Karnisovas warns not to expect any Bulls moves soon
Not many people in Chicago get excited about a Seton Hall-Providence basketball game, but Bulls vice president Arturas Karnisovas and head coach Billy Donovan were thriving.
"He was all geared up one day coming in with a Seton Hall outfit on when they were playing against Providence, but Providence got them in overtime and we were joking and laughing about that," Donovan said. "So the relationship part of it has been great."
When Karnisovas went to Seton Hall, he was the first Soviet citizen to play college basketball in the United States. Donovan became a household name after leading Providence to the 1987 Final Four.
With his former team, the Denver Nuggets, in town Monday, Karnisovas spoke to reporters for the first time since the season began. The team's new head of basketball operations said after taking the job he thought the Bulls had more talent than the record showed last season.
And the Bulls have been better, sitting in playoff contention as the all-star break approaches, although they haven't shown much ability to beat good teams
So one of the first questions for Karnisovas is whether he's seen enough. Is he ready to retool the roster in the hope that they'll rise higher in the Eastern Conference standings?
His answer was no. So don't expect changes before the trade deadline hits later this month.
"Billy and I spend more time talking about how we can improve this group," Karnisovas said. "The last couple games they had some slipping, but I think overall this group is doing so much better and looking forward to seeing the next 40 games."
It makes sense to wait. The Bulls are starting three players still on rookie contracts. Lauri Markkanen has missed large chunks of the season, Patrick Williams is 32 games into his professional career and Coby White is 32 games into his new role as lead guard.
The next decision Karnisovas will be forced to make is the one about Markkanen's future when the 7-foot forward hits restricted free agency this summer.
"I think a lot of players are playing well, and we are waiting for Lauri to get back and OP (Otto Porter)," Karnisovas said. "So we are waiting for those guys to get back and see what we look like. I never look at players as trade commodities. Right now, we're focused on winning games, because the separation between fourth and 10th place is a game-and-a-half."
Karnisovas shared some thoughts on some of the Bulls key issues, dodging a few questions along the way:
Is Zach LaVine your franchise player?
"He's been establishing himself as a leader of this team and we've improved dramatically because he is impacting winning. That's why this team is fighting for a playoff spot."
As an ex-power forward from Northern Europe, is Markkanen your guy?
"We met before the season and set the expectations for Lauri, (which) I think he's met. Obviously before he got hurt, he was at 19 (ppg) and shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40 from the 3. I think that's what he can do on a daily basis. We can't wait for him to come back and help this team win games."
Will you keep the LaVine-Coby White backcourt?
"Those guys are still learning how to play with each other. I think they're just going to get better."
Is rookie Patrick Williams a keeper?
"I think he's learning every game. His ups and downs are expected, but he's like a sponge every day. He's the first one in the (Advocate) Center. ... I think he's doing very well."
One thing that seems to be going very well under the Bulls' new leadership is the connection between Karnisovas and Donovan. Both men said they speak often, after most every practice and game. Between Seton Hall and Providence, Lithuania and Long Island, the two seem to have hit it off.
"I would say one of the true blessings of being here is the relationship with him," Donovan said. "He's been phenomenal. We spend a lot of time together. And the thing I appreciate is, besides talking about basketball a lot, it's been a blessing to get to really know him as a person."
You only have to go back a few years to find rampant friction between the Bulls front office (Gar Forman) and the head coach (Tom Thibodeau). So the Donovan-Karnisovas buddy story might be worth celebrating.