Artūras Karnišovas took a calculated risk in the summer when he decided the Chicago Bulls roster needed only a little tweaking.
The Bulls executive vice president bet on the players who led the team to its first playoff appearance in five years, keeping the status quo and adding a reliable rim protector in Andre Drummond and depth at point guard in veteran Goran Dragić.
In doing so, Karnišovas was counting on the return of the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference for the first 20 games of last season, not the injury-riddled one that lost 15 of its last 22 games and barely competed in the opening-round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We need time to see this group play together longer to have any type of conclusion because we liked what we saw in the first 20 games,” he said Monday at Bulls media day. “But I think this group needs a lot more time.”
For the Bulls to reward Karnišovas’ faith in them, they need DeMar DeRozan to have another MVP-type season at age 33 and third-year forward Patrick Williams to take the next step after missing most of 2021-22 with a broken wrist suffered in the fourth game.
Is it too much to hope for or will Karnišovas’ belief in his players — and coach Billy Donovan’s ability to get the most out of them — pay off?
Many things will have to go right for these Bulls, who could have a better team than last season and still struggle to earn a play-in spot in the East. Not only did the rich get richer, but so did the Cleveland Cavaliers, who added a superstar in Donovan Mitchell to their talented, young core.
But Karnišovas deserves the benefit of the doubt. He erased the stench of the previous regime and made the Bulls a fun team to watch again, which in turn made a brutal Chicago winter much more tolerable. I’m not sure they can contend for a conference title, much less a championship, but they’re easy to love because of the way they sacrifice for each other.
And any team with DeRozan and Zach LaVine playing together is a dangerous one, as they proved last season before injuries to LaVine and Lonzo Ball took a toll.
The Bulls players have high expectations, even if the experts remain skeptical.
“If they’re not high, what are we doing here?” LaVine said.
That’s the right attitude to take and why Bulls fans should be excited to start the 2022-23 season.
Listening to DeRozan talk about dealing with his detractors is enough to make you believe he’s not about to slack off after a brilliant season in his first year in Chicago.
“It’s laughable at this point,” DeRozan said. “I always use whatever (motivation) I can take. It’s like free energy. I indulge in it and just let them eat their words, whenever they eat it. It’s never my focal point driving me, but it does irk me here and there. … It’s like, (bleep), what did I do to y’all?”
DeRozan said he believes he’ll get “the last laugh,” knowing his own work ethic. Williams, who worked out in Los Angeles with DeRozan over the summer, can attest to that. DeRozan picked him up around 4:30 a.m. to begin lifting at 5.
“Not 5:01,” Williams said, pointing to DeRozan’s punctuality. “Not 4:59. It’s 5 a.m. You can’t be pulling into the parking lot at 5 a.m.”
DeRozan laughed when asked about his mini-boot camp and told reporters to go ask Williams. Williams described the different workouts, then pointed to DeRozan doing things so early to be with family the rest of the day. The DeRozan Way is one that any young player should want to emulate
“He sees and thinks about things the way a lot of people wouldn’t,” Williams said. “Just trying to pick up on that. Every game situation he’s in, he puts himself through it 10 times harder in the workout. Picking up on those little things, picking his brain, asking him questions.
“I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me this offseason. And really the only thanks he wants from me is to do the same for another player down the line when I’m in his position.”
While DeRozan was mentoring Williams, Donovan flew to Slovenia to meet with Dragić in person, a nice touch in the age of texting. With Ball suffering another setback with his knee that will force him to miss the early part of the schedule, Dragić potentially will see more minutes early on, while Alex Caruso also should become a bigger contributor at point guard.
“We’ve got great guards behind (Ball), so I’m not really worried too much about who is going to play the position,” Caruso said. “Obviously we’ve got great options — me, Ayo (Dosunmu), Goran — guys that are three different players that bring three different elements to the position that can benefit the team.
“For us it’s figuring out the best chemistry, certain lineups (with) certain guys. … I think we’re in good hands for the time being but look forward to (Ball) being back soon.”
After playing only 41 games last season thanks to Grayson Allen’s cheap shot that broke his right wrist and some nagging injuries caused by Caruso’s penchant for treating his body like a rag doll, will the Bulls’ human defibrillator alter his style to ensure he’s healthier?
“I don’t think I will change the way I play,” he said. “That’s what got me here. That’s why the Bulls want me on the team. That’s why Bill loves what I do with my energy and my defense and how I bring other guys along. I don’t think I can change that.
“But I’ve definitely got to be maybe smarter. Maybe a 50-50 ball that’s going out of bounds, you might let one or two out and save (the diving) for the postseason.
“I say that now sitting in front of a microphone. When I get out there, it might be different.”
Maybe the Bulls just need to be a healthier version of themselves to become the team Karnišovas believes they will be.
He’s betting on their character, which might not be a bad bet at all.