Chris Fleming

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

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USA Today

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

Unless your last name is Reinsdorf, everybody in the Bulls’ organization has a boss.

That includes Arturas Karnisovas, the franchise’s new executive vice president of basketball operations, who was hired to effect change for a rebuild stuck in the mud.

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The fact that Karnisovas has full autonomy to reshape basketball operations is being called into question from some corners now that he’s been on the job for over three months and not fired coach Jim Boylen. Multiple outlets, including NBC Sports Chicago, have reported Karnisovas indeed owns the authority to recommend a coaching change to ownership, the standard leaguewide protocol for such decisions.

So why hasn’t he?

It’s not as simple as the fact that he has a boss he knows likes Boylen, but that’s part of it. The more significant part is the unprecedented nature of this offseason, which has afforded Karnisovas nothing but time.

Since his initial flurry of moves that included the firing of general manager Gar Forman and replacing him with Marc Eversley, and the hirings of Pat Connelly and J.J. Polk for critical front office roles, all of Karnisovas’ decisions have been based on deadlines.

Karnisovas faced an option deadline on head athletic trainer Jeff Tanaka and declined it. He faced a similar decision on assistant coach Nate Loenser and, mindful of Loenser’s strong reputation for player development, picked it up.

During his season-ending media availability session with reporters, Karnisovas said he planned no other front-office changes and talked optimistically about the draft. He has incorporated holdovers like Brian Hagen, Jim Paxson and regional scouts into that process.

Not only are the Bulls still waiting to see if the NBA and National Basketball Players Association will reach agreement on formal activities for the eight teams not invited to the league’s restart on the Disney World campus in Florida, the start date of the 2020-21 season is unknown.

Let’s repeat that: The start date of the 2020-21 season is unknown.

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Boylen is under contract for two more seasons. Ownership likes him. It’s unknown if fans will be allowed in arenas at the start of next season. One rumor is that the 2020-21 season start will be pushed past December if there’s a date when it’s known fans can attend — and thus provide gate revenue for teams again.

Beyond the fact that Karnisovas has publicly declared himself to be a “thoughtful and deliberate decision-maker,” the above reasons make it easy to understand why he hasn’t yet gone to ownership to present a case for a coaching change. And also why it wouldn’t surprise if he didn’t do so for 2020-21.

Unless a proven, decorated entity is available, such a change would be a hard sell at a time when the team’s main source of revenue has dried up and no formal group activities are occurring. Only Karnisovas knows if, say, giving a first-time head coach an opportunity is an ask of ownership he wants to cash in during this unprecedented time.

The guess here is no. 

Such a move also would start the clock on Karnisovas’ tenure at a time when all signs point to essentially the same roster returning, and the new executive and Eversley both saying they plan to take their time to assess the roster. Beyond the unknowns of the 2020-21 calendar and salary cap, next season could be an abnormal one as well.

So Karnisovas has chosen the route to empower Boylen and his staff for now. As previously reported, Karnisovas has told Boylen to focus strictly on coaching. No more worrying about dealing with player agents. No more worrying about meet-and-greets with season-ticket holders.

Just as player development can be a focus, so can coaching development. Boylen is known for being collaborative. It’s easy to see him being open to suggested tweaks to his offensive system as the new management seeks to realize its publicly-stated goal of getting at the regression of Lauri Markkanen and other woes. As for the defense, remember: The Bulls were top-10 before widespread injuries hit.

Management has sought Boylen’s input on player development strategies, according to sources. There have been discussions regarding the draft and free agency. Boylen has watched voluntary workouts at the Advocate Center with Karnisovas and Eversley, and they’ve dined together as well.

This also has been previously reported, but Karnisovas has a comfort level with lead assistant coach Chris Fleming, with whom he worked in Denver. He knows assistant coach Dean Cooper from their shared backgrounds with the Houston Rockets. And he made the decision to retain Loenser.

Karnisovas has said publicly he plans to utilize this unprecedented offseason to get to know Boylen better. Boylen said last week at a community event in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., that the process is going well.

