Marc Eversley

What Bulls being left out of historic NBA restart means for new front office

What Bulls being left out of historic NBA restart means for new front office

Just over two months after “The Last Dance” concluded its five-week hold on a sporting society, the NBA restarted Thursday night, beginning its tenuous march to crowning a 2019-20 champion.

As the Lakers and Clippers engaged in what all hope is a preview of the Western Conference finals, the game brought to mind some of the epic rivalries that played out as “The Last Dance” unspooled. From the Pistons to the Knicks to the Pacers to the Jazz, the Bulls’ six championship seasons featured plenty of foils.

Twenty-two years have passed since the Bulls’ dynasty ended. But watching the NBA resume without the Bulls being a part of it underscored just as large a gulf between what is and what has been.

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As a fan of those Michael Jordan-led teams, Arturas Karnisovas immediately tackled this topic during his introductory news conference upon his April hiring as the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations.

“Our ultimate goal is clearly to bring an NBA championship to the city of Chicago,” Karnisovas said then. “All we can control is our approach and the process behind every decision. A firm foundation is absolutely vital, I'll build that here in Chicago. No skipping steps. There is a systematic approach to success that will be the product of focus and intention, hard work and diligence. We will strive for constant improvement. 

“Chicago is a great sports town with a long, robust sports history. The city is made up of very passionate fans. Earning the enthusiasm and excitement back from the fans is both a challenge and something I very much look forward to. These fans deserve a team that they can be proud of, and my objective is to get us back to relevancy.”

Indeed, sitting at home as one of the eight teams not inside the NBA’s Disney World campus is the definition of irrelevance. There’s plenty of work to do.

The Bulls, like the other teams left out of the party, remain hopeful that plans are soon finalized to allow formal group activities for the “Delete 8.” Talks between the league and players association are centered more now on voluntary group workouts, with perhaps some regional scrimmages against other teams, rather than a second “bubble” scenario.

Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley will take what they can get as they work to try and create a foundation for sustained success. Strong buy-in for voluntary, individual workouts at the Advocate Center is one thing. The ability to hold team practices and scrimmages is another.

In some ways, this offseason has resembled a normal one for a non-playoff team. Karnisovas, Eversley, and the front office and coaching staffs have held plenty of meetings. Draft and free agency preparation has hummed along.

But it’s obviously totally different. For starters, neither new executive could even come to Chicago for months after getting hired because of the global pandemic. Then, their process of implementing their own philosophies — which are heavy on player development — while analyzing the current state of the franchise added another new wrinkle.

For just the third time in 35 years, it’s a new managerial regime in Chicago.

“I will cultivate a selfless attitude with the players and there’s not going to be any excuses,” Karnisovas said in early June, when it became official the Bulls wouldn’t be part of the league’s restart. “The youth, the injuries, all that stuff is not going to be an excuse moving forward. Because this group is too talented not to perform better.”

There was NBA basketball Thursday night. It felt good, even if it felt weird for the Bulls to be one of eight teams not invited to the party.

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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.

NBA teams ‘impressed’ by Bulls’ front office hires, monitoring Jim Boylen decision

NBA teams ‘impressed’ by Bulls’ front office hires, monitoring Jim Boylen decision

When the NBA went dark on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulls got busy.

A front office overhaul that was first reported as a possibility during All-Star weekend in Chicago kicked into overdrive during the league’s hiatus with the hiring of Arturas Karnisovas as executive vice president of basketball operations and Marc Eversley as general manager, the firing of Gar Forman and the re-assigning of John Paxson to an advisory role. 

It’s the dawn of a new era in Chicago. Energy is palpable throughout the fanbase. Bulls players have expressed enthusiasm for the direction of the franchise, as well.

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And around the league, competitors have taken note. Take it from NBC Sports NBA insider Tom Haberstroh, who stopped by the Bulls Talk Podcast recently to discuss the league’s impending restart, and the state of the Bulls.

“I think it’s a brighter future,” Haberstroh said on the team’s front office changes. “I don’t think any NBA team is happy about what [the Bulls] did, because it means that their lives are going to be a lot harder to win a championship. 

“The Bulls have been in a rough spot over the last several years, just trying to rebuild after the Tom Thibodeau era, and never really quite having an identity. And I think with the change, the identity change with Arturas Karnisovas, he’s shown that he is a people person, he’s a gym rat. He hired Marc Eversley who has a really strong reputation around the league.”

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Indeed, the rebuild catalyzed by the Jimmy Butler trade (which yielded Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn) has yet to fully bloom. The Bulls are just 71-151 since the trade, and poised for a fourth consecutive top-10 draft selection after going just 22-43 in an abbreviated 2019-20 season and being left out of the NBA’s 22-team restart in Orlando, Fla. — a season which began with self-imposed playoff expectations.

That has led to widespread speculation on the future of head coach Jim Boylen. Boylen owns a 39-84 record since taking over for Fred Hoiberg 24 games into the 2018-19 season. He signed a two-year extension in May 2019, and assembled his own staff — headlined by Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers — last offseason.

Haberstroh added that those aforementioned competitors are monitoring the Bulls’ coaching situation closely. For now, as NBC Sports Chicago has reported, Karnisovas is empowering Boylen as coach of the team and withholding final judgements until he is able to observe him in the Bulls’ building and establish a relationship with him. Boylen recently participated in a Juneteenth march alongside Wendell Carter Jr. and other Bulls’ staff, and has been active checking in on players, both individually and on team Zoom calls.

“I think the big question that people around the league are wondering is ‘What is going to happen for Jim Boylen?’” Haberstroh continued. “And I think the head coaching position is going to be a canary in the coal mine for how this is going to be run going forward. 

“If Arturas or Marc believe that they need a new voice running the team and they are met with some reservations from either ownership or from elsewhere, do they have the autonomy to make that decision? Or is it going to be a situation where, ‘Hey, we don’t want to pay another head coach, we already have this deal with Jim Boylen, we don’t want to have to pay another coach to be in here.’ I think that’s going to be an indicator of how things are going to be running going forward. So it will be interesting to see. People around the league are very, very impressed (with the hires) that they’ve made. But I do think they want to see how much autonomy, in reality. They can say all they want now in press conferences, but we’ll see when push comes to shove whether they’re going to have full autonomy making decisions about not just the head coach but just everything in the organization.”

“All indications are that they’re going to have that full autonomy. But I think from around the league that is the big question mark, and they’re watching the head coaching position.”

Listen to the full conversation with Haberstroh here or via the embedded player above.

RELATED: The case for Coby White's All-Star potential 

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