Bulls Basketball Chief Arturas Karnisovas spoke to the Chicago media during his end-of-season press conference where he reflected on the trade for Nikola Vuevic, the lack of winning against quality opponents and the "three constant problems" the team couldn't overcome on the floor.
Now we're really serious. No, really.
"We will not settle for mediocrity here," Bulls Vice-President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas said Monday in his first end-of-season media conference.
It's not the NBA's post season; just the Bulls. Which is the difficult part.
"We're going to add talent to our roster and from there get better and come back improved and better so we don't have to sit out another postseason," Karnisovas reiterated. "I don't like to watch postseason games now just because I'm not happy that we're not in it. I'm a competitive guy. Talking to all the players, they're disappointed. We're disappointed. And we're going into the next season to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Watch Arturas Karnisovas' full end-of-season press conference call with the media.
So perhaps Bulls fans may roll their eyes and say they heard that one before, mostly the last three seasons just before most of the NBA started the playoffs. This season it's particularly painful because the NBA expanded the format to add two teams for a play-in tournament beginning Tuesday. Though no one made any predictions, it seemed likely for the Bulls when the season began. And then almost certain when Karnisovas pulled off one of the biggest and most impressive Bulls trades in years, acquiring Orlando All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in late March with the Bulls still solidly in the top 10 and just three games out of fourth place in the conference.
But while the Bulls were looking up, someone opened a trap door of Covid absences and practice complications and rotation and playing style changes that enabled the Washington Wizards—then three and a half games behind the Bulls—to pass the Bulls, who finished 11th in the conference at 31-41.
It was the best Bulls winning percentage in four years, equivalent to about a 35-win season in a regular 82 games. But it was far below Karnisovas' apparent expectations and anticipation for his first season managing the Bulls. His makeover of the franchise hit all the right notes with a respected coach in Billy Donovan, aggressive and daring personnel maneuvers trading for Vucevic and Daniel Theis and signing Garrett Temple and drafting Patrick Williams. It all added up to a much improved team.
Except, you know, in the standings.
Which is why it's less science than circumstances sometimes.
All the right moves still can produce all the wrong results.
"I was mainly disappointed for our players and fans, that we are not still playing," said Karnisovas. "We lost a lot of close games early and throughout the year. Gradually dug ourselves into a hole we couldn't quite recover from. There were lots of games that we played for three and a half quarters. Learning to win often requires a transition period. That is part of what we are going through here. Consistency is the mark of a mature, developed team, a team that adapts to adversity. I get it, it's (Covid) protocols, lack of practice time, lack of rest. But every team was in the same situation. Resilient and mature teams rise above challenges. Our three constant problems, indicated by Billy as well, were turnovers, we were 27th in turnovers, fouling and not getting to the free-throw line. We were last in the league in getting to the free-throw line. That's aggression.
"Following the All-Star break," Karnisovas added, "we took a significant dip on offense. We stopped making shots. Actually, we finished defensively 12th in the league in efficiency. A lot of people were indicating that we struggled defensively, but the numbers are saying the last 15 games we were sixth in the league. And since the All-Star, we were eighth in the league. Defensively, we were fine. I thought that our biggest struggles were offensive droughts. You have to make shots to win games. We did not do that.
Zach LaVine, Daniel Theis, and Nikola Vucevic - the latter two being new additions to the Bulls via trade.
"We place expectations on our team about winning games," said Karnisovas. "We are certainly not satisfied. But we will learn from it, adjust and make sure what did not go well does not happen again. We will continue being aggressive in our efforts to make this team better whether that's through trades, free agency or the draft. We have an important summer coming up. We will evaluate this season and line up our priorities for the offseason."
So even based on Karnisovas' small sample here with bold coaching and player moves, expect a summer of personnel turmoil.
The only players likely assured to return are Vucevic, Zach LaVine, Coby White and Williams. It's conceivable given Karnisovas' home run approach to management that 10 of the 15 players on the roster may not return next season. That's because there are so many free agents and players with team options or contracts not fully guaranteed.
The Bulls can create more than $20 million in salary cap room to pursue free agents, but that would require a massive roster overhaul. They gave up their 2021 and 2023 first round picks in the Vucevic trade, though if the pick is top four this year the Bulls retain it. While that would be a coup with the trade for Vucevic, draft picks count on the salary cap. So the Bulls then could opt to go over the salary cap, sign or retain some players and use cap exceptions to add players. The Bulls have a second-round draft pick this season and last year's Marko Simonovic, who is still playing overseas. Karnisovas said it's possible he could be added, though that's also uncertain for now.