In fact, with Karnisovas and Eversley settling into a routine in Chicago, the Bulls are getting strong buy-in from players regarding voluntary workouts.

Zach LaVine came to Chicago two weeks ago for some workouts. Since then, building blocks like Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White have been coming in regularly. So have Chandler Hutchison, Shaq Harrison, Ryan Arcidiacono and Luke Kornet. Otto Porter Jr. has been in town, and the new regime has been in contact with Tomáš Satoranský, who plans to practice with the Czech Republic national team according to reports from his native country.

Karnisovas and Eversley have said they plan to create a player-friendly franchise, and LaVine and Thad Young both have praised their communication and transparency. Any negative player feedback regarding Boylen, which on Monday featured a jab from backup center Daniel Gafford as he streamed himself playing video games, it seems management is trying to offset by creating a positive, inclusive atmosphere.

That atmosphere has included Boylen, who sources said visited White in North Carolina as part of Boylen’s normal offseason routine to build relationships with players. For now, those visits are on hold with so many players in-market and COVID-19 cases spiking again.

When he introduced Karnisovas in April, Bulls president and chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf said he hired him for multiple reasons but mostly because Reinsdorf sought “a leader who will be process-oriented in trying to build a winning team.”

Karnisovas’ long play during an unprecedented offseason is part of the process.

Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Typically, at this time of year, questions about free agents would flow. Instead, it’s questions about bubbles.

How does the Bulls front office, coaches, players feel about the second bubble idea? And what, if any, impact has this had on the Jim Boylen decision timeline? — @ryanborja, via Twitter

Like most teams that weren't invited to the league's restart in Orlando, Arturas Karnisovas is on record as saying he hopes the league allows some formal group activities. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a bubble, although Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, is on record as saying she’d only sign off on group activities if they meet the same safety protocols as those in Orlando. That means daily testing, quarantining for a period of time before playing and a plan to handle any positive tests, among other things.

This stance would seem to rule out teams gathering in their own practice facilities for group activities and perhaps regional scrimmages that would feature, for instance, the Bulls and Pistons or Cavaliers. Some of the eight teams not invited to Orlando prefer this model.

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I actually think the Bulls would have pretty strong representation if a second bubble occurs. They’re a young team and players miss playing. Zach LaVine even traveled to Chicago this week for some workouts at the Advocate Center. It would certainly make for some interesting decisions, though. For instance, Lauri Markkanen is eligible for a contract extension. Would he risk injury for what, essentially, would be glorified summer league scrimmages?

As for Boylen, it’s been reported several times that it’s more likely than not he and his staff would have presided over any possible conclusion to the 2019-20 season. Only Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley know if such activities would qualify, although they certainly would represent an opportunity for Karnisovas to see Boylen in action. That’s a stance Karnisovas also has stated publicly.

If by chance the second bubble materializes in Chicago, can the NBA incentivize these games by having teams play for upcoming draft positions? If they are truly against seeing teams tank for draft position, make these teams play for something. — Kenneth H.

The draft lottery odds are finalized. Your scenario raises this unlikely outcome: Veteran players busting their butts in meaningless games to better their teams’ odds to draft their replacement. That’s not happening.

Will the Chicago Bulls front office be able to travel to Orlando to scout players? — @chisportupdates, via Twitter

The last time I checked on this with the league, I was told no. It’s why this is such an unprecedented and difficult time for these eight teams. It’s such a competitive disadvantage to essentially not be part of the league as it resumes play.

What position do you think they will focus on in the draft? Or do you think they’ll just take best player available? — @tannermartello, via Twitter

For what it’s worth, Karnisovas disputed the notion this is a weak draft. Here’s what he said on June 6:

“I like a lot of players that are in our range. I think we’ve done a lot of work studying. That’s why the excitement is coming from studying those players and interviewing them and looking at the video. So I think we’ll add a good player to our roster next year.”

The biggest needs to me are wing depth and a true point guard. Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison each have displayed an ability to make an impact when healthy, but neither has been able to stay on the floor. And while Coby White displayed growth in terms of his decision-making and ball security, he remains more of a scoring guard to me. Tomas Satoransky is a rotation player for any team in the league, but he’s not going to be here long-term.

