Starting at the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline, Arturas Karnisovas pushed his chips in. He acquired Nikola Vucevic for two future top-four protected first-round picks and Wendell Carter, Jr. He pulled off sign-and-trades for Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, utilized the mid-level exception on Alex Caruso, and even got a first-round pick back for Lauri Markkanen, who was not part of the plan.
But acquiring win-now talent comes at a cost, and Karnisovas paid what seems to be an unnecessary tax to kick off the Bulls’ return to competitive basketball. He overpaid for Vucevic, and had to take back Al Farouq Aminu’s bad salary from the Magic. He outbid himself in a non-existent market for DeRozan, and attached a pick to do so. He handed out player options to every end-of-bench free agent he could.
If that weren’t enough, Karnisovas was hit with a tampering fine — a second-round pick — for his pursuit of Ball.
When it worked early in the 2021-2022 season, none of that seemed to matter. There’s something to be said for taking a swing to try to compete. The initial plan made sense and there was proof of concept.
But that success was short-lived, and after cashing in on Markkanen, Carter Jr., three first round picks, four second-round picks, the Bulls have one play-in tournament and one playoff game win in three seasons to show for it.
Regardless of the process that led them here, the plan has failed. The asset pool has dried up. Money is tight. The team is not succeeding.
It’s time to pivot.
As the 2022-23 season dragged on and it became clear this group would top out as a play-in team, Karnisovas had a chance to pick a more definitive lane at the trade deadline. Failing to get a jumpstart on the inevitable could prove to be a detrimental decision.
Most urgently, that applies to the lack of proactivity with regards to Vucevic’s free agency.
The perception of the trade gets worse as the Bulls struggle, but it won’t be worse than missing the playoffs, only to then allow his most expensive acquisition to walk for nothing.
Karnisovas is up against the same situation with DeRozan. An unrestricted free agent next summer, the Bulls need to extend or move him, and probably for less than what they could have gotten at the trade deadline.
The Bulls need more talent, Karnisovas admitted as much at his exit interview. But there’s a reason they haven’t made any meaningful moves since DeRozan in early August 2021. The Bulls are between a rock and a hard place, with limited remaining draft capital to use and only modest cap exceptions available to add new role players in free agency.
Re-sign Vucevic for three years, $54 million ($18M annually)
Re-sign Coby White for four years, $56 million ($14M annually)
Re-sign Ayo Dosunmu to his qualifying offer ($5.2 million)
Re-sign Javonte Green to a minimum contract (five years experience)
Andre Drummond and Derrick Jones opt into their contracts
The Bulls have additional tools at their disposal — $4.4 million bi-annual exception, $11.4 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception — to acquire outside talent, but if we assume reasonable contracts for their primary free agents, the Bulls would be left roughly $750k below the luxury tax ($162 million), with only 14-of-15 roster spots filled.
Karnisovas’ primary argument to run it back is that the team ended the season strong. That argument goes out the window if he cannot retain Beverley, the catalyst of the improvement.
Even if Karnisovas finds a way to make the puzzle pieces fit, it will be exceedingly difficult to meaningfully improve on the fringes.
No reasonable argument supports a theory that a rerun will turn out better than before. The Bulls own a 50-62 record since the 2022 All-Star Break, postseason included. Vucevic is entering his age 33 season. DeRozan is entering his age 34 season. Ball is not walking through that door.
The league’s 19th-best team is not worth the investment. This experiment is coming to an end sooner than later and there’s only one clear way out.
The Bulls are out of time with the current group and the only obvious solution is to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. With every passing transaction period, the outlook gets more bleak. They cannot afford to wait any longer to shake things up.
That would require moving on from both DeRozan and Zach LaVine while they still have value.
Re-tooling around one or the other might sound reasonable, but removing one of your two best players will not unlock an unrealized ceiling. DeRozan without LaVine results in an older team with a shorter runway and no secondary scorer.
LaVine without DeRozan provides more runway on this timeline, but to what end? The whole point of the DeRozan addition was to complement LaVine with a steady, half court initiator.
This is a high school relationship that needs to end before college starts. Move on and make the most of the new experience rather than holding onto the past and letting it affect your future.
Karnisovas did well to acquire talent, which is why it’s not yet too late to recover. He has to take offers on LaVine and DeRozan. He needs to gauge the market on Alex Caruso and squeeze the Blazers’ pick for everything it’s worth.
Maybe Karnisovas can pull a rabbit out of a hat. There could be hidden alternative routes that only he can see. Maybe the Bulls get some lottery luck and that changes their outlook. Maybe he re-signs his players below market value.
But that outcome still leads to a worse version of the same group.
This doesn’t have to be the same rebuild as 2017. The Bulls have a real opportunity to recoup more draft capital, acquire young talent and create cap flexibility for a more sustainable and competitive future. But the window to maximize returns is closing rapidly.
Karnisovas seems unwilling to take on a rebuild, but the longer he waits to pull the ripcord, the more their current players who can return assets bleed value, making it harder and harder to recover.
With his reported extension in place, Karnisovas has the job security and runway he needs to make the hard decisions. He doesn’t have to worry about getting fired for bad mistakes. There are no excuses for keeping on keeping on. There are no excuses for avoiding the hard decisions.
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