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During a lunch interview months before Arturas Karnisovas agreed to become the Chicago Bulls‘ new executive vice president of basketball operations, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the then-Denver Nuggets general manager recalled his last enticing job offer. Nuggets president Tim Connelly called to lure Karnisovas away from the Houston Rockets in 2013.
Following a five-year stint in the NBA‘s basketball operations office, Karnisovas scouted for Houston internationally for a half-decade. He was no stranger to overseas hoops. A 6’8″ sharpshooter, Karnisovas remains one of the few men in history to play in each of Europe’s top four domestic leagues: Spain, Italy, Greece and France. There’s an incredible 13-minute YouTube video of Karnisovas scurrying around the perimeter for Olympiacos in 1997-98, firing a barrage of threes. The new-age Rockets presented the perfect destination to transition into a front-office role.
“The Houston situation was really good in terms of exposure to every aspect of our business,” Karnisovas said.
He witnessed predraft workouts, participated in trade-deadline meetings and learned about best practices from free agency all the way to preseason roster invites. The Rockets drafted Spanish/Montenegrin forward Nikola Mirotic at No. 23 in 2011 and used Karnisovas’ intel as part of their decision to select Swiss center Clint Capela at No. 25 in 2014. Connelly saw his impeccable draft evaluation, and with the help of Nuggets president Josh Kroenke, he pitched Karnisovas in July 2013 on joining Denver’s cause.
To build a contender, they would need to draft accordingly.
“Let’s be honest, we’re not getting the same meetings New York‘s getting or L.A.’s getting,” Connelly said. “So, how can we combat that? How can we try to chart our own course, something we can control a bit more?”
In Karnisovas’ first draft with Denver, the Nuggets came away with Gary Harris at No. 19 and scooped future superstar Nikola Jokic at No. 41. In 2016, Denver added Jamal Murray at No. 7, Juancho Hernangomez at No. 15 and Mailk Beasley at No. 19. The Nuggets snagged key reserve point guard Monte Morris at No. 51 in 2017. They gambled on Michael Porter Jr. at No. 14 in 2018.
“We’ve never picked higher than [No.] 7,” Karnisovas said. “Usually, the analytic world believes picking top-five gives you the best chance of landing an All-Star. So we had to really find creative ways of drafting guys at different positions, whether that be first round or second round. You can always find value.”
The Bulls hope that approach can round out their burgeoning roster.
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Chicago employs its own triumvirate of phenoms selected at No. 7, with point guard Coby White, bruising big Wendell Carter Jr. and stretchy forward Lauri Markkanen each representing the seventh pick in their respective drafts. The Bulls are also invested in 25-year-old scorer Zach LaVine and 26-year-old swingman Otto Porter Jr. When healthy, that collection of talent appears capable of growing into a playoff team.
A new executive naturally prompts questions of impending turnover, but perhaps Karnisovas can establish stability in Chicago with that group.
While Karnisovas’ predecessor, John Paxson, joined the Bulls’ front office in 2003, the Bulls have routinely shuffled their coaching staff over the past few years. Gone are Tom Thibodeau and Fred Hoiberg, the head coach that Paxson and general manager Gar Forman handpicked to replace Thibs. Current head coach Jim Boylen has compiled a 39-84 record since taking over for Hoiberg early in the 2018-19 season, piloting a young roster devoid of former stars Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
While player movement swept the NBA in recent years, the Connelly and Karnisovas-led Nuggets were the only franchise to improve its win total each of the last five seasons. At 43-22 before the season shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Denver was on pace to eclipse its 54-28 record from 2018-19 as well.
“Change is what everyone wants,” Connelly said. “We’re a big family.”
The whole combination sounds incredibly cliche. Corny slogans like “Team before me” bounce off the walls of Denver’s facility. But the interpersonal connections throughout the organization seem pure.
Connelly and Karnisovas led front-office squads into pickup battles against the coaching staff. They ordered pizza and beer to the facility for all to enjoy.
“It’s not just by design,” Connelly said. “It’s because we enjoy it.”
During training camp in Colorado Springs last October, all of the Nuggets basketball operations department went whitewater rafting. No phones were allowed on the excursion. A collective task spurred deeper conversation.
“You’ve got to talk a lot, you have to work a lot, you have to paddle,” Karnisovas said.
The Nuggets had their fair share of draft misses under Connelly and Karnisovas. 2015 No. 7 overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay no longer resides in Colorado. But diligence and pragmatism can prepare a front office to bounce back from a poor selection and find a better alternative the following year in Murray.
“Information is power,” Karnisovas said. “Everybody is like, ‘Well, did you know six months ago that you were gonna draft him?’ You’re like, ‘No, you just collect information.’ You have information, you have to continuously collect it, and then when the time comes, make a decision.
Denver prioritized drafting grinders. You can now expect Chicago evaluators to value word of high sweat equity as much as flashy film.
“It’s an extremely hard-working bunch, so once you get in this environment, it’s contagious,” Karnisovas said. “Guys stay in the gym all the time, do extra work. If you don’t put in work, you’re not gonna survive.”
Harris set that tone in Denver. After burying 37.6 percent of his 5.6 three-point attempts per game at Michigan State, he shot only 20.4 percent from deep as a rookie in 2014-15.
“Historically low numbers,” Karnisovas said. “And we started thinking, like, ‘Did we make a mistake?'”
Harris adeptly followed Denver’s offseason regimen. He rebounded to make 35.4 percent of his threes as a sophomore. He stayed behind in Colorado for the summer, running shooting drill after shooting drill and improving his pick-and-roll decision-making at that notoriously high altitude. He then shot 42.0 percent from deep in 2016-17.
He walked the Nuggets staffers’ talk. If you put in the work, success will follow.
“And then all the players picked it up,” Karnisovas said.
Bunches of players typically study film with one another, like Jokic and Murray dissecting footage of their pick-and-roll duet. Denver’s entire roster often goes to the movies together. Throngs of players linger in the team’s game room, battling in pingpong or Madden.
Chicago’s new chief executive has maintained an elite fitness level. He would run Colorado’s famed Red Rocks when longtime Nuggets trainer Steve Hess shuttled players for a preseason workout. On his own, Karnisovas finally conquered the Manitou Incline in 2019, scaling the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain. Over 2,700 steps make up the steep 0.88-mile stretch that rises 2,011 feet to the top.
Midway through, Karnisovas’ lungs burned. He considered turning around.
“It’s an intense climb,” he said.
Average hikers typically need an hour to reach the apex. Karnisovas, 48, finished in just over 43 minutes.
The clock now starts in Chicago, each tick measuring how quickly he can power the Bulls back into contention.