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.
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?
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.
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.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.