After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked what went wrong.
Instead of talking around the subject or making excuses, Kerr conceded the Warriors were not a championship team this season and probably went as far as they deserved to go.
“I’m more focused on what went right, to be honest with you,” Kerr said. “The way the season started, we were disjointed and had that 0-5 road trip and it felt like we were swimming upstream from the beginning.
“I think we found ourselves down the stretch and in the first round of the playoffs. To be fair, I think this team probably, ultimately, maxed out.”
It was refreshing to hear a coach give an honest, unvarnished opinion of his players — and it’s a cautionary tale for Chicago Bulls executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas as he goes about fixing his team for the 2023-24 season.
Has this Bulls core maxed out after only two seasons together?
Can they afford to spend another year relying on the threesome of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević to reach their potential together?
Is it time to bite the bullet and make significant changes, including letting Vučević leave and trading either LaVine or DeRozan?
Could the addition of a top free-agent point guard change things?
The first clue might drop Tuesday during the NBA draft lottery at McCormick Place. The Bulls have a 1.8% chance of getting the No. 1 pick — presumed to be 7-foot-3 French teen phenom Victor Wembanyama — and an 8.5% chance of moving into the top four.
We don’t know who inherited Jerry Krause’s lucky penny, which the former general manager held during the 1999 draft lottery when the Bulls won the No. 1 pick, eventually drafting Elton Brand. But Karnišovas needs a lot of luck to get one of the top four picks. Otherwise their top pick goes to the Orlando Magic as part of the March 2021 trade for Vučević, leaving the Bulls out of the first round barring a trade.
The Bulls, recall, opted not to tank at the end of the season and competed for a play-in spot rather than increase their odds of getting into the top four. Coach Billy Donovan said the tanking strategy, which the Dallas Mavericks famously took, had not been discussed, adding “it’s always been about the integrity of competition” with Karnišovas.
The Bulls succeeded in their goal by getting the No. 10 seed, then upset the Toronto Raptors on the road. They had the Miami Heat on the ropes in the fourth quarter before collapsing down the stretch in one of LaVine’s worst postseason performances.
The Heat went on to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, which they’ll open Wednesday in Boston. Their playoff run could give Karnišovas a rationale for staying the course, reasoning the Bulls basically are on the same level as the conference finalists and need only a veteran point guard to replace Patrick Beverley.
On paper, the Bulls have the talent. Individually, DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević are among the top players at their positions. But as a unit, they haven’t jelled enough to instill confidence they can advance far in the playoffs together.
The Bulls reportedly gave Karnišovas an extension without announcing it, according to The Athletic, a move that surprised no one and makes perfect sense based on their evolution from laughingstock to relevance during A.K.’s three years on the job. (Why they kept it secret is something only Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf can explain).
Karnišovas already has said an all-out rebuild is not “on our minds” and laid out his intention to bring back Vučević, an unrestricted free agent. That seemingly would be a vote of confidence for the status quo.
“The way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path,” he said.
If that path means barely getting a play-in spot and losing a close game to miss the playoffs, he’s absolutely right. And Reinsdorf’s remarks a few weeks ago at a symposium in Los Angeles suggest that path is just fine by him.
“I think the important thing to fans is, while they want you to win championships, they want to know that when they get down to the last month of the season you still have a shot,” Reinsdorf said. “You’re still playing meaningful games. If you can do that consistently, you’ll make your fans happy.”
Maybe he was talking about the White Sox?
Either way, that wasn’t the approach Reinsdorf took when he started out as Bulls chairman and inherited a guy named Michael Jordan. Before the 1987 draft, Reinsdorf told the Tribune’s Bob Sakamoto: “The opportunity to improve this ballclub is right there in front of us, and there isn’t anything we wouldn’t consider doing. Whatever we accomplished this year will be of no value unless we improve on that next year. All three of us (including Krause and coach Doug Collins) feel very strongly a responsibility to the city of Chicago to do everything we can to make this team a championship contender as fast as possible.”
Krause chose Olden Polynice in the first round and immediately dealt him to the Seattle SuperSonics for Scottie Pippen, then added another first-rounder in Horace Grant. The core was in place for the championship run, though Reinsdorf later replaced Collins with Phil Jackson.
The Bulls won their first championship four years later and racked up five more titles before the second three-peat core was disbanded after the 1998 NBA Finals. Kerr was part of that three-peat and has said it was time for everyone to move on.
This Bulls core obviously hasn’t come close to the Jordan-era dominance, and it regressed a bit in its second season together.
Whether it has maxed out is the question Karnišovas now must ask himself.