the right deal presents itself, Karnisovas has to be prepared to trade any player on the roster, including Markkanen and team scoring leader Zach LaVine. It might sound odd, but given White’s young age (20) the position he plays (PG), and his game-changing speed and scoring ability, the rookie guard is probably the least likely player to be included in a deal.

RELATED: Bulls executive Arturas Karnisovas faces decisions with GM spot, Jim Boylen

Carter presents another interesting evaluation for Karnisovas. The former Duke star told reporters he’s playing out of position as a 6-foot-9 center, but with Markkanen and Young taking all the available minutes at power forward, where does Carter fit long term? He dodged a question about his future with the team in a recent interview, and seemed frustrated at times by his limited role in the Bulls’ offense.

So, with another lottery pick in hand, will Carter Jr. be a trade candidate as we get closer to draft night? The Bulls could look to add a player like Dayton’s Obi Toppin or USC’s Onyeka Okongwu and possibly move Markkanen to the center spot, backed up by Daniel Gafford and Luke Kornet. And, if they move into the top five in the draft lottery, 7-foot-1 center James Wiseman also could be on the board.

It would appear that Carter is probably the most available player out of the Bulls’ core group, but a new coaching staff also could play a role in that decision.

The sign-and-trade option came back into vogue last July, which could create more options for aggressive teams this offseason. Karnisovas will have to evaluate if he’s willing to spend $8-10 million per year to keep Kris Dunn on the roster, or if he can execute a sign-and-trade deal to get some assets back in return.

Karnisovas also could use the knowledge he gained during his time with the Nuggets to make a run at restricted free agent Malik Beasley in a sign-and-trade transaction. Beasley didn’t get consistent playing time in Denver, but blossomed into a 20 PPG scorer after being traded to Minnesota in February.

While we all wait to see if any more regular season games will be played in the 2019-20 campaign, the reality is the Bulls are staring at win totals of 27, 22 and 22 over the last three years. After pouring over game tape in the coming weeks, Karnisovas may be ready to make some decisions on which players should be a part of the Bulls’ next contending team before actually watching them in person.

Preserving cap space is great, but given the Bulls’ track record in free agency over the last decade, a couple of aggressive moves this offseason to get the team back into the playoffs might just be the best way to go. The Brooklyn Nets were able to use a playoff appearance and favorable reviews on locker room culture to attract both Durant and Irving in 2019 free agency. Maybe Karnisovas can make the same formula work in Chicago.

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NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

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The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

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