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Why Karnišovas is on track for Executive of the Year

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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It’s seemingly never too early for unofficial straw polls regarding the NBA’s most valuable player award.

DeMar DeRozan recently landed sixth behind Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul on ESPN’s December tally of 100 voters.

So why not broach this idea? Artūras Karnišovas will win executive of the year.

“He’ll get my vote,” texted one Western Conference executive.

The award is voted on by peers, not media.

Karnišovas, who works closely and collaboratively with his three initial hires of general manager Marc Eversley, vice president of player personnel Pat Connelly and assistant general manager J.J. Polk – plus holdovers Steve Weinman and Brian Hagen – undoubtedly would scoff at such talk. Like the professionally-minded team he constructed, he’s focused on the work ahead.

But an analysis of his offseason moves, from the polarizing acquisition of DeRozan to even back-end roster decisions like keeping Matt Thomas over Stanley Johnson, produces plenty of positivity.

NBA.com’s annual preseason survey of the league’s general managers gave the Miami Heat’s Pat Riley the nod for best overall offseason moves, garnering 47 percent of the vote in large part to his headline acquisition of Kyle Lowry. The Lakers’ Rob Pelinka followed with 17 percent of the preseason vote, although his big-ticket move of trading for Russell Westbrook hasn’t produced early returns.

The Bulls finished in the “also receiving votes” category behind the Nets, Wizards and Rockets, who each drew 7 percent of the vote. Somewhat paradoxically, those same GMs predicted the Bulls to be the league’s most improved team at a category-leading 27 percent of that vote.

 

Karnišovas’ strongest competition likely will come from candidates like the Cavaliers’ Koby Altman and Warriors’ Bob Myers.

But where Karnišovas and company have shined the brightest is first seizing on opportunities from franchises who either undervalued their assets or didn’t need them in their directional change – and then seeing how their assorted acquisitions would fit together to bring out the best in each other.

For the Pelicans, Lonzo Ball was a “3-and-D” piece whose reasonable annual average salary of $20 million over four years wasn’t even worth matching as a restricted free agent. For the Bulls, he’s the minutes leader who serves as a dominant disruptor at the defensive end and high IQ, connective engine at the offensive end.

For the Lakers, Alex Caruso was an expendable fan favorite who would have cost too many luxury tax dollars to retain. For the Bulls, he immediately shored up a season-long weakness from 2020-21 – point-of-attack defense – and added athleticism and intangibles that go beyond the box score.

There’s no bigger move, though, than DeRozan, whom Eversley played a large role in helping secure because of their shared history with the Raptors.

Once again, similar to last season’s bold acquisition of Nikola Vučević that began this roster iteration, the Bulls seized on a rebuilding situation. The Spurs signed DeRozan to a three-year, $85 million deal and traded him for Thad Young, Al Farouq-Aminu and future first- and (two) second-round picks.

The move, which only came about because Pelinka’s Lakers pivoted to Westbrook instead of a nearly-done-deal with DeRozan, was widely panned. But what Karnišovas and company nailed was not only DeRozan shoring up two weaknesses from last season in turnovers and lack of free-throw attempts, the 13-year veteran’s rare combination of calmness under pressure and chip-on-his-shoulder intensity has also permeated the franchise. It certainly has made Zach LaVine, already a potent force, a better player.

Add in a second-round selection of Ayo Dosunmu, who has a double-digit NBA career written all over him, and it’s quite the haul.

This doesn’t even take into consideration Karnišovas adding Derrick Jones Jr. and a protected first-round pick for a disgruntled Lauri Markkanen. Jones Jr. flourishing in his role after falling completely out of the rotation in Portland is another example of strong roster construction.

Between management’s moves and Billy Donovan and his staff’s rotation decisions, players are being put in their best positions to succeed.

All accomplished while operating as an over-the-cap team, utilizing sign-and-trades and salary-cap exceptions. Get Polk, the salary-cap guru, a raise.

 

Management has proved to be nimble as well. When a hardship exception signing like Alfonzo McKinnie broke out in one of his first opportunities, the Bulls immediately signed him and waived the non-guaranteed deal of Alize Johnson, who had fallen out of the rotation.

And who’s to say Karnišovas is done between now and the February trade deadline? If nothing else since his quiet first offseason after landing the job, he has proven to be aggressive.

Sometimes perhaps a bit too much. The NBA slapped the Bulls on the wrist for going a tad overboard with the leaguewide practice of early free agency discussions, stripping them of a second-round pick for violating “league rules governing the timing of this season's free agency discussions."

Bulls fans yawned. And cheered Ball louder.

The Bulls have won the Executive of the Year award three times.

Jerry Krause won it outright in 1987-88 and again in 1995-96, the latter coming after he traded Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman.

Gar Forman shared the award with the Heat’s Riley in 2011. That’s when Riley lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach for a “Big Three” that ultimately produced two NBA titles. Forman worked with John Paxson to surround Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng with depth that produced back-to-back regular seasons with the most victories, and one Eastern Conference championship appearance.

Nobody knows where this season ultimately is headed. But the prediction here is Karnišovas will exit it with some hardware.

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