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Bulls finally hit reset button with hiring of Karnisovas

A startling lack of success since the Jordan era wasn't enough for Chicago to shake things up at the top... until now

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Even as the Chicago Bulls made major moves Monday to bury the recent past and set up the future with Arturas Karnisovas as their newly hired executive vice president of basketball operations, Michael Reinsdorf was careful to keep the team positioned in the present.

“This organization is at a crossroads,” said Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ president and chief executive officer, before turning a media conference call – conducted remotely per coronavirus social-distancing guidelines – over to Karnisovas, most recently the Denver Nuggets’ general manager.

The crossroads metaphor is apt, but a little overdue. Consider what it has taken for the franchise, through the eminently forgettable past five seasons and recent history before them, to reach this fork in a horribly pot-holed road:

— A 154-239 record since the organization fired Tom Thibodeau in May 2015.

— One playoff appearance in that time, a first-round dismissal by Boston in 2017.

— Two mixed-message years ushering in a new, alleged “Hoiball” era under coach Fred Hoiberg, mashed up with veterans whose games bore little resemblance to a Golden State Lite style.

— Three more seasons of angling for lottery position, then waiting for players (drafted later than hoped) to develop and stay healthy. The core at least of an ensemble cast — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter, Coby White — has sputtered along one or both curves.

— Twenty-two seasons overall since the Bulls’ last championship, and a cumulative 179 games under .500 in that span. There was a giddy stretch in there for a while — from Derrick Rose’s lottery arrival in 2008 to, well, the young MVP’s blown ACL in April 2012 — but also a lot of passive-aggressiveness from upstairs before, during and after.

— A 12 percent decline in attendance at United Center, from an average of 21,343 five years ago to 18,804 this season. Going back 10 seasons, the Bulls finished first in NBA attendance the first eight, slipped to second in 2018-19 and fell all the way to 11th this season.

— Oh, and an unprecedented pandemic that has shuttered the NBA, plunging the league into uncertainty as a sport and instability as a business, at least for the short term.

Good for the Bulls that only now do they feel they’ve reached a crossroads. Some might have seen a dead end a few years back.

There’s no turning around now, though, with Chicago opting to clean house. In the works for weeks, Reinsdorf and his father (and team chairman) Jerry shunted John Paxson into an advisory role, fired general manager Gar Forman and hired Karnisovas for the acumen and promise he’d shown as first lieutenant to the Nuggets’ Tim Connelly.

The pair had been in Denver since 2013, steering the Nuggets through a rebuild in the post-Carmelo Anthony era. Finding, adding and gambling on players such as Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Connelly, Karnisovas, their staff and coach Michael Malone have driven the Nuggets to steady improvement in each of the past five seasons.

They missed the playoffs in Game 82 in 2018, reached the West semifinals in 2019 and, at 43-22 (.662) last month when the Big Pause came, were headed for possibly their best finish yet.

It wasn’t all winners for the Denver front office; the Nuggets missed on Emmanuel Mudiay in 2015 and were in position to keep both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell rather than shipping them to Utah on their respective Draft nights.

But Karnisovas, a native of Lithuania, got high marks from those who knew the 48-year-old when Michael Reinsdorf began inquiring, and even higher ones after the two had a series of phone conversations in recent weeks.

“It was so clear Arturas checked every box,” Reinsdorf said.

As a player, Karnisovas faced Bulls legend Michael Jordan and the rest of the Dream Team in 1992 (his job: guard Charles Barkley!) while playing in Europe from 1987 to 2002. He hooked up with the NBA in 2003, joining the Rockets as a scout in 2008.

Karnisovas offered a lot of expected boilerplate Monday as to the style of play and the structure of the front office he envisions for the Bulls. He isn’t about to give away any trade secrets now with the season in limbo. Besides, that’s what new bosses do, talking in generalities about spacing, defense and rebounding until they can actually roll up their sleeves, flesh out their staffs and nail down their roster’s strengths and deficiencies.

Evaluating the new guy similarly will require some time — and further test the patience of Bulls fans who feel the rebuild they’d been sold has dragged a season or two too long.

This organization is at a crossroads.

Michael Reinsdorf

What was most significant Monday was the sense of relief, even rebirth, in a market somewhat beaten into submission by the elder Reinsdorf’s unwavering loyalty to Paxson and Forman (along with a long-rumored priority on profits over winning). The Chairman has run his MLB team, the White Sox, that way, keeping exec Kenny Williams around beyond his effectiveness — or so it seemed — while moving around deck chairs beneath him.

Baseball is Reinsdorf’s first sports love, and his management team has produced a 2005 World Series title and, lately, the rumblings of a contender. Letting Karnisovas work freely with minimal oversight from Paxson is considered the key to getting anywhere close to the Sox’s success.

Michael Reinsdorf, in relating a conversation he had with Paxson, acknowledged that the Bulls’ front office has been a) small by modern NBA standards and b) too set in its ways. The time when teams could be run like Mom-and-Pop operations should have ended with the last century.

Sounds like it’s ending for Chicago with this hire — with Forman’s departure and Paxson’s slide to the side, too. And at some point, with a decision on coach Jim Boylen’s fate.

It’s hard to imagine — unless Karnisovas just wants to buy time before he can make his first headline move — that Boylen will last long once the season (or next?) is up and running. So much newness … and you’re going to roll the new ride off the lot with your trade-in’s old tires?

You either press a reset button or you don’t.

Karnisovas’ stated goal Monday was to bring a championship to Chicago. He might as well have said “another,” because no one ever forgets the first six in this city.

A better measure of success, though, will come from changing leaguewide perceptions about the Bulls. They are viewed by so many as a top-down, suits-friendly operation, a culture that lingers from the Jordan/Phil Jackson/Jerry Krause tussles and is blamed for turning off free agents to this day.

That’s the crossroads really facing Chicago now, with the Reinsdorfs at least looking up the right path.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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