Since Arturas Karnisovas took over as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations in 2020, the Bulls have undergone an extreme makeover. Karnisovas brought with him a new staff and a fresh outlook on what it means to build a good team.
When it comes to team building, process is just as important as results. Some of the moves this new front office has made were heavily scrutinized, but led to incredible results and vice versa.
With the NBA Draft coming up on June 23 and free agency following closely after that, it’s important to try to understand previous moves to help us monitor the progress of the plan. Today, we look back at the details of every draft pick, major free agent signing and trade of this new era to better understand the front office’s trajectory as we identify areas for improvement.
Patrick Williams, 4th overall in 2020 draft
Process: Big wing offensive initiators and defensive stoppers are the most valuable players in the NBA. Patrick Williams was always considered a project, but players of his archetype do not come around often.
Results: As a result of injuries, mentality and a changing role, Williams has not shown enough consistency after two seasons. He has flashes of being able to create with the ball in his hands, space the floor and defend primary shot creators. He needs to start stepping into a more commanding role as soon as next season.
Drafting is hard. Hitting on picks in the top 10 picks is the most important thing you can do as lead decision maker. And the jury is very much still out on Patrick Williams. Without many first round picks in the immediate future, it will be hard to analyze this front office’s performance in the long run.
Williams will absolutely be the measuring stick. He needs to work out.
Ayo Dosunmu, 38th overall in 2021 draft
Process: Prioritize length, basketball IQ, positional versatility and NBA readiness to bolster guard depth and bring a Chicago kid home.
Results: Because Dosunmu was ready to contribute at such a high level on a rookie contract, the front office will have more avenues to be aggressive in signing bigger name free agents.
Going one-for-two in the second round is solid considering how impactful Dosunmu was during his second team All-Rookie campaign. Simonovic’s guaranteed money is starting to look pretty fruitless.
Marko Simonovic, 44th overall in 2020 draft
Process: Take a swing on a young, skilled big man who has shown promise in lower level European competition. Stash him in Europe to develop so that he won’t count against the Bulls salary cap.
Results: Simonovic has put up some monster numbers in the G League, but hasn’t sniffed real minutes during his NBA career. It’s too early to call him a bust — he’s still just 22 years old — but it’s increasingly unlikely he turns into a rotation player. His guaranteed salary takes cap space and a roster spot away from a potential contributor.
Process: The Bulls were tied for first in the East at the All-Star Break despite injuries to Patrick Williams, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Despite rumors, the front office elected to keep their core together rather than taking the massive risk to make a move without understanding where they stood among the East’s elite when fully healthy.
Results: This clearly came back to bite them when the playoffs rolled around. Ball was never able to get healthy. Williams didn’t have enough time to become the star wing they needed. Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan were all dealing with injuries as a result of the burden they had been carrying.
In retrospect, it was wise not to cash in all of their chips on Jerami Grant, but a lower level addition to bolster the wing and big rotation would have made a huge difference. Who knows how much a Torrey Craig or Nicolas Batum would have cost, but a player like that could have had a meaningful impact in the playoffs.
In: Nikola Vucevic, Al Farouq-Aminu
Out: Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. 2021 1st round draft pick (top 4 protected*), 2023 1st round draft pick (top 4 protected*)
Pick protections: Protected 1-4 in 2023 and 1-3 in 2024. If the pick does not convey by then, Bulls will convey 2026 and 2027 2nd round picks to Orlando
Wendell Carter Jr. signed a 4-year, $50 million contract with the Magic last summer. Bulls would have needed to make a decision about extending if they hadn’t traded him.
Process: This was the first real move of the Karnisovas-Eversley regime, the domino that led the Bulls down their path of competing. The Bulls took a huge swing on an All-Star who can post, pop and make plays. They paid a hefty price, but finally committed to a direction. Because this was the first move of the current “process” it’s impossible to separate from the 2021-22 roster moves.
Theoretically, Vucevic’s offensive versatility is a perfect compliment to Zach LaVine. A second star was exactly what they needed to make the playoffs in 2020-21.
Results: The most scrutinized trade of the new regime. Vucevic has simply not been as good as he needs to be. His shooting and efficiency have plummeted and he hasn’t found his fit next to his two new co-stars.
An underrated aspect of this deal was taking back Aminu’s ~$10 million salary, guaranteed for 2021-22. The Bulls sent Aminu to the Spurs as part of the DeRozan sign-and-trade. For the Spurs to take on that guaranteed money, the Bulls were forced to sweeten the deal with a future first. Solving a problem by creating another one.
The Bulls gave up a haul to get their guy. Despite the up-and-down seasons, Vucevic showed the importance of experience and versatility in the playoffs. Vucevic has time to flip the narrative, but the Bulls should also consider cutting their losses.
In: Daniel Theis, Javonte Green, $1.3 million (via Celtics), Troy Brown Jr., $250k (via Wizards)
Out: Daniel Gafford (Wizards), Chandler Hutchison (Wizards), Luke Kornet (Celtics), Moritz Wagner (to Celtics via Wizards)
Process: After reviewing the roster, the new front office washed its hands of players from the old regime. This trade cleared up space and doubled down on veteran players to help the team win now.
Results: Neither this trade nor the Vucevic trade helped the Bulls get to the playoffs in the 2020-21 season. That means they owed their pick to the Magic, who ended up selecting Franz Wagner eighth overall.
In: DeMar DeRozan (signed for 3 years, $85 million)
Pick protection: Bulls owe a first round pick to Spurs starting two years after their first round pick owed to Magic conveys (2025 or 2026).
