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.
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.
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.