The Bulls began the 2019-20 season with such promise, even talking playoffs.
They will end it with such peculiarity, now talking pandemic.
Pending expected ownership approval in a Thursday morning Board of Governors call, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will announce a 22-team return-to-play format that doesn’t feature the Bulls, according to sources.
What a wild eight months it has been.
Back at last September’s media day, John Paxson, Gar Forman and Jim Boylen talked optimistically about making progress in Season 3 of the full rebuild undertaken when the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler in June 2017. Instead, an underwhelming campaign led Paxson to tell ownership last December that it needed to modernize the front office.
Now, Arturas Karnisovas has replaced Paxson, who remains a senior advisor, and Marc Eversley has replaced Forman, who was fired. And with the season expected to end officially on Thursday, Boylen’s future hangs in the balance. A source said there is no imminent announcement regarding Boylen’s status.
When Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11 and Silver became the first major sports commissioner to push their league into an indefinite hiatus, the Bulls were riding a wave of optimism. Coby White had just started his first NBA game, scoring 20 points to continue his strong play in a home victory over the Cavaliers.
But that victory nudged the team to merely 22-43, one fewer game than the last time they played a shortened season thanks to a lockout in 2011-12. And that season, under Tom Thibodeau, they led the NBA with a 50-16 mark.
Though Boylen owns support from ownership and Paxson, his future will be Karnisovas’ call. The former Nuggets executive said he was hired to “affect change.” Eversley said the new regime’s mission is to make the Bulls a “player-first organization.”
Much of the player feedback the duo received about Boylen during the hiatus raises questions about his long-term fit. However, Karnisovas is known as a deliberate, thoughtful decision-maker who has worked to empower Boylen for now.
For instance, in a sign of Karnisovas’ leadership style, he has communicated to Boylen to focus strictly on coaching and working with his staff and players, sources said. Too often last season, Boylen got wrapped up in dealing with player agents or honoring commitments on the business operations side, which sidetracked his focus.
Karnisovas has communicated to the coaching staff that he and Eversley will put out the near-daily fires that typically arise over the course of a season. None of this, obvoiusly, precludes management from moving on from Boylen before the start of the 2020-21 season if it reaches that conclusion. But it gives a window into its operating procedure for now.
At his introductory news conference via conference call, Karnisovas set his goals clearly.
“A firm foundation is absolutely vital, I’ll build that here in Chicago. No skipping steps. There is a systematic approach to success that will be the product of focus and intention, hard work and diligence. We will strive for constant improvement,” he said. “Chicago is a great sports town with a long, robust sports history. The city is made up of very passionate fans. Earning the enthusiasm and excitement back from the fans is both a challenge and something I very much look forward to. These fans deserve a team that they can be proud of, and my objective is to get us back to relevancy.”
Since being hired, Karnisovas and Eversley have held substantive conversations with players, evaluated all departments and begun the draft process. They added Pat Connelly as vice president of player personnel and J.J. Polk as assistant general manager.
However, Karnisovas has also utilized holdover front-office personnel like associate general manager Brian Hagen, assistant general manager Steve Weinman, director of pro personnel Jim Paxson and others, for now. Karnisovas has addressed situations he felt needed immediate change — the dismissal of Forman is an example — but is allowing the evaluation process to play out for other decisions.
With Otto Porter Jr. widely expected to exercise his $28.5 million player option and the pandemic likely impacting future salary caps, the new management regime may be initially limited to what they can do roster-wise. They face decisions on restricted free agents Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine.
It won’t help the Bulls and their status as one of the league’s youngest teams to go over nine months between regular season games. Even with momentum for a voluntary September minicamp for the teams not still playing in Orlando, it’s an unprecedented situation and alters a typical evaluation period for Karnisovas and Eversley.
For what it’s worth, Zach LaVine led the 2019-20 Bulls in scoring at 25.5 points per game. Carter finished as the top rebounder, averaging 9.4 per game. And Tomas Satoransky’s 5.4 assists per game led that category.
But the only number that matters is 22 victories, a full eight fewer than the eighth-seeded Magic when the league shut down. That number left the Bulls on the outside looking in, with plenty of work to do for 2020-21.