It could’ve been anyone. An up-and-coming G League executive with a Devs team of data analysts. Mitch Kupchak. Bryan Colangelo (!). Red Auerbach’s great-niece. Ryan Pace in a red tie. The Chicago Bulls could’ve hired anyone to run their front office—anyone short of Gar Forman disguised with a mustache (it’s Week 5 of a quarantine; we all have mustaches; the masquerade would never work)—and it’d be cause for celebration.
Chicago is finally under new management.
Arturas Karnisovas was named the Bulls’ executive VP of basketball operations on Wednesday, according to ESPN. A native of Lithuania and former EuroLeague star, the 48-year-old spent the past seven years in Denver, first as the assistant general manager and then eventually as the GM. He drafted Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Jusuf Nurkic, wore expensive suits and listened to Calvin Harris, and actualized the vision Daryl Morey had for him years ago when Karnisovas joined the Rockets as director of international scouting. “I knew pretty early on when he came that he was going to run his own team someday,” Morey told The Denver Post in 2018.
Now, the Bulls are his to run. Mostly. The franchise is slow to change and strangely loyal in the face of deleterious mediocrity, so former VP John Paxson is expected to stay with the team in some to-be-determined capacity, likely an honorary advisory role. Advice is a bizarre contribution to ask of Paxson, who’s led the front office since Jerry Reinsdorf plucked him from the Bulls’ radio booth in 2003, a safe, relatively criticism-free environment where, had he stayed, Paxson would’ve been best known as the hero whose 3-pointer won Game 6 of the Finals in ’93. That Paxson hit the shot with less than five seconds to go. This Paxson will be remembered as having gone much too late.
Paxson teamed up with Forman, who was promoted to GM in 2009, and was partly responsible for turning Bulls fandom into a decades-long drag, initiating questionable move after questionable move, hiring iffy coach after iffy coach, inspiring organization-wide toxicity, investing in Cristiano Felício, trading away LaMarcus Aldridge on draft night, and making every necessary sacrifice to snag the services of Doug McDermott in the 2014 draft. Over time, a disconnect widened between the franchise’s once-iconic image, formed in the ’90s, and its current underachieving state.
Paxson, who has long tried to remove his syllable from the infamous “GarPax” nickname by insisting his and Forman’s jobs are different, is reportedly ready to get out of the way and leave altogether if it helps the franchise. It’s been a long 17 years, with many FIRE GARPAX petitions along the way. I can’t decide whether their soft removal is shocking or not, because for years, the organization seemed to be pleased with itself in areas it shouldn’t have been. Chicago missed four of the past five postseasons and has been to the conference finals just once since Paxson was hired in 2003; moving on from the current front office has been a long time coming, but it’s been time for such a long time that time no longer seemed to be a consideration. Hiring an outside face to replace Paxson is practically revolutionary; Karnisovas is the first external hire to lead the front office since Reinsdorf bought the team in 1985.
Karnisovas inadvertently had a hand in one of Chicago’s many regrettable decisions in the past decade. Denver owned the 11th pick in 2014, and squeezed two first-round picks—Harris and Nurkic—and a future second from the Bulls in exchange for the rights to McDermott. The transaction helps explain the excitement behind the Bulls’ hiring of Karnisovas, especially to Bulls fans with painfully good memories. The Nuggets won that trade thanks to their comprehensive scouting, including plucking an undervalued international prospect. Because scouting efforts in Chicago are notoriously small-scale compared to the rest of the league, and because the Bulls are perpetually a lottery team, Karnisovas’s influence could be felt almost immediately here, beginning with this upcoming draft, in which Chicago will select in the top 10. Since 2008, the Bulls have selected only two All-Stars, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, one who was run into the ground, the other who was run out of town.
Karnisovas isn’t the end of the Bulls’ front-office makeover. The new executive will hire a general manager to work under him and is reportedly targeting a person of color to fill the role, according to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill. This is an important move to get right for a team that’s made so many mistakes in recent memory. Diversity is another area where the Bulls have failed, which included this process that led to Karnisovas’s hiring. Despite the widespread search, they did not interview any black candidates, The Undefeated reported Wednesday. There is a long list of hirings, firings, signings, and potential trades for Karnisovas to look into. And there are plenty of organizational wrongs for him to try to right. That includes Jim Boylen, a coach who’s miraculously hung on for two seasons despite anachronistic tactics like replacing sleep with practice, publicly feuding with his players, and losing just as much as the guy he usurped. Here’s to hoping Karnisovas won’t have the same unfounded belief in Boylen as his predecessors. Or the same drafting strategy, roster construction, team record, media relationships, or luck. The only carryover from his predecessors’ tenure that Karnisovas should hope for is the same heaping amount of time to get it right.