With the Feb. 9 trade deadline just around the corner, Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas has some big decisions to make.
Should the Bulls stay the course and hope the team shows the kind of urgency coach Billy Donovan has been pleading for the last month, or should Karnišovas shake things up with a deal or two like he did two years ago?
What Karnišovas does could be a turning point for the future of the Bulls, who aren’t much better record-wise in 2023 than they were when he unofficially ended the rebuild with a pair of deadline deals that brought in five new players, including current Bulls Nikola Vučević and Javonte Green.
At the time of the 2021 deadline, the Bulls were 19-24 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, in line for a play-in spot. They wound up missing the postseason and added DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in the offseason in an attempt to change the narrative.
Going into Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the United Center, the Bulls were 23-26 and 10th in the East. DeRozan has played at an All-Star level once again, but the possibility of Ball missing the entire season is real, and the Bulls lack a true point guard to fill the void other than reserve Goran Dragić.
So while the Bulls have more talent than they did in ‘21, the record speaks for itself.
Asked before Tuesday’s game whether the Bulls’ goals have changed, Donovan pointed to the number of teams packed together in playoff contention in both conferences.
“I don’t think anything has necessarily changed,” he said. “There obviously is a lot of basketball to play, there are a lot of teams condensed. Our consistency has been a challenge this year. But like I said going into the year, some of the things that happened for us last year, we were on the side of good fortune in a lot of the situations.”
Donovan pointed to last year’s win over the Clippers at the United Center as an example of a game they pulled out of their sleeve.
“Some of those games worked out for us,” he said. “This year they have not. I understand the result orientation of this business. Either you win or lose. I get that. But also, even last year in a lot of those wins, I was kind of (saying), ‘Pump the brakes,’ on some win streaks, just based on what I was seeing.
“There have been some times we’ve played good ball and we have not won. And that happens. You want to continually put yourself in position to win games. But I also think an improvement from last year to this year is we’ve played much, much better against the elite teams in both the West and the East. That’s been a positive sign.”
That bodes well if the Bulls get into the playoffs, knowing they are 7-3 against the top four teams in the East: the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. The flip side is the Bulls have played worse against sub-.500 teams, including Thursday’s devastating collapse against the Charlotte Hornets, who came in with the second-worst record in the East.
Vučević, an unrestricted free agent after the season, will be coveted by many teams this summer for his rebounding and ability to be a go-to guy in most offenses. If the Bulls can’t re-sign him, they have to consider what they can get now.
He was having a career year in Orlando in 2020-21, averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 48% from the field and 40.6% on 3s, when Karnišovas made the big move to bring him to Chicago.
The most important part of the deal was having Vučević under control for two more seasons, giving the Bulls a front-line center to complement Zach LaVine. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu also came to the Bulls, who gave up 2017 lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr., an expiring contract in Otto Porter Jr. and their first-round picks in 2021 and ‘23, with top-four protection in ‘23.
Vučević has had to sacrifice his game quite a bit in Chicago and has done so without complaint, knowing LaVine and DeRozan would be the main scoring options the last two seasons. His contributions often are overlooked because he seldom gets a chance to shoot in the final seconds of close games.
Donovan pointed out Tuesday he has staggered Vučević with the second unit at times, as he traditionally has done with DeRozan and LaVine. That shows the trust he has in Vučević but also may say something about the lack of offense the Bulls have gotten from backup Andre Drummond.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the group because of the character of the group and how good of guys they are and the relationships they have,” Donovan said. “And I do see a group that really, really wants to win.”
But every NBA coach can say that about his team. The Bulls certainly are a good bunch and have the talent to win consistently, as they’ve shown against some of the elite teams. But they haven’t shown enough of it, and the clock is ticking toward the trade deadline.
Karnišovas is under the spotlight now, and we’ll soon see whether he’ll roll the dice on this group.