Zach LaVine called the 2020-21 Bulls the best team on which he has played. Garrett Temple, who has been around in his 11 seasons, said he “really can’t” fathom how such a talented team couldn’t finish top-10 to qualify for the play-in picture.
And yet, both players spoke these words Monday following player exit interviews with coach Billy Donovan and the management team of Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley.
Despite adding an All-Star center in Nikola Vučević and other win-now pieces like Daniel Theis at the trade deadline, and surrendering young players and two first-round picks to do so, the Bulls are out of the playoffs — and with a 79.7 percent chance of not having a first-round draft choice. If the Bulls don’t cash in mere 20.3 percent odds to move into the top-four picks following the June 22 draft lottery, the worst-case scenario will transpire.
“This trade wasn’t just made for this year,” Vučević said. “I think that it was made for the future of the franchise.”
Vučević spoke before Karnišovas, but tried to do some of his boss’ dirty work by justifying the trade with a big-picture view.
“I think it’s very, very early to judge the trade,” Vučević said. “It’s only been two or three months. Things happen. Sometimes things take longer to come together. Next year will obviously show more, and then the year after that. Obviously, we don’t have five years to figure it out. But it also can’t be judged in two months. So it’s on us now to go into next year and play better, get to where we want to get.
“Players now around the league know the Bulls are about winning. They obviously made a big trade for a reason. They don’t want to wait years. They want to win now. You have Zach and myself here. You have two All-Stars who have been around for a long time and guys know how good we are and what we can become. Players will want to play on a team like that.
“Then you look at the Bulls as a franchise, the history around it, the city of Chicago, the fans. There’s not many teams that you can say have a bigger history than the Bulls. So I think it will attract people to come here hopefully.’’
Though new to town, Vučević also apparently is auditioning for the tourism bureau.
Before and after the trade, right up until Monday, Karnišovas called this a season of evaluation. That process is what led him to cash out on young players like Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison in his bold moves to acquire Vučević, Theis, Troy Brown Jr., Javonte Green and Al-Farouq Aminu at the March trade deadline.
And it’s what led him on Monday to reiterating his stance following the trade deadline that he’s not done.
“We will continue being aggressive in our efforts to make this team better, whether that’s through trades, free agency or the draft. We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnišovas said. “We have an important summer coming up. We will evaluate this season and line up our priorities for the offseason.
“I think when you have a foundation of two All-Stars in one place, it’s easier to add additional things that we need. So we’re going to discuss the needs of the team and we’ll attack it during free agency.’’
The Bulls have myriad decisions to make regarding how they want to approach free agency this offseason. Karnišovas, as is his nature, certainly wasn’t offering details Monday.
But to get to significant salary cap space, waiving players like Tomáš Satoranský and/or Thad Young, renouncing cap holds on Theis and restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen, or possibly waiving and stretching Aminu’s $10.2 million player option — should he exercise it — all would have to be in play.
Alternatively, Karnišovas could keep Young and others and work as an over-the-cap team, using exceptions to add players. Either way, he has work to do.
And he certainly doesn’t sound like he regrets his aggressive trade deadline day.
“The disappointment is short term, which is we assume that if you add another All-Star to your roster, usually you get better and improve your record. It’s a result-driven business. Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Karnišovas said. “But we are happy to add ‘Vooch’ into this equation. It’s very seldom you get an opportunity to add an All-Star and we went after it.’’
The Bulls went 12-17 following the trade deadline. That included LaVine landing in the league’s health and safety protocols and missing 11 games following a positive COVID-19 test.
Karnišovas praised the development of LaVine, who earned his first All-Star selection, first-round pick Patrick Williams and second-year guard Coby White. But it still all added up to the Bulls landing outside the playoff picture for the fourth straight season.
Last offseason, Karnišovas merely replaced Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison with Williams and Temple. There will be significant change this offseason, his second in charge.
“From our side, we’re going to add talent to our roster. And from them, get better and come back improved and better so we don’t have to sit out another postseason,” Karnišovas said of his approach and his desire for players. “I don’t like to watch now postseason games just because I’m not happy that we’re not in it. I’m a competitive guy. But talking to all the players, they’re disappointed. We’re disappointed and we’re going into the next season to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”