It suggests an anxious offseason with the draft lottery June 22 and the draft July 29. There's also going to be a Summer League in August, at which Williams said he'll participate, and likely a return to a regular schedule with training camps possible in October.
There's no denying this season's result was disappointing for the Bulls, and as much unexpected, especially with the acquisition of Vucevic, who averaged 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds and shot 39 percent on threes as a Bull. LaVine remained one of the highest scoring players in the league, though he missed 11 games late in the season with Covid.
"The disappointment is short term, which is we assume that if you add another All-Star to your roster, usually you get better and improve your record," said Karnisovas. "It's a result-driven business. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. But we are happy to add ‘Vooch' into this equation. It's very seldom you get an opportunity to add an All-Stat and we went after it.''
Nikola Vucevic averaged 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 26 games played for the Bulls.
That opportunity was often mentioned as the serendipitous reasoning for the trade. But Karnisovas indicated there was more to it the way the team was playing. Less than Vucevic falling into the Bulls hands, it seemed just as much that Karnisovas sought a major change watching the team play the first half of the season.
"We go 16-18," Karnisovas pointed out. "And all our 16 wins are against .500 and below teams, right? We come off the All-Star break. We start 3-6 and the three wins are against Toronto, OKC and Detroit. In our losses, a bunch of times we had no chance."
In other words, you were going to need more than development to go anywhere with that talent. So Wendell Carter Jr. became part of the Vucevic trade, and Lauri Markkanen and Coby White were benched. Though White fought his way back into the starting lineup and averaged 17.6 points and shot 40 percent on threes in those last 18 starts.
But Karnisovas also said the team's immediate flaws were obvious, which suggests the direction of personnel moves. Karnisovas focused on poor shooting and the lack of scoring and being tougher and more aggressive in getting to the basket. His comments acknowledged some new realities of the NBA, that you have to match scoring first because of the three-point line and teams being so adept offensively. And a modicum of defense is enough the way the NBA has mostly legislated defense out of the game with so much scrutiny on perimeter contact.
So look for the Bulls to concentrate on a wing scorer; perhaps a so called 3-and-D player who is catch-and-shoot oriented and a scoring point guard. Or if White serves as the scoring point guard with Vucevic doing considerable playmaking inside, then a wing/small forward playmaker/scorer to fill out the starting five.
"I think when you have a foundation of let's say two All-Stars in one place, I think it's easier to add additional things that we need," said Karnisovas. "So we're going to discuss the needs of the team and we'll attack it during free agency.''
Karnisovas is not permitted to address contract specifics and personnel possibilities by league rule. Plus, transactions are not permitted until teams are out of the playoffs. The playoffs could stretch to July 22. Karnisovas did offer some observations about the team's main players:
On Lauri Markkanen: "I thought Lauri had a good year. I thought he was more efficient. He's a 40 percent three-point shooter. You know shooting comes at a premium in our league, and I think Lauri is an essential part of our team and we hope he is a part of what we're building here. So I'm looking forward to free agency and talking to his representation.''
Coby White: "Coby went through a lot this year, ups and downs. I think there was a lot of growth. Coby coming off the bench and then coming back again to be the starter and adjusting to the addition of Vooch. That settled his game a little bit to catch-and-shoot. Minimized his turnovers. I think it's a great year for Coby overall. I think he's going to have a big summer. He knows exactly what he needs to work on. What is point guard these days in the league? All point guards have to score, right? He's going to keep on adding things to his game. He fought for the starting job. He showed some improvement. So I'm expecting him for next year to show up and be better than he was this year."
Patrick Williams: "Regarding Patrick, we're very excited for him. He's been through a ton this year. Learning experience, 19 years old. I don't think there's a player on the team that was asked to do more than Patrick. He guarded always the best player on the other team. And defensively, he was actually switching and playing different coverages, different positions. Usually when you get a young player, you build his arsenal. You add certain things to his skill set. Pat has a lot of those skills. It's just when he is going to choose to use them. We saw glimpses in the Brooklyn game of what this kid can do (career high 24 points). I think the sky is the limit for him. He's going to have a summer for the first time. He knows again what he needs to work on. I'm looking forward to seeing his growth. He came in a situation where winning is important besides the development piece. All that pressure he was facing this year I think will benefit him."
Zach LaVine: "Obviously, we're looking forward to talking to Zach in the future (about an extension and his future). I think looking at his numbers and how well he played this year, he improved in points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, assists, rebounds. He was a much better player this year. We're going to ask players to do more. Because obviously the results are telling us it's not good enough. He's looking forward to the challenge."
On to Year 2.