Westerlund: Ire for Bulls’ mess should be directed primarily at front office


(670 The Score) There will be no shortage of blame to go around when the Bulls engage in their eventual post-mortem of this disappointing season that’s tracking toward something uglier after a 111-96 loss to the woeful Hornets on Thursday evening, but there’s one group that deserves the majority of the scorn for how the first 48 games have transpired.

That would be the front office, which went all-in on three primary pieces who have failed to execute well at the one task they were theoretically built to succeed at. It’s the decisions of executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley that have the Bulls in a precarious position and staring at a crossroads soon enough, be that at the Feb. 9 trade deadline or this offseason.

The Bulls are 22-26 and boast a roster jam-packed with one-way players. Their best player is veteran forward DeMar DeRozan, an isolation-inclined mid-range artist in an era in which the 3-point shot is more important than ever. The Bulls invested $215 million in two-time All-Star guard Zach LaVine, a really nice guy who’s usually an efficient and explosive scorer but who nonetheless doesn’t have whatever “it” factor exists that elevates the play of those around him.

Starting center Nikola Vucevic – whom the Bulls acquired 22 months ago while shipping out two first-round picks and a young center who has turned out to be nearly as productive – hasn’t fit snugly as the third wheel, in part because his teammates have a habit of ignoring him for long stretches on the floor. Vucevic is set to become a free agent this summer and could perhaps be traded sooner, which means the Bulls will soon tacitly admit how big of a mistake that deal was if they part ways with him or they’ll double down on the quest to remain mediocre by bringing him back. Around those three core players, the Bulls have a dearth of shooting, as they rank last in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game.

Beyond all that, the Bulls are also in the red on draft capital and don’t project to have meaningful cap space this summer.

Most of the aforementioned worries can be directly traced to the work of Karnisovas and Eversley. We can grumble about their reluctance to speak publicly and detail their long-term vision, but that’s neither here nor there. Outside of filling virtual space and providing sports talk radio fodder, Karnisovas’ media sessions have been mostly void of meaning other than the time he set advancing to the second round of the playoffs in 2023 as the goal, and that’s fine. He doesn’t get paid to appease the media or inspire the fan base with words.

What matters are the basketball moves, and Karnisovas is trending in the wrong direction. Because let’s be clear about this to start: The Bulls’ trade for Vucevic was an abject disaster. The effects of it will be felt, however subtly, for years to come as the organization remains at a deficit of young talent.

The returns on the two first-round picks that Karnisovas has used since being hired in April 2020 have been minimal. Patrick Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in 2020, has been underwhelming as he’s in his third season. He may turn into a solid starting power forward for a decade in the league, but there haven’t yet been signs that he’ll have an All-Star future. Dalen Terry, the No. 18 pick in 2022, hasn’t cracked the rotation as a rookie on a sub-.500 team that has dealt with its fair share of injuries.

What initially looked to be the front office’s best decision has turned into arguably its most concerning matter. The Bulls added guard Lonzo Ball on a four-year, $80-million deal in summer 2021, and when he was healthy, he made the entire operation hum in the first half of his debut season in Chicago. Then he suffered a left knee injury last January, which necessitated two surgeries and has sidelined him for the entirety of this season.

Ball’s absence has left the Bulls is shambles. In hindsight, that the Pelicans let Ball leave New Orleans so easily when they had matching rights raises questions about the Bulls’ process. Did they have an inkling his knee could be a chronic, debilitating issue soon? Did the Bulls miss something in their medical review?

There’s another burning question at the heart of this – what does it say about a front office when it constructs a three-member core that’s only capable of coalescing when the perfect role players are in place around them?

LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic have failed to flourish offensively this season. That trio has a 110.9 offensive rating when sharing the court together, which is well below league average and a figure that ranked 133rd out of the 166 three-man units in the NBA that had played at least 500 minutes together as of Thursday evening, according to NBA.com. Together, they have a -2.1 net rating this season.

It’s only right to note that there are fair criticisms to make of coach Billy Donovan, who has failed to find the offensive formula that will bring out the best of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying, as the Bulls made a point to implement in training camp what they viewed as a more “random” and less predictable offense. But random or not, with or without Ball, there’s no excuse for a Bulls team with this offensive talent to rank 22nd in offensive efficiency, and that’s a black mark on Donovan’s ledger.

Since Karnisovas and Eversley took over, the Bulls have made a point to be a more player-friendly organization, which is why parsing how Donovan has handled his star players on a personal and motivational level is a discussion that’s a little more nuanced. Donovan has often delivered tough love and direct public criticism to youngsters like Williams and second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu. Outside of a late-game benching of LaVine in November, Donovan has been more restrained to take such aim at the big three, even when their shortcomings have been a driving force behind the Bulls’ struggles. Perhaps Donovan should be more forceful or more creative to reach them, but his approach is largely in line with the dynamic of coach-star player relationships. Professional as they come, Donovan shares critiques that are usually directed at the team as a whole, and his smooth balancing act of breaking down the X’s and O’s while also sharing philosophical meanderings makes it clear that he’s aware of the problems.

The question is can he fix them? As it relates to what’s left of this season, the evidence points toward no.

Then again, Donovan isn’t the one at the root of this mess. It’s the bosses upstairs who made the biggest mistakes in the first place. They’ll all need to confront some hard truths soon enough if the Bulls are to begin to turn it around in any meaningful way.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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