Artūras Karnišovas says rebuild "not our our minds" following 40-42 season

Just give us one more chance.

That seemed to be the message Saturday from Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas in his annual postseason State of the Bulls Address.

It was supported, predictably, by the team’s top players even in the wake of the 40-42 regular season and Friday’s play-in game defeat in Miami to end the season. That this is a continuing process more than a dead end. That even with the team backtracking some from the previous season, the arrow really is pointing up, albeit subtly. But more apparent if you are looking closely, at the games against the elite teams, at the defensive improvements, the All-Star talents of the main players. 

Not to say it’s a finished product. There’s perimeter shooting to be added. Perhaps a point guard to start with uncertainty regarding Lonzo Ball for next season after another surgery last month. And seasonal vagaries to consider. Nikola Vučević is an unrestricted free agent and Coby White is a restricted free agent and both said they will test the market. Karnišovas said he wants to bring both back.

Karnišovas, appropriate for such a session two months before the draft and free agency, wasn’t specific. But he was about one thing: There will be no rebuild. This is the foundational core he believes in and he and his staff want to do what they can to give it another chance now that Zach LaVine is fully healthy and LaVine, Vučević and DeMar DeRozan have grown comfortable playing together.

“That's been thrown around all this season – blow up, rebuild – it's not on our minds,” Karnišovas said. “I think the moment we changed our minds in the 2021 season to kind of focus on winning and try to build a sustainable program here, I think that's what we're focused right now on. How we can help this group and how we can improve from this year and that's what our offseason's goal is going to look like. We're going to consider everything and how we can compete with the top teams.

“Leading into 2021, we turned the roster around and built the expectations by being successful pretty fast and going to the playoffs in the 2021-22 season,” Karnišovas pointed out. “But we were beating bad teams and losing to good teams. We flipped the script in 2022-23. We didn’t know what to expect from our group. We were more competitive, but we lost a lot of close games. Getting to the All-Star game, we lost 16 out of 33 games to last shots, last minute or overtime. That’s a lot of games to lose that are close. Last year, we finished 7-15 post All-Star. This year, we were 14-9, which was a positive. Made a run at trying to make the playoffs. The word of this year is probably inconsistency. But we were very competitive. The result is not what we wanted. But the way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path. (Now) we’re going to have this time in the postseason to sit down with the front office and coaching staff and figure out what needs improving moving forward.”

It might be a surprise to some since the ongoing narrative this season, which evolved from Karnišovas’ preseason media session last September, was he expected the team to advance from last season’s playoff loss to get into the second round this season. With the Bulls finishing the season under .500 and losing in the play-in tournament, albeit in the last moments on the road, the conventional wisdom seemed to be less the blow-it-up many like TNT’s Charles Barkley were demanding during the season than some significant personnel changes.

That’s always possible with the free agents, the outside possibility of getting into the first round of the draft since the Bulls have top four protection from the Vučević trade with Orlando and an offseason when several players could be on the market, including perhaps All-Stars like Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Collins and various Bogdanovics. Plus there are potential free agents like Fred VanVleet, Jermai Grant, D’Angelo Russell, Harrison Barnes and Russell Westbrook. The Bulls above the salary cap aren’t likely to be involved in free agency other than with their own players.

Though there are players of lesser value but who address specific needs who might be added through a salary cap exception, particularly shooters like Seth Curry, former Bull Justin Holiday, Alec Burks, former Billy Donovan player Dennis Schroder and Terrence Ross. There also could be some interesting big guys depending on circumstances, like Thomas Bryant, Mason Plumlee, Naz Reid and Bulls killer George Niang.

But like with the Bulls’ DeRozan acquisition in 2021, there are maneuvers with sign-and-trade and other exceptions to make deals that seem unlikely. The Bulls probably can’t expect Lonzo Ball back this time unlike the past season after another surgery last month. “I have confidence that he's going to come back. In terms of timeline, I don't have that timeline right now because he just had his procedure,” Karnišovas said.

But that also adds clarity rather than the uncertainty. The Bulls figure to examine the market and availabilities, but have an improved White as a starting point guard possibility.

“He's gotten better in every aspect of his game,” said Karnišovas about White. “I think that's a good example of a player that's developing and taking strides from decision making to defense to three point shooting. Especially in the second half of the season, he's been really good for us and has been key in a lot of wins.” Asked if he hoped to resign White, Karnišovas was emphatic. “Absolutely,” he said.

He also said he wants to bring back Vučević.

“He’s been awesome for us,” Karnišovas said. “He’s been available in all 82 games. He’s been our iron man together with Patrick Williams. He's a double-double machine as a top three player in double-doubles this year. So he's a huge part of this team. We hope to retain him.”

Which sounded encouraging to the team’s primary stars, DeRozan and LaVine.

“We were a hell of a defensive team,” said DeRozan. “We switched it around after All-Star break and it really didn’t take much. So just finding out what more to add and put with this thing. I think that’s possible. We improved (this season). It was just so much inconsistency this year, which cost us because we had games where we had it rolling, looked amazing. We looked like the Princeton offense back in the day. We just didn’t stay consistent with it. For me I’ve never played with such a talented, gifted player at the wing position as Zach. It was so many days, so many nights, so many times being in the gym he wowed me with his capability. Having somebody with such a talent brings so much out of me.”

LaVine said DeRozan has become one of his closest friends and if given the chance their time is coming.

