Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas expressed his thoughts on a premature end to the season and where the team goes from here during his season-ending conference call with the media on Saturday afternoon.
At least the Bulls can say they were one of the league's hottest teams when their season suddenly came to an end March 10 with a Coby White-led victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then came pandemic. The Bulls didn't realize their season was over that mid-40s March evening a day after drenching rain storms. And they're perhaps still drying out because the Bulls were one of eight teams not invited to finish the season during games in Orlando later this summer.
"I do agree that not playing for eight months puts us in a competitive disadvantage," Bulls Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas conceded during a conference call with media Saturday.
So while the season the Bulls hoped and believed would start a turnaround for the franchise officially ends with a 22-43 record thanks to the NBA's arbitrary decision to move forward with only 22 teams, the record really is 22-44.
Because that elimination from additional competition, even if it were to be a brief eight-game stretch, is a huge loss. That's because it probably affects the Bulls as much or more than any NBA franchise because of the new management structure and expected weighty decisions about the coaching staff and playing personnel.
Though the way Karnisovas talked with reporters for about 25 minutes, it didn't sound with his repeated emphasis on patience and prudence that much was going to change between now and the expected opening of the 2020-21 season in December.
"It's tough to try and close a chapter or a season like ours during a time when our country and world are in disarray," Karnisovas acknowledged. "With that said, we haven't even stepped foot in the city (or met any of the players or coaches). That is the reality. However, that hasn't changed our targets and objectives. We want to spend time internally to assure that we are thorough in our appraisals. 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.
"There haven't been any practices, there haven't been any games since I became a part of this organization," Karnisovas noted. "I really take pride in my relationships I cultivate with coaching staffs and my basketball operations staff. I haven't seen them. I'm looking forward to it. After we found out we were left out of the bubble in Orlando, we'll have all the time in the world. I'm looking forward to that."
Coby White ended his rookie season as one of the hottest players in the league, averaging 26.1 points in his last nine games.
So if Karnisovas cherishes sound evaluation, reflection and consideration, it has to make it exceptionally difficult to judge anyone without seeing them at work or play. Everything changes when you compete against others. Remember, the Bulls were so enthusiastic last September about that early training and practice period. Then it all changed once the competition became against others. It always does. It's why the exclusion of the Bulls from the summer games is so devastating to Karnisovas and his new staff.
Karnisovas did suggest the Bulls were more talented that their record last season and that it was time for results more than excuses.
"They definitely underperformed," Karnisovas said. "I'm excited to watch because there's a lot of talent on this team. In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them. That's what I need to cultivate. That's my objective this offseason. I need to be there. I need to see it for myself. As much as I could talk to players and their experiences previously, I'm looking forward and they're looking forward to changes and improvements. I think all of them were disappointed. None of them were expecting to win 22 games. I think they cannot wait to get back in the gym. They're waiting for more direction from us. We're going to provide them with that. "There's not going to be any excuses," Karnisovas declared. "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."
But how is it fair to ask an entirely new management team to make major decisions about the future of the franchise without even seeing the players and staff in one competitive game? Karnisovas gets his first major executive assignment under perhaps the most difficult circumstances in league history: You have to begin a top to bottom review. But we are never letting you see any of your players in a game.
The reality has begun to hit those eight excluded teams that their players, many of whom have said they couldn't even find a basket to shoot these last three months, will lose substantial edge being away from basketball so long. Especially in comparison to 75 percent of the league, which could have three more months of training and games. Talk about your uneven playing field.
NBA history also suggests these kinds of sabbaticals drain competitive DNA even from some of the best. Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Dave Cowens took a late career break of almost two seasons. He tried to return, but admitted he'd lost so much desire being away so long. The great Michael Jordan saw even his competitiveness wane when he attempted to come back with the Washington Wizards in 2001.
Karnisovas said the Scarlet Letter teams have been hurriedly talking among themselves about trying to figure out ways to put their players in competitive situations.