A lot obviously will depend on the draft lottery. The Bulls own 7.5 percent odds to win the No. 1 overall pick and a 32 percent chance to move from their current No. 7 slot into the top-four. Let’s say the Bulls get lucky. You’ll learn about how the new management team views the current roster with what they do then.

When talking about the Bulls draft position, I see a lot of mention about the need for a point guard and a true center with the names Killian Hayes, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman possible targets depending on draft position. However, I feel our biggest need is at small forward where all we have is Otto Porter Jr., whose contract will thankfully be over after next season, and Chandler Hutchinson, who is more frail than my roof during the last storm. We need some wings badly on this team. What are your thoughts on Isaac Okoro and the Deni Avdija kid? — Nick P.

My first thoughts are you need to be a writer with that flourish on Hutchison.

My thoughts on wing depth were addressed in the previous question. As for those specific prospects, Okoro’s athleticism and defensive instincts stand out the most to the scouts I’ve talked to. Both Karnisovas and Eversley said they like players with defensive versatility, a trend in today’s NBA. Okoro projects to be able to guard point guard to power forward. Questions exist about his shooting ability, but he’s also got an improve-at-all-costs mindset.

Avdija is drawing notice for his willingness to make the right play and read screen-and-roll, which is essential in today’s NBA. His shooting has improved, and he’s one of those players who is tall and long enough to play power forward and also slide down to small forward.

RELATED: NBC Sports Chicago NBA Mock Draft 6.0

There’s this thought that Wendell isn’t an NBA center and more of a power forward like the player he gets compared to in Al Horford. Do you see his position moved? Should we wait to see him and Lauri Markkanen play side by side under a more capable NBA head coach? — @jermaine611, via Twitter

At 6-foot-9, Carter may be an undersized center and, yes, he has struggled at times against traditional big men like Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond. But how many of those centers are left in the league? I actually think the skill sets of Markkanen and Carter can mesh very well, particularly in today’s NBA.

Both are high-IQ players and willing, underrated passers. Both possess ball skills, so you could run offense through them or initiate actions with them. Horford has played plenty of center in small-ball lineups over the years. The way I see it, Carter and Markkanen can be interchangeable on offense at times, although Markkanen obviously possesses more shooting range. On defense, Carter can play center. He does own a 7-5 wingspan after all.

I think keeping Jim Boylen would be a big risk, don’t you? Maybe he's not the worst coach in the league, but this is not only about him being good or not. It's about perception, franchise reputation around the league, fan base enthusiasm. It's about the ability to attract good players and stay away from all the internet memes and jokes. And those things matter too. I think there's a lot of excitement right now because of the new management, but some fans are already starting to question if the overhaul was real, if Karnisovas really has full power. Change has to be real, or at least perceived as real.

One more thing: In a normal situation, Boylen could silence the critics winning some games early next season. Now he can't. If they keep him, they're facing months and months of critics. It's a tough decision and maybe Boylen really deserves another chance. But I think they should move on. What's your opinion? Thanks and stay safe. — Michele from Italy

My opinion is this is the best question I’ve received from an endless supply of questions about Boylen’s future. I understand the theory, but it's clear that Karnisovas isn't going to be swayed by public opinion. He's going to go through the evaluation process on Boylen. He does have full autonomy to make the decision. And as he has stated consistently, he’s getting to know Boylen and his staff before making such a critical decision.

All the Bulls have is time. There are no formal group activities occurring right now. Individual players can do voluntary workouts at the Advocate Center with an assistant coach. That’s it.

I understand the sentiment that firing Boylen now would please a certain segment of the fan base. I read and received all the feedback when Karnisovas moved quickly on firing Gar Forman. But Karnisovas also knows Boylen has ownership support. So of course he has to thoroughly go through the evaluation process if he's going to bring a plan for change to that ownership.

This is just a reading of the tea leaves, but I found how Karnisovas opened his end-of-season teleconference with reporters telling: “Our objective is to use this time in innovative ways to create opportunities for our players and coaches to encourage development. I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation. 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.”

