Bulls basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas met with the media prior to Chicago's Monday night game against Denver where he spoke about his thoughts on Billy Donovan, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and more.
Lonzo Ball? Andre Drummond? J.J. Redick? Kyle Lowry? John Collins? Al Horford? P.J. Tucker? Victor Oladipo? George Hill? Hassan Whiteside?
It sounds like the Bulls' concerns for the rest of this season are Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White. And, sure, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky.
"Right now we're focused on winning games because the separation between fourth and 10th place is a game-and-a-half. So this group is doing pretty well," Bulls Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas said Monday evening in his first media comments since the start of the regular season. "Hopefully we can get Lauri (Markkanen) back and OP (Porter) and see what we can do with this team. We had a pretty good month in February with a winning record.
"When the trade deadline comes (March 25), I think now 12 or 13 are in (the playoff mix) in the East," said Karnisovas. "So I just think teams are going to try to improve and there's not going to be a lot of sellers. I think we're just going to focus on our guys and how to get them better.
"We (with coach Billy Donovan) spend so much time talking about our games and where we can do better," Karnisovas added. "You look at the stat sheets for the season, I think a lot of players on our roster have their career highs. From Zach averaging 29 (points), five (rebounds) and five (assists) and Lauri was cooking before he got hurt and Coby and Wendell and Thad is shooting 60 percent from the field. Sato's playing great the last two or three games. I think a lot of players are playing well. I think OP has been also very productive when he was available. We are waiting for those guys to get back and see what we look like."
Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas took questions about the state of the Bulls prior to Monday's game against Denver.
Which sounds like what Karnisovas said about this Bulls team before the season, that 2020-21 would be about evaluation and analysis of these players with the implied goal of playing more competitively and making the playoffs.
Unless, of course, teams are so desperate to make a run the Bulls can take advantage of the market and pull off an NBA version of the old Herschel Walker trade and acquire a half dozen lottery picks. Not likely, of course, at a time when lottery picks are almost never traded. So, as it's said, there's still a chance.
That playoff destination for the Bulls, meanwhile, was clearly within sight as the Bulls prepared Monday to face Karnisovas most recent team, the Denver Nuggets. The Bulls came into the night 15-17 and tied for ninth in the East with the Indiana Pacers (they dropped to 15-18 with a Monday night loss to the Nuggets). But that was just a game and a half behind fourth place New York at 18-17. Plus, the Bulls are coming off their best month in more than three years with an 8-6 record. It narrowed the Bulls point differential for the season to a minus 0.1, which based on historical models equates to a .500 record.
The NBA playoffs this season expands with a component for a play-in tournament for the teams finishing seventh through 10th. Karnisovas seemed to believe that might make trades more difficult with fewer teams eying the lottery and adding draft picks for players. So even if the Bulls were inclined to make changes, it sounds like Karnisovas' readings from his discussions around the NBA suggest a tight market unless a team is willing to sacrifice a large package of draft picks and players. Would the Bulls take advantage?
Probably not as Karnisovas has been consistent about evaluations of growth.
But what if there were one of those too good to refuse offers? Nah, but you never know until you know.
"I think expanding the playoffs to 10 teams and then two or three are still delusional and think that they can make it to 10, I think that makes a very interesting trade deadline," said Karnisovas. "Billy and I spend more time talking about how we can improve this group and focus now on this group that we have that's actually playing well and had a first month of winning in February. Last couple of games they had some slippage, but I think overall this group is doing so much better and looking forward to seeing the next 40 games."
Karnisovas during a 15-minute session with media also said the Bulls are competing for a playoff spot because of Zach LaVine's play, Lauri Markkanen has been meeting and maybe even exceeding expectations and that the backcourt remains a work in progress:
On Zach LaVine: "He's deserving right now of his accolades and made an All-Star game and we are really proud of him. We are constantly in games because of his play. So he's been establishing himself as a leader of this team and we've improved dramatically because he is impacting winning. So that's why besides his numbers of 29, five and five, which are amazing... this team is fighting for a playoff spot."
On Lauri Markkanen: "I think development is the No. 1 thing with all of our players and especially with Lauri. The things that we met before the season and set the expectations for Lauri, I think he met. Obviously before he got hurt, he was 19 (points) and shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40 from the three. I think that's what he can do on a daily basis. We can't wait for him to come back and help this team win games."
On the LaVine and White combination: "Coby has played now 32 games at the point guard position (starting). Zach has been unbelievable closing games for us. He has been one of the biggest scorers (in the NBA) in the fourth quarter every game. Those guys' contribution has been unbelievable for us to win games. We're still looking for combinations. Our bench was unbelievable and they helped win games. Those guys are still learning how to play with each other. I think they're just going to get better."
On Patrick Williams: "He obviously met our expectations because we drafted him in November, he showed up in Chicago and a week later he was on the floor and playing preseason with no adjustment period. So I think he's learning every game; his ups and downs are expected. But he's like a sponge every day. He's the first one in the (practice) center. He's by himself in Chicago and he is doing really well on the basketball court and off the basketball court."
On Billy Donovan: "I think he's doing a great job. I've watched all the media availabilities by him. The one question that's always coming up is, ‘When do they meet? When do they talk?' We talk every day. We talk before every practice, we spend time during practices, talk after practices, before games, after games. So the communication is always there. I expected that and more, so there's no misunderstandings from my side or his side. There's always a clear understanding of what do we think after every game, how we can make this group better, what are the areas we can improve moving forward? So it's unbelievable communication and I'm thankful to have him around.
"I think players themselves bought in. Billy and his staff have done an unbelievable job defensively and offensively. We still have the two problems that we've had all season long, turning the ball over and then fouling. Those are the two that are actually impacting our defense. I think in the last 10 games, we are 11th in net rating and 15th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive. So we're not doing too bad, but again, when turnovers and fouling get back in and are creeping up, I think that's when we get ourselves in trouble and we beat ourselves. Because when you look back at 50 percent from the field and 40 from the three and you beat teams in rebounding, you should be winning those games. But then you look at the turnover column, and that's been affecting us consistently. I think we were in 20 games this year with five minutes to go within five points. We are 9-11 in those 20 games. It's better than last year. That said, this team is still learning how to close games. It's still in the process of learning."