What can Bulls learn from Karnisovas' time in Denver?
Arturas Karnisovas made his first hire as the Bulls new head of basketball operations Friday. Karnisovas reportedly tabbed J.J. Polk as assistant general manager.
Polk spent the last 10 years with the New Orleans Pelicans with his most recent title executive director of basketball administration. The University of Illinois law school grad has been a salary cap specialist, and there will likely be more assistant general managers hired to reshape the Bulls front office.
Figuring out how Karnisovas might reshape the Bulls on the court isn't easy.
For starters, during his seven years with the Denver Nuggets, Karnisovas earned a promotion to general manager, but was always second in command to Tim Connelly. So it's tough to measure the impact he had on building the Nuggets into a playoff contender.
The Nuggets' recent success was built mostly around the talents of center Nikola Jokic, one of the most versatile centers to ever play in the NBA. Jokic led Denver with 6.9 assists per game this season.
So it's ridiculous to think the Bulls will look like the Nuggets, since there's little chance the Bulls could replicate Jokic's style of play. Denver also doesn't use a true point guard, which doesn't work for most teams.
Karnisovas, a native of Lithuania, started his career with Houston as an international scout. But those Rockets and Nuggets teams weren't stocked with international players. The Bulls had more overseas players on the roster this season than Denver.
When Connelly and Karnisovas landed in Denver, the Nuggets were riding a 10-year playoff run, stretching back to the Carmelo Anthony years. The pair arrived together in 2013 after Masai Ujiri left Denver for Toronto. The new executives rebuilt the roster and Denver bottomed out with a 30-52 record in 2014-15.
Last season, the Nuggets finished 54-28 and lost in Game 7 of the second round to Portland. They were third in the West when the current NBA season was suspended.
Choosing Jokic in the second round of the 2014 draft was easily their most successful move. They made a nice trade in 2015, acquiring swingman Will Barton from Portland.
Denver's recent improvement came mostly from drafting well. In both 2014 and 2016, the Nuggets had success with multiple first-round picks.
They traded Doug McDermott to the Bulls on draft night 2014 for two later first-round picks and ended up with two players (Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic) who have fared better than McDermott in the NBA.
With three first-round picks in 2016, the Nuggets selected Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. Murray is currently the team's second-leading scorer, while the other two players were starting for Minnesota when the season was suspended.
The lone misstep in the draft was taking Emmanuel Mudiay with the No. 7 overall pick in 2015. That wasn't a great draft and the best player on the board at the time was Devin Booker, who went to Phoenix with the 13th pick.
There were a couple of really bad moves along the way. The Nuggets traded both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell to the Utah Jazz, in draft night deals in 2013 and 2017, respectively.
There's no way to spin these as good trades for Denver. The Nuggets got Erick Green and cash for Gobert; Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon for Mitchell.
The Nuggets didn't add a lot of veterans during their build, but made an expensive free agent signing in 2017, giving former Atlanta power forward Paul Millsap $90 million over three years. With the rising payroll, Denver sent Nurkic to Portland for Mason Plumlee. That was a preemptive move, since the Nuggets didn't think they could afford a new contract for Nurkic and didn't really need him with Jokic on board.
In one sense, it's impressive that Denver traded away Mitchell, Gobert, Nurkic, Beasley and Hernangomez, and had enough left to be one of the best teams in the West.
During Karnisovas' five years with the Rockets, the only significant international player added was Donatas Motiejunas, in the three-team deal that netted Nikola Mirotic for the Bulls. Motiejunas was a decent role player for a few years in Houston.
The lesson of Karnisovas' time in Denver can be applied to any NBA team -- make good draft picks and the team should improve.
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