Arturas Karnisovas was plucked from the Denver Nuggets front office to lead the Chicago Bulls back into contention. Three years later, the Bulls are closer to becoming a play-in team than they are contenders.
While much of the NBA and the wider world were in stasis during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago Bulls decided their organizational disarray could continue no longer. Having missed the playoffs six of the previous seven seasons and led by a front office hamstrung by competing power centers, the Bulls finally summoned the decisiveness that had been in short supply for the franchise, restructuring their operation on a scale they hadn’t attempted in decades.
Within five days, Chicago fired Gar Forman as general manager, reassigned long-time Bull John Paxson to an advisory role, and installed Arturas Karnisovas as the organization’s lead decision maker, revamping a front office that had been in power for nearly 22 years. Six months later, Chicago’s new leadership was complete as the Bulls swapped Jim Boylen for Billy Donovan, completing the process in which the team’s principal owners, the Reinsdorf’s, finally ceded their preference for stability for the prospect of sustained postseason success.
Among the many moving parts, however, it was clear that the hiring of Karnisovas was the foundation from which every subsequent decision followed.
Highly respected around the league following his time as GM of the Nuggets, Karnisovas had staked out a reputation as one of the game’s preeminent talent evaluators, thanks not only to Denver’s continued success in the draft–with the team having selected Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. during his tenure–but his involvement with the scouting department for USA Basketball during the 2014 FIBA World Cup that saw the US win Gold.
For a franchise considered one of the crown jewels of the NBA, the move was the type of marquee hire many expected of Chicago.
"“This is the height of a dream for me, and I am prepared for the challenge that it presents,” Karnisovas told reporters at a conference call announcing his hiring. “I grew up watching the Chicago Bulls. They represented American basketball and the NBA to a kid from Lithuania. I’ve always had a love for this franchise, and to be a part of it and influence its revival is a privilege… our goal is to bring a championship to the city of Chicago.”"
Operating with a mandate, Karnisovas moved aggressively during his first year with the team, acquiring Nikola Vucevic in a midseason blockbuster trade with the Orlando Magic before fortifying the roster in free agency with the signings of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso.
"“We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnisovas has said about the aggressive dealmaking that has come to characterize his tenure thus far. “We’re going to add talent to our roster and from there get better and come back improved and better, so we don’t have to sit out another postseason.”"
Yet, for all the player movement and headline-stealing acquisitions, the Chicago Bulls have rarely seemed capable of elevating themselves above the league’s middle class. Whether from poor player development, lackluster performances, injury luck, or a combination of all three, the Bulls are at risk of becoming the NBA’s definition of mediocre.