"We're selling a bunch of things to the league to involve the eight teams, the players, the coaches and staff to again have creative ways to develop our players and the teams that were left out," Karnisovas said. "It's going to be up to the league. Some of it is going to be conversations with the players' association, so we're still waiting for direction. We're exchanging a lot of conversations and proposals with the league.''
Which doesn't sound promising for the Bulls since there never was any scientific reason that 20 teams would be safer than 40, 16 safer than 30. So maybe the NBA chose 22 in an apparent tribute to Clyde Drexler for being embarrassed by Michael Jordan in the Last Dance documentary.
"There are creative ways to (stay sharp)," Karnisovas said. "These eight teams, we're getting on calls and we're having conversations about how we can develop our players and how we can have a structure in place to get some practicing and possibly some scrimmaging possibly in the offseason to catch up to those teams that are going to be playing. There's going to be a lot of player development and individual work, but I also would like to see some team activity. I would look for the league to simulate something like that this summer. I'm confident because I think eight teams is a huge part of our league and I think the league's interest is to support those teams as well as they can. The proposed structure of some practices and some scrimmages that we would like to see this summer. I think it's not too much to ask."
Zach LaVine finished the season averaging 25.5 points per game.
Ah, but here's the rub. The NBA is taking extraordinary precautions for the 22 teams in Orlando with isolations and medical and scientific specialists. Are they going to do that for all eight? Four? Two? Then are you saying we care about the health of LeBron more than the health of LaVine? Sorry, forget it. We know the answer to that.
Karnisovas said the Bulls were lobbying actively to be included in Orlando, but decided to vote for the 22-team proposal (only Portland objected) in the interest of league unity.
"We wanted to play," said Karnisovas, "because we thought we need to bring sports back for our fans during this emotional time. At the end of the day, we had to compromise and do what is best for our league."
Karnisovas also discussed other matters in what was his first year end media session:
Coach Jim Boylen: "Coaching in the league is very difficult. To make a decision about coaching is really hard. It's probably the hardest thing for executives. So I look at a lot of aspects. I've had numerous conversations. That said, would like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We're looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together. Talking to players and coaches. Obviously, everybody is disappointed with the results last year. As much as we talk on the phone, they (coaching staff) don't know me. So that is my number one priority when I get in the city, when I get in the building, is to get to know our coaching staff, meet the players and start the process of getting to know each other."
Lauri Markkanen's 2019-20 regression season: "We've spoken to Lauri numerous times. He's been very patient, stayed in the market (Chicago). His family is now with him. He's eager to get back to the gym and improve. He was disappointed obviously by the overall result. Every player wants to win. He's about winning as well. Our objective is to get the best version of Lauri next year. We agreed in conversations that this is our objective and we're going to try to do it. Besides that, I'll look forward to meeting him face to face. Before accountability, I have to have a personal relationship with him. We'll set the expectations, which are pretty high. We're going to strive to get better. Same thing with Lauri. We have a lot of time this offseason. We're going to put a plan together for him."
This NBA draft at which the Bulls currently have the seventh odds: "I disagree that it's a weak (draft) class. I like a lot of players that are in our range. We've done a lot of work studying. The excitement is coming from studying those players and interviewing them and looking at the video. I think we'll add a good player to our roster next year. So I think we're ahead of the curve right now and we have a lot of time to do even more. I'm looking forward to that; its exciting." The medical staff: "We're going to be looking to add a head athletic trainer (for departed Jeff Tanaka). I think that department is really important. We're working closely with Chip (Schaefer, director of performance health) to look to add talent to that department. Again, I'm looking forward to sitting down with the staff and getting to know them all. They've done an incredible job given the circumstances now to work with injured players and to work with players who wanted to work now individually in such a limited time. I'm looking forward to meeting them when I get to Chicago (soon)."
Reason for optimism: "With the dates like Dec. 1 and training camp Nov. 10 were thrown around, I think it got me more excited just because it doesn't seem as far as we thought (draft lottery Aug. 25, draft Oct. 15, the 2020-21 season beginning Dec. 1. Free agency Oct. 18, training camps Nov. 10). We're going to have a lot of time. We will be in the practice facility a lot. We'll be spending a lot of time with each other."