The pick is top-ten protected pick in year one, top-eight protected in year two and year three. If not conveyed by 2028 they will instead owe a 2028 second round pick.
Process: Talent wins in the NBA and Karnisovas and Eversley went all in. They paid an exorbitant price for a 32-year-old former All-Star to be the offensive initiator the Bulls desperately needed next to Zach LaVine.
Results: The media lambasted the Bulls for this gross overpay, but it could not have worked out better for Chicago. DeRozan made his entire contract’s worth in one season. He led the Bulls to their first playoff appearance in five seasons, mentored the young players and renewed the culture of the franchise.
No one could have seen this coming. Another situation where they “overpaid” to get their guy, but the results made it more than worthwhile.
In: Lonzo Ball (signed for 4 years, $80 million)
Out: Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, 2024 2nd round pick (Bulls)
4th year player option
Bulls fined 2nd round pick for tampering in league investigation
Process: 24-year-old former second overall picks in the draft do not come on the free agent market very often. The Bulls have been in desperate need of a rangy, versatile defensive quarterback who can shoot and playmake at a high level.
Results: Adding this caliber of player at this age is a home run. The injuries obviously impact the result, but Ball allows you to win now and win later.
If Ball continues to play 35 games per year, fans will turn on him, but the process was still correct. He is a stud.
In: Derrick Jones Jr., Lottery protected 1st round draft pick (Blazers), 2023 2nd round pick (Cavaliers via Nuggets)
Out: Lauri Markkanen (to Cavaliers), Larry Nance (to Blazers via Cavaliers)
2023 second round pick acquired in this deal was paid to NBA as tampering fine for Ball signing
Process: The Bulls had an opportunity to make this a two-team deal taking in Larry Nance. They bet they could get more out of Jones Jr. and a lottery protected pick than they could Nance.
Jones Jr. is a younger, more athletic player who is better at defending the perimeter, but offers much less offensively.
Nance’s guaranteed money for the 2022-23 season also played a role in the decision to go with Jones Jr.
Results: Given the playoff performance, Nance is clearly the more impactful player and could have filled a gaping hole in the Bulls roster construction. Having elected not to move Jones Jr. at the deadline, the Bulls are unlikely to retain him and won’t be able to get anything for him if he leaves.
This move won’t be fairly judged until we know what happens with the pick.
Alex Caruso (signed for 4 years, $37 million)
4th year partial guarantee of $3 million
Signed using Mid-Level Exception
Process: Offer a larger role to an elite 3-and-D specialist entering his prime. Make a bet that he can elevate into a high-end starting caliber player.
Results: We all know what Caruso meant to the Bulls this season. He might even be the best pound-for-pound signing of the Karnisovas-Eversley era. The Bulls were able to sign Caruso outright into an exception, which means he didn’t count against the salary cap. This allowed the Bulls to continue to make big-time moves, and he didn’t cost them anything in the form of a sign-and-trade.
Tony Bradley: 2 years, $3.8 million with 2nd year player option
Javonte Green: 2 years, $3.48 million
Marko Simonovic: 3 years, $4.32 million
Tristan Thompson: Rest-of-season contract, $1 million from Bi-Annual Exception
Daniel Theis: Signed-and-traded to Houston. Bulls acquire cash considerations and $5 million trade exception
Process: Fill out the back end of the roster with mix of veterans who can provide defense, shooting, and experience to a relatively untested team and developing young players. Ideally, they are capable of stepping into larger roles if injuries become a problem.
Results: Bradley was completely unplayable forcing the Bulls to use their Bi-Annual Exception on Tristan Thompson. They’ll now be unable to use that asset in the summer of 2022. They’ll still have the Mid-Level exception and Traded Player Excpetion from the Theis trade. We’ll see how deep into the tax Bulls ownership is willing to go.
These may not seem like a major moves, but it hammers home the importance of depth. One bad move can cascade into a few more and put your team at a disadvantage.
It’s impossible to hit on every move, but Karnisovas and Eversley have done an incredible job revamping the roster. They have overhauled the culture and proved Chicago can be a destination. Most impressively, they’ve showed the ability to think creatively about how to build a winning team without a true top-10 player.
The process has been incredibly successful. They were never paralyzed by the fear of not having a direction. They’ve taken a multi-faceted approach in the draft, targeting upside and NBA readiness. They’ve cashed in most of their chips on unorthodox moves and followed their plan of acquiring talent, no matter the perception of the cost, to put good players on the floor together.
All of this was done in the name of retaining Zach LaVine, whose free agency is the next big thing on the agenda.
The results have been somewhat of a mixed bag. The Bulls made their first playoff appearance in five years by putting tier two stars together and taking swings on talent.
The talent overperformed in the first part of the season, but health nearly derailed the Bulls success. Analyzing these major rebuilds is a multi-year process, but the early returns are largely successful.
The one major area of criticism is filling out the roster with capable bench players. Because they have taken such big risks, the value of hitting on remaining draft picks and back-end roster moves becomes even more important.
The Bulls are primed to go deep into the luxury tax and without many more draft assets in the treasure trove, they’ll need to find creative ways to add more talent to the group.
The Bulls are a good team, but not a great one. With few tradeable picks in their future, it difficult to imagine ways for the front office to add impact players. But given their track record of creativity, both in terms of salary cap maneuverability and talent evaluation, I’m more curious to see how they do it rather than wondering if they will.
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