Read that last sentence again. Translated: He’s going to use the time he has at his disposal before making a decision on Boylen’s future. He's not going to be swayed by public opinion.

I’ve written this before, but one thing Boylen has struggled with since becoming head coach is trying to be all things to all people rather than just focusing on coaching. Karnisovas and Eversley have talked to Boylen and his staff about just focusing on coaching. They’ll handle all the organizational brush fires that always arise over the course of a season.

I'm taking Karnisovas' public words on the situation at face value. He has said he wants to see Boylen in action and get to know him and his staff before deciding upon his future. He's going through that process now. They spent time together a couple weeks back when Karnisovas first came to Chicago and again when he and Marc Eversley returned this week after the holiday weekend. As previously mentioned in this mailbag, Karnisovas has empowered Boylen since he landed the job. Karnisovas has asked Boylen for input on player development strategy, watched film with him and talked about draft and free agency plans. Boylen planned his normal offseason visits of players, although COVID-19 has impacted those for now.

Also, I’d dispute your point that Boylen wouldn’t silence critics if the Bulls started winning games. Winning cures all. Yes, there’d be some angst and anger over the time between the official announcement of Boylen’s return and the start of next season. And perhaps more importantly, winning consistently is a speculative stretch. But if it happened, people would start talking about Boylen’s care factor and ability to adapt. Stay tuned.

What are the basketball reasons you think would justify keeping Boylen? — Shannon R.

The fact the Bulls were a top-10 defense as a young team before widespread injuries hit. His staff. His ability to take direction and work collaboratively with a front office. LaVine's growth as a decision-maker and scorer. The signs of life when Otto Porter Jr. has played, which has been a mere 29 games due to injuries.

To be clear, I’m answering your question, not advocating for his return for those reasons. But I do think one thing being lost in talk about Boylen being one of the league’s lowest-paid coaches is that he also just hired a new staff. Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers just finished the first season of their three-year deals.

I’m not saying such contracts and considerations are deal breakers in the big picture, particularly for a franchise that prints money. But Karnisovas has a comfort level with Fleming, with whom he worked in Denver. He has also crossed paths with assistant coach Dean Cooper, who was in Houston when Karnisovas arrived there. And don’t forget that Karnisovas picked up the option of assistant coach Nate Loenser.

The decision is a multi-layered one, which is why Karnisovas, as mentioned in the last answer, is using the luxury of time that he has at his disposal to make it. Boylen and his staff are working as if they're going to return, which is how they should approach the situation.

Do you think Joakim Noah plays much for the Clippers? — Matt A.

Their bench is pretty stacked. But he’s a great signing, and I’ll be watching Clippers games to find out. If nothing else, seeing him clap from the bench while LeBron James is at the free-throw line will be entertaining.

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Report: Bulls assistant Chris Fleming expected to interview for Knicks coach

Report: Bulls assistant Chris Fleming expected to interview for Knicks coach

Chris Fleming, Jim Boylen’s lead assistant coach, is on the list of potential interviews for the Knicks head coaching job, as first reported by SNY’s Ian Begley.

Fleming, hired by Boylen last summer, has extensive head coaching experience in Germany, including for that country’s national team. He also has been an NBA assistant with the Nets and Nuggets; he worked with new Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas at the latter stop.

There is widespread speculation throughout the NBA that former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is the front-runner to land the Knicks’ job. New Knicks president Leon Rose has been close with Thibodeau for years.

Current interim head coach Mike Miller, former Knicks coach Mike Woodson, former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson — whom Fleming worked for in Brooklyn — and 76ers assistant coach Ime Udkoa are other candidates whom Rose is expected to interview, according to multiple reports.

Karnisovas and new Bulls general manager Marc Eversley have been in close communication with the Bulls’ coaching staff as the new regime continues to evaluate all departments. Like Boylen, Fleming has two years remaining on his deal with the Bulls.

RELATED: Nate Robinson roundly endorses Tom Thibodeau for Knicks head coach

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