February 24, 2024

While NBA changes, Bulls appear satisfied with the status quo


It’s really just a matter of perspective.

You might think the Bulls are a going-nowhere team representing a farce of a major-market franchise that is living off its past accomplishments — which they can’t even celebrate without creating a major embarrassment.

But actually, Bulls vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas thinks his basketball team is “really good.”

So there. And he’s the one with all of the power.

Bulls fans are burdened by bad memories. There were the post-Jordan doldrums. There were the heightened expectations and wasted potential of the Derrick Rose years. There was the downward spiral after they fired Tom Thibodeau and replaced him with two inferior coaches the front office could control.

With all that context, you see what’s happening now and it’s easy to be fed up with this franchise.

But Karnišovas, an outsider in his fourth year in charge, thinks the Bulls are doing just fine, actually.

“It’s a very competitive and gritty group,” he said Thursday. And that was before they outlasted the 18-34 Memphis Grizzlies in a 118-110 win.

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You might think the Bulls (25-27) are nothing more than a ninth-place team with a ninth-place front office, pretenders with no shot of upward mobility. You think they should’ve traded Alex Caruso while he has value and before he winds up in traction. Or that they should’ve dealt Andre Drummond for a couple of second-round picks.

But, with his differing point of view, Karnosivas wasn’t trying to subtract at the deadline. He was trying to add. He failed at that too, of course, but there’s a reason for that.

“It’s a buyers’ market,” he said. “And, you know, we’re trying to stay competitive and trying not to take a step back. You’re looking at all the options on the table and we didn’t see anything that can improve our team.”

Oh. What are all those other teams doing then? It wasn’t a particularly meaningful trade deadline, and the Bulls can still add a free agent, but with the way the Bulls operate — with little care for the future and no urgency for the present — you can understand why fans are angry all of the time. It’s a maddening franchise. It’s even worse than the White Sox because many more Chicago sports fans care about the Bulls.

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With that civic rage in mind, you might look at the standings, see the Bulls behind eight better teams and wonder what the heck is the plan here? But Karnišovas looks at the standings and sees immediate potential.

“Well, the standings are that everybody’s bunched up,” he said. “I mean, I’m looking at the same standings, right? You’re three wins away from the sixth place. We still have 30 games to go. Obviously, this group is playing better the last two months. And, again, I put faith in this group to make a push for playoffs.”

That’s playoffs, not Play-In.

The Bulls are 3 1/2 games back of the Indiana Pacers (29-24) for the sixth seed in the East. But there are also still two teams between them. Going into Friday, Orlando and Miami are tied at 28-24 for the top two spots in the Play-In Tournament.

Last year, the Bulls finished with a 40-42 record, good enough for 10th in the East. They won their play-in opener in Toronto and had a chance to make the real playoffs in Miami, but the Heat outworked them in the fourth quarter and made a surprise run to the NBA Finals, while the Bulls went on vacation.

No one in Chicago was fooled by that team and everyone thought the front office should make major changes on the roster going into this season if it wanted to see a different result. They didn’t, of course. They re-signed Nikola Vučević and added a few role players. And the Bulls are right back to where they were last year.

It’s not as if Karnišovas has tried anything to shake up his roster. Armed with few draft picks (he wound up trading two first-rounders to Orlando for Vučević back in his wheel-ing-and-dealing days), he also hasn’t made a trade involving actual players since the summer of 2021.

Karnišovas didn’t add a point guard when Lonzo Ball went down two years ago and the Bulls were a real playoff team. Last year, with Ball still out, he did manage to sign Patrick Beverley on the buyout market and the Chicago native helped his hometown team make the Play-In Tournament.

After the season ended, Karnišovas raved about how his group went 14-9 after the All-Star break. We had a good chuckle at his expense. Now, he’s focusing not on the team’s overall record, but on the very real improvement he’s witnessed since it got off to a woeful start.

“We’ve seen signs in the last 30, 31 games,” he said. “The last time I spoke with a few of you, when we were 5-14, I was not very happy. I’m much happier now. I’d like to smile more. But again, this team is very competitive in every game and we have aspirations to compete for the playoffs.”

You can see why the Reinsdorfs like this guy. He’s got the perfect mix of wishful thinking and low expectations that is necessary to run the franchise these days.

The Bulls will try to realize those not-so lofty aspirations without their highest-paid, most frustrating player, Zach LaVine, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right foot Thursday. Though the Bulls need LaVine’s scoring ability, they’ve been more watchable this season without him as Coby White has taken his game up to a new level. Even when LaVine, who has made it clear he is amenable to a trade, returned in a short stint between injuries, he allowed White to shine.

Watching White blossom is at least one positive reason to pay attention to this team. He’s a delight. I marveled at him dropping 33 on the Timberwolves in front of a rowdy crowd at the United Center. He’s like a cheerful, Gen-Z Ben Gordon. And how can you not love a guy like DeMar DeRozan, who still gets buckets and puts a concerted effort into being quotable.

But, for the most part, between LaVine’s season from hell, Karnosivas’ laissez-faire management style and the team’s recent cringy ring of honor ceremony, the Bulls have settled back into their role as a national punchline.

The sport’s most famous analyst, Charles Barkley, delights in teeing off on this team. NBA conversationalists are often flummoxed by the Bulls’ indecisions.

Fans want a winner in the present, but they also want to have hope that things will keep getting better, that there’s a plan.

We thought change was coming when Karnišovas and his GM, Marc Eversley, made a slew of free-agency signings three summers ago. It was very unlike the old regime, who used to just complain about why players didn’t want to sign here. But since then, the new front office has just sat back and watched that work translate into a team that hovers around .500, forever on the fringe of relevancy and the playoffs.

You might hate the team’s status-quo lifestyle, but this is a franchise and a front office that knows its limitations and doesn’t see a problem with them. This is a franchise and a front office that sees sixth place in the Eastern Conference and thinks, “I want that.”

“It’s a results-driven business and I get it,” Karnišovas said. “And I’ll take responsibility for failures. But at this point, it’s very early to say what is success, what’s not success. We have 30 games to go. We’ll see what this team can do.”

I think we can figure out what success is. This isn’t it.

So I’m sure that once Karnišovas sees what this team can’t do in the spring, he’ll get back to work in the summer making it just the same for next season.

(Photo of Artūras Karnišovas: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)





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