In Defense of AKME
- by Paulie G of the NBA Index – 12/8/23
Defending Karnisovas and Eversley is no easy task. They were hired in April 2020, with the promise of fast-forwarding the ongoing rebuild the Bulls seemed perpetually stuck in. In the 3.5 years since, the Bulls have made the playoffs once, and won a single playoff game. They were recently voted dead last in the NBA in combined value of team assets. They aren’t exciting to watch. Their best players don’t play well together. Their young players haven’t developed as quickly as we hoped. And in a world where Ws (125) & Ls (133) are the only categories that matter, it’s hard to argue with the statement that the AKME regime, thus far, has been a failure.
However, I took a deeper dive into this and tried to look at it objectively. I’ve watched literally every single Bulls game since AKME took over and am well aware of the vitriolic hatred spewed on social media every time Patrick Williams steps out of bounce while Tyrese Haliburton hits another stepback 3. I didn’t do this to be a contrarian. My motivation isn’t to zig just because everyone else is zagging. I want to see the Bulls win just as much as anyone else. And that’s the reason why, after evaluating AKME’s performance so far, I’m still quite confident they’re going to turn this around.
Category 1 – Coaching Hire
Let’s begin with the first move they made – the hire of Billy Donovan, who had just led OKC to a 44-28 record in ’19-’20, good for 5th in the West in the first post-Westbrook season. They were expected to immediately go into tank mode, but Billy somehow turned a mixture of journeyman Dennis Schroeder, a 21 year old SGA, a supposedly washed-up Chris Paul, and Danilo Gallinari into a functioning basketball team who became a real threat. After that season, Sam Presti made the decision to dive headfirst into a rebuild, Billy didn’t want to stick around for it, and AKME swooped in and signed him merely days after his resignation from OKC. Billy’s career winning % is .559, known as a players-coach, but is well-respected throughout the league by players & coaches alike. The upgrade over Jim Boylen, by itself, merits a good grade. And though it hasn’t been all sunshine & rainbows here in Chicago, overall, the Billy Donovan hire was a Win for AKME.
Coaching Hire Grade: B+
Category 2 – Draft
Every Haliburton 25 & 10 game I’m sure causes AKME sleepless nights. I actually had Haliburton #1 on my board in 2020. Yes, even ahead of Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball. Alas, they forgot to call me on draft day. Regardless, though I generally give rookies 4 or 5 years to judge what sort of player he’ll become, it’s fairly clear that the pick of Patrick Williams over Tyrese Haliburton (not to mention Desmond Bane & Devin Vassell) was a big miss. However, let’s quickly take a look back to the summer of 2020. If you recall, the pandemic had just taken over the world. Scouts and execs couldn’t travel to see players in person, the NCAA season was postponed, prospects couldn’t come in for tryouts, there was no pre-draft combine, and interviews were being done over Zoom. Not the ideal atmosphere for real evaluation. Furthermore, Patrick was one of the fastest risers leading up to the draft. In fact, the rumor was that Coach Pop had promised him the Spurs would take him at 11 (where they would eventually take Williams’ FSU teammate, Vassell). Either way, though it’s a miss, it certainly wasn’t a fireable offense (like Wiseman at 2, Bagley at 2, etc.). And, let me go on record here, I still am a firm believer in Patrick Williams. He was one of the youngest players in that draft class, and is still only 22. I think he’ll be an all-star one day.
Looking at the rest of their draft record, it’s way too early to come to a determination on guys like Ayo, Dalen, and Julian. Though there seems to be a universal desire to shit on the Dalen pick, particularly when passing on Walker Kessler, keep in mind that so did 20 other teams. WAY too early to come to any conclusion on Dalen. He’s played 40 games. Total. And he happens to play the same position as Demar. Did we really expect him to come in and produce immediately?
Lastly, can we keep in mind that Karnisovas was the same dude that drafted Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray, and Monte Morris, and Michael Porter Jr., not to mention making the draft day trade that landed the Nuggets both Gary Harris and Jusef Nurkic in exchange for Doug McDermott, getting the better of GarPax. With this sort of track record, shouldn’t we give AK a little more leash?