“The second half of the season showed the potential that we have, especially going down the stretch,” insisted LaVine. “We beat a lot of these top teams. I think it’s just more the consistency of it. They do it more than we do. We’ve come really close a lot. It just wasn’t enough to get us over the hump. I have confidence in the group and everything that everybody put into it. There are certain things that we do need to get over that hump. I think you (media) guys know that. AK knows that. The players know it. Obviously, we didn’t shoot the three-ball very well. We turned out to be a pretty damn good defensive team. Coming into the season with me being a little bit banged up coming off the injury slowed a lot of things down. And then picking up steam after All-Star break really helped us out. We’re really close to having one of those offenses that’s unstoppable. When we’re both on, it shows. We’re able to take over games. We just need to do a little bit more and figure out how to get that to a little more winning. I think that’s the thing that we were both a little bit frustrated about, how we can both play off each other better. But we are close.”

White seconded (thirded?) the motion.

“I feel like on paper, we’re a really talented team,” White added. “Our offense wasn't great. Two years ago, our defense wasn't great. But (now) we were the No. 1 defense (after) the All-Star break. I feel like we can build. We’ve got so many talented guys offensively that what needs to be fixed can be fixed and that it can be an easy fix for us.”

Vučević was a bit more cautious, which you’d expect from an old head, but also not inclined for much change.

“I think we obviously can’t do some of the same stuff,” said Vučević. “We can’t play the same way we have and try to have different results. Things like that we have to change. Some things need to be adjusted. But I do think we do have a good base to do that, for sure.’’

Karnišovas began his remarks with an impromptu offer to take media and viewers on “a journey where we started by getting a trade with Vooch and bringing him here in addition to Zach and having all the additions of DeMar and AC (Alex Caruso) and Lonzo. The idea was to have those three guys be surrounded by those defensive, high-energy guys. Kind of like an engine. That was an idea behind the summer of 2021.”

Karnišovas’ point seemed to be that this is coming only to Year 3 of a coordinated plan following two fractured years.

Year 1 was the great start, first in the conference going into the All-Star break and then without the return of Ball and the injuries to LaVine and Caruso, it wasn’t what the team envisioned or planned. Then it was Year 2 this season. But LaVine was on a playing time limitation to start because of his offseason surgery and it still was Waiting for Lonzo. It wasn’t until midseason the Bulls realized Ball would not be returning. But then with the acquisition of Patrick Beverley as de facto point guard and reclassifying the rotation with a defensive orientation, the team became one of the elite defensive groups the last two months with steals, deflections and lowered opponent shooting percentages. 

And even if it didn’t result in a playoff berth, the script flipped against the elite teams with a season sweep of Miami and impressive wins against Boston, Milwaukee and West leaders Denver and Memphis. The 14-9 finish that enabled the team to at least get into the play-in tournament was achieved with road wins in tough places like Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles and then in the play-in Toronto.

So, Karnišovas was in effect asking, why break it up or make major changes if the arrow is pointing up? Which makes sense. And if the players feel they are growing together and have shown advances in play, like with White and Patrick Williams. Just plug some holes. Though a sub-.500 team like the Bulls also has to be wary of that late season surge when not everyone they are playing is pursuing excellence. One Bulls opponent was punished by the league for refusing to try to win. It can be like a baseball team out of the running that has a big September. Which doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next season.

Karnišovas believes it will. To paraphrase a president, he’s saying, “The State of the Bulls is strong.”

Though no one rose from the audience quite yet for a standing ovation like at the Capitol.

But there also is the question of your competitive ceiling and where you are going.

Ball’s return is unclear. DeRozan will be 34 next season and has one year left on his contract. Do you extend him? Though the way he plays you’d think he has good years left. Vučević will be 33 next season. How many years with two of your three core players over 33? Beverley will be 35 this summer. Are your young players like Williams, White and Ayo Dosunmu lined up to become future starters and big scorers? Unless the Bulls get into the top four in this draft, the Bulls won’t have a draft pick this year without a trade. Their 2025 pick goes to the Spurs from the DeRozan acquisition. Which actually also is a reason to avoid a rebuild without enough draft picks. But what then is your window?

“I’ll be open to anything,” Karnišovas offered in the obligatory post season promise. “I’m going to look at everything. It’s all about who is available. I’m not committing to anything. Patience, that’s what I learned about myself (with this team). The reason we tried to stay patient with this team around the trade deadline is because this team deserved a chance to figure things out. And second you’ve got to know what was available at the trade deadline. There were no deals available to make this team better. So that worked out with this group to give them a chance to put this run together, which I’m actually proud of the group, the players and coaches. Even though we failed at the end, it’s information for me.

“The number of how many close games we lost this year, it was frustrating. But I prefer this script versus last year when we were losing by huge numbers to good teams,” Karnišovas explained. “We chose the lane which was to stay with the same group. That came out post All-Star the right decision. I don’t know if we could have made any changes that could have done better than 14-9. That was our lane, to stay with the group.

“It will be a priority for us to change our shooting profile because it's very difficult for us to go into every game with such a deficit,” Karnišovas admitted. “We're last in three point rate, last in three-point field goals made. It's almost like we're going into every game with an eight-point deficit to make up for it. First is the shot creation and then obviously our personnel. We have a couple deficiencies from giving up second chance points.

“If you were going to have told me we're going to be a top-five defensive team in the league prior to the season, I would think that we would struggle defensively instead of offensively. We struggled most of the year on offense,  24th offense in the league,” Karnišovas pointed out. “We were 16th (offense) post All-Star, but we were number one defensive post All-Star Weekend.  And our record against good teams. That tells you that we're better than our record. However, we are where we are. We are a 40-42 team. At the end of the day to be a .500 team is not good enough. I’m going to have to look at everything. But I would rather take this year's than last year's (team) where we were just beating up on bad teams. I think this year certain improvements were made and I'm happy to be competitive in every game.”

And then to carry that forward?

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