Bold moves by Arturas Karnišovas turns Bulls into instant playoff contenders

Sam Smith puts into perspective the magnitude of the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline moves made by the Chicago Bulls, led by Arturas Karnišovas.

The Bulls franchise has had better days than Thursday—if not exactly that many—when the team acquired five players, including Orlando Magic All-Star center Nikola Vucevic.

There were the championships, of course, and there was the day the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, and then the ones when they drafted Scottie Pippen and later Derrick Rose. And long ago when the Bulls acquired 76ers star Chet Walker and in the ABA expansion draft Artis Gilmore.

But perhaps never in franchise history has Bulls management so effectively, efficiently and impressively refashioned the roster so quickly in a series of trades that may finally provide the sturdy foundation to rebuild the excellence the franchise has been seeking for almost a decade.

"We improved our team today," Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnišovas told reporters on a video conference call late Thursday after the trade deadline day trading frenzy. "We have Zach (LaVine) now as an All-Star, Nikola as an All-Star. We took a chance today. We got better today. We try to win games. That's basically why we're in this business. Right from the beginning from the time we got here (last April), we said that we're trying to get back to relevancy and today made it happen. Expectations are always obviously winning and getting in the playoffs and getting our team better. We added Nikola, we added (Al-Farouq) Aminu, we added Javonte Green, Daniel Theis. We added Troy Brown. There's a lot of interesting pieces there and has different attributes each player.

"Teams for years chasing those kind of (All-Star) players and we did it at the trade deadline," Karnišovas noted. "So I'm very excited and happy for our organization and Bulls fans. I'm looking forward to seeing how this group works. We're not done. We're going to keep improving our quality of play. And then keep adding pieces to what this team is going to look like in the future."

Artūras Karnišovas spoke with the media following an eventful NBA Trade Deadline Day.

No one can predict yet what all the maneuvering will mean.

But seemingly in just a few hours the Bulls went from an uncertain, young and inexperienced team to a hard edged, veteran group with versatility, playoff experience and toughness.

Obviously Vucevic, who is averaging almost 25 points per game playing the position of the greatest Bulls need (that's right center; not point guard), is the big prize.

The 10-year veteran has been an All-Star two of the last three seasons even playing for the lowly Magic and producing career numbers in recent seasons to match Eastern Conference stars like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Though Vucevic's versatile game with 41 percent three-point shooting perhaps more rivals that of another MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic.

Gilmore is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, though more for his ABA experiences. Vucevic probably becomes the most talented all around center in franchise history. And more importantly for the team's immediate future, he becomes the complementary star to support and team with LaVine. Suddenly the Bulls can throw two of the league's best players at opponents to close games. Or to start them.

"It's easy to add Nikola to the way we play," said Karnišovas. "Because we put in an offense that is free flowing and there's a lot of ball movement and decision making. He can score, he can score low (post), he can score from three, he's a facilitator. I think one of the best things that he can do is he can facilitate shots for others as well as the fact that he's a 25-and-12 player. We were very excited. It's just kind of like, it's not eliminating a need for guards constantly facilitating for bigs. Here in this situation, the big can facilitate shots and create offense for others as well. He's going to make everybody's life much easier."

Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine at the 2021 NBA All-Star game.

It's really pinch-me remarkable stuff that not only could architect Karnišovas redraw a roster so suddenly, but he also was able to do by mostly sacrificing players who were underperforming or of little value. The principal part of the Vucevic trade was the first round draft picks in 2021 and 2023 the Bulls send to obviously rebuilding Orlando. Good luck with that, the Bulls can tell you from the last four years.

Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. went to the Magic with the draft picks. Porter has been a major disappointment for the Bulls since the trade deadline day acquisition two years ago, often injured and this season slow to regain form coming off the bench. Carter's acquisition by Orlando was curious given they weren't interested in him in the 2018 draft and chose Mo Bamba instead. Carter has regressed this season, once again suffering injury, but also seemingly a crisis of confidence. As part of a three-team deal with Washington and Boston, the Bulls also gave up Luke Kornet, Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison. All have been mostly out of the rotation. Kornet has rarely been productive in two seasons with the Bulls and Hutchison has missed most of the last two seasons with medical and personal issues. Gafford has been in and out of the rotation as a backup shot blocker.

Two years ago, the Bulls sought to supplement their much-too-immature roster with veterans like Porter, Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky, and last fall adding free agent Garrett Temple. Those players finally added some grit to the grind the young players have been enduring. Suddenly, the Bulls have a mature, experienced roster with the likes of Aminu, Theis, Green and Brown.

-Al-Farouq Aminu: He's an 11-year veteran whom the Bulls were intrigued by in the 2011 draft for his physical play and defense. He's a long wing span player with strong defensive instincts at 6-8, contributing recently with several Portland playoff teams. He's not a high level shooter, but good with corner threes. He had some knee problems earlier this season that kept him out. But he's come on lately with this week 17-10-6 in a loss to Denver and six points and 10 rebounds Wednesday in his final Magic game, a win over the Suns.
-Daniel Theis: The 6-8 bruising forward was a favorite of Celtics fans for his hustle running the court and defensive play. With the Celtics acquisitions and his free agency status, he became a financial sacrifice for the Celtics. Which also suggested the Bulls are looking short term and long term. Theis, 28, started 17 games last season in the Celtics playoff run.
-Javonte Green: The 6-4 undrafted guard out of little Redford, who is 27, honed his game after college overseas. He's also a Montenegrin like Vucevic and is regarded for his energetic play.

-Troy Brown Jr: The 6-6 third year guard from Washington seemed curiously disused with the Wizards. He averaged 10.4 points with 24 starts last season, but seemed to lose time to recent high draft picks. He's not unlike Tomas Satoransky with an ability to handle the ball and make plays like a facilitating wing player. Though he didn't get the opportunity often in Washington where he also was regarded for his defensive play.

From testing and analyzing young players, the Bulls now have perhaps a half dozen hardened veterans who also are accustomed to bigger moments. It thus provides a comfort zone for players like LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and rookie Patrick Williams. And could produce some intriguing competitions and closing lineups as the Bulls seriously get in position for a playoff run this season and beyond.

"I've been really happy with the addition of talent today, toughness and competitiveness," Karnišovas said. "This group in our vision is going to fit very well. Obviously, we want Chicago to be an attractive destination for free agents. We had a sample size of more than 40 games and we made a couple of decisions to select certain guys to add, a couple of guys to this team that can win games because we're serious here about winning. We're serious about the culture of being very competitive, and any opportunity we get to make this team better we will.

"These are the pieces we added right now for this year and moving forward without giving up – in our minds – too many assets," Karnišovas said. "I thought that we really improved today. We have what, 29 games left? We're going to make a push. We'll see what happens the rest of the season."

A red letter, er jersey. day?