2022 NBA Draft: Will Bulls take future focus or win-now approach?

In November 2020, seven months after first landing in a lead basketball operations position, Artūras Karnišovas selected Florida State freshman Patrick Williams with the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft.

At the time, the Chicago Bulls executive vice president’s move was viewed as a bet on upside, drafting a young, physical specimen with the tools to become a two-way force at the wing. It also fit into the perception of a new executive building the foundation for his vision through the draft, much like his former franchise in the Denver Nuggets had done.

Four months later, Karnišovas blew that perception away. In a move that seemingly pushed the Bulls into “win-now” mode, he sent a young center he inherited in Wendell Carter Jr., a large expiring contract in Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks to the Orlando Magic for two-time All-Star center Nikola Vučević and Al-Farouq Amino.

Aminu didn’t last long, becoming salary filler five months later in the sign-and-trade transaction that landed DeMar DeRozan and cost the Bulls another first-round pick — plus two second-rounders for good measure.

If former longtime Bulls executives Jerry Krause and John Paxson treated first-round picks like gold, Karnišovas has treated them like cryptocurrency — tradeable commodities to aggressively overhaul a roster that produced the franchise’s first playoff appearance in five years this past season.

Which brings us to Thursday night.

The Bulls own the 18th overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft. The conventional play would be to use the pick on a cost-controlled, rookie-scale contract to find a rotation player — or even an eventual starter — and begin to replenish the young talent on a roster that, in Vučević and DeRozan, employ two starters north of 30 years old.

And yet little of how Karnišovas and his staff have constructed the Bulls has been conventional.

It’s why the Bulls are landing in trade rumors seemingly daily, the largest of which are centered on three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. League sources have indicated that, at least as of this writing, the rumors are overstated.

Trading for Gobert would run contrary to Karnišovas not once but twice stating his desire to seek continuity for the core he assembled. The Bulls led the Eastern Conference for most of January and as late as Feb. 25 before injuries placed role players in larger roles, changed the team’s defensive identity and dropped them to the sixth seed.

As of late April, Karnišovas genuinely wanted to see a healthy iteration of his vision grow together, while obviously working to improve the team’s bench, shooting and rim protection via salary-caps in free agency or other avenues. In his season-ending media availability, Karnišovas did acknowledge the unexpected opportunities that can come along in any NBA calendar year.

“Hopefully we can keep the core together and work around the margins,” Karnišovas said then. “But, again, we’ve always been ready for what comes our way.”

Landing Gobert from the Utah Jazz would come at a steep price and, coupled with the desire to retain Zach LaVine on a max contract, push the Bulls into luxury tax land. It also would cost them at least Williams, who, as has been stated multiple times, the organization has strong internal belief can be an impact player.

The safe bet is that Karnišovas keeps his core and uses the pick. Or that if a trade is made, it’s perhaps a package deal involving Coby White to move up in the draft.

With so much draft capital expended to land Vučević and DeRozan, the importance of adding contributors on rookie-scale contracts are legitimate. The Bulls may not be one player away from winning the Eastern Conference.

Karnišovas was asked in April if his draft capital expenditures made keeping and using this pick even more important.

“Depends who gets there, if you like him or not,” Karnišovas said then. “I think there are going to be players that we like. There are different options if there’s a player that we like. We’re going to look at everything.

“Obviously, a lot of capital put this team together. There were a ton of great things and positive things this year. In order to bring players, that’s what you gotta do. But we’re going to be flexible. Like you described, the front office is pretty aggressive.”

Indeed, little about Karnišovas’ tenure has been safe. Stay tuned. But this is one time where it feels like Karnišovas will take the more conventional route.

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