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As an NBA franchise, you have to sell wins or you have to sell hope.
The Chicago Bulls are selling neither.
At 5-14, the Bulls are off to their worst start since the 22-win Jim Boylen-led Bulls of 2019-20.
When things are this bad, everyone gets a piece of the blame.
The players haven’t been good enough. The coaching hasn’t been good enough. And that’s all problematic.
But it misses the point.
This disaster is owned and operated by Arturas Karnisovas, the architect of it all. Prior to Tuesday’s embarrassing 124-97 rout at the hands of the Boston Celtics, he reached the final stage of grief — acceptance.
“We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated,’’ Karnisovas told traveling beat reporters. “We’re disappointed, but I’m not running from it. It’s my responsibility.’’
Of course it’s his responsibility, that’s the whole job description.
But the larger question has yet to be addressed: What will Karnisovas do about it?
According to reporting by KC Johnson, Billy Donovan and management are safe in their jobs, having recently been given contract extensions. Ownership won’t pay them to leave.
That means personnel will have to change.
This should not be unexpected. Everyone saw where things were heading a long time ago. So too could have Karnisovas.
In fact, it was his responsibility to know that.
That he didn’t recognize it at the 2023 trade deadline or the most recent offseason leaves the team in a notably worse position with each passing day.
It’s not just his responsibility to fix this, it’s his decision-making that has gotten the franchise to this point. The Bulls have bad money on the books moving forward with no flexibility to make improvements. Their self-imposed hard cap, the dreaded luxury tax, is a nose hair away.
The Nikola Vucevic trade is the defining move of Karnisovas’ career with the Bulls and the one that is perhaps most responsible for the current calamity. The Magic are reaping the benefits of that deal as they climb the East standings while the Bulls continue to plummet.
After losing negotiations on Vucevic’s extension, the team is married to that contract for three more years. Karnisovas faces the same situation with DeMar DeRozan in the coming months.
Karnisovas came up short with his top-four draft pick, Patrick Williams, passing on multiple future stars. He found a rotation player in Ayo Dosunmu, but struck out on Dalen Terry and Marko Simonovic.
He traded future picks for the rights to outbid an empty marketplace and overpay DeRozan. He made no meaningful attempts to find solutions at the point guard position after Lonzo Ball was injured. Instead, he made hope his strategy while waiting on three knee surgeries to heal.
Karnisovas’ one free agency home run was Alex Caruso. But over the last two offseasons, trade deadlines, and buy out periods, his only additions were low-impact role players including Jevon Carter, Torrey Craig, Patrick Beverley, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson.
Handing Zach LaVine a max contract was a necessary move given his level of play and importance to the franchise. But now, with LaVine’s pending exit a matter of when, not if, Karnisovas will be charged with navigating the choppy waters of the trade market.
Whether or not the moves were justifiable at the time, the results matter. He’s lost almost every deal he has made. He not only doubled down, but tripled down on a broken product.
Karnisovas has been unwilling to make changes to a broken roster. Doing so allowed the Bulls to waste away for the last two seasons. In standing still, the Bulls have allowed the rest of the league to pass them by.
More importantly, as time has come and gone, those few remaining assets within the Bulls’ war chest have diminished in value, leaving the pending rebuild with little recourse to maximize itself.
With the green light from ownership to fix this mess by any means necessary, Karnisovas can tear it down to the studs and start from scratch.
The Bulls are in a holding pattern until the league opens up for trading business ahead of the February 8 trade deadline. Whatever comes next is his choice. More decisions he must be prepared to own.
Karnisovas wanted no part of a rebuild when he took over as Executive VP of Basketball Operations in Chicago. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t undertake one now. A lot of losing and disappointment has happened since then. And his team is left in a worse position with fewer options.
Frankly, whether or not he has the stomach to tear it down shouldn’t matter.
The time for tweaks and alterations was last year — moving forward without LaVine won’t result in winning.
This season is already lost. Now the future is on the line.
Karnisovas is not selling wins. It’s time for him to position himself to try selling hope.
If he truly sees what everyone else sees, he’ll see that a full scale rebuild is the only way forward.
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