Draft Grade: C-
Category 3 – Trades and Strategy
At the core of this category sits 4 transactions: Lauri trade, Vuc trade, Demar Trade, Lonzo trade. The Demar trade was obviously a Win for the Bulls. Demar has significantly outplayed the cost to get him. The Lonzo trade started as a W, but his injuries render the grade an Incomplete. Still, for what they gave up to get him, it certainly wouldn’t be considered a Loss. That said, the Markkanen trade was a clear loss. They got back basically Derrick Jones Jr. & a future lottery-protected POR 1st rounder. DJJ has proven to be a valuable role player, he’s starting right now for the Dallas Mavericks and guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. Unfortunately for CHI, Lauri went on to become an all-star. They better make that POR pick count!
Now, the Vuc trade. The basic outline of that deal was Wendell Carter Jr., ’21 1st round pick (became Franz Wagner), ’23 1st round pick (became Jett Howard) for Vuc, who was coming over in his prime, during an all-star campaign, averaging 24 pts & 11 reb while shooting 40% from 3. Now, I don’t value mid-1st round picks as highly as others, and AKME assumed they’d be giving away 2 mid-tier 1sts for Vuc. If you recall, immediately after the Vuc trade, Zach got hurt, then got covid, then they went on a west-coast roadtrip and got smoked, cratering their place in the standings, directly leading to the Magic getting the 8th overall pick in ’21, who became one of the best young Wings in the league in Franz Wagner. If that pick was in the 12-18 range, the trade would be an unmitigated Win for AKME, as Franz would never have dropped that far. Additionally, if ORL had taken Franz with their own pick at #5 (instead of Suggs), or OKC at #6 (Giddey), or GS at #7 (Kuminga), it would have also been a W for AKME. Getting Vuc for WCJ, Kuminga, and Jett Howard sounds much better, doesn’t it? The point is they wanted out of the lottery, they wanted established talent rather than hopeful talent, they wanted the playoffs, they wanted to be relevant, and they were willing to risk a small % of their future to do it. If you think it was too much future, that’s fair. But I understand & respect the strategy.
Trades & Strategy Grade: C
Category 4 – Negotiations
There seems to be a common misconception that the Bulls routinely bid against themselves. But I challenge anyone to come forth with evidence showing that Demar had no other suiters willing to spend similar $ for him in ’21, or Zach in ’22, or Vuc & Coby & Ayo this summer. Why does everyone just assume they had no other offers? You may look around the league, come to that conclusion yourself, but that’s irresponsible because we truly don’t know. That said, if you think we overpaid for them regardless, that’s fine. But I think there’s value in NOT playing hardball with our own players. And besides, the Caruso contract alone should merit a good grade for AKME. And Coby’s is beginning to look pretty damn tasty too.
Negotiations Grade: B
Category 5 – Roster construction
Here lies AKME’s biggest failure. They hitched their wagon to an injury proned dude in Lonzo. They failed to surround a poor rim defender like Vuc with big wings who can help protect the paint. Furthermore, there seemed to be a lack of direction in Style of Play. If Billy wanted to play fast, why run so much through ISO-Centric Flow-Killing Ballstoppers like Zach & Demar? If Billy wants to run more offense through Vuc, why did he have him picking & popping so much for the first couple seasons. Also, they never should’ve started Pwill right away. Too much pressure placed on a 19 year old. They should have taken a note from the Spurs and made Patrick go to the G-League for a while. Get real reps, learn how to be a pro, and then let him join the big club. Additionally, they should have learned earlier that he wasn’t a PF and more of a Wing.
Roster Construction Grade: D
Category 6 – Flexibility:
I often hear that AKME is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge their own mistakes; that they’ve been unwilling to pivot once they (hypothetically) should have known their plan wasn’t going to work; that instead of being flexible and making changes, they chose to double-down. For example, once Lonzo went down, why did they not prioritize replacing him with a real Point Guard. In that instance, if you recall, they thought Lonzo was coming back for the ’22-’23 season. They didn’t learn until later that he was going to miss the whole year. So, looking at it objectively, if the Bulls started so well with Lonzo in the ’21-’22 season before he got hurt, it makes sense to wait and see what they look like when he returns without making any major changes until then. Unfortunately for AKME, Lonzo never returned, which is why AKME aggressively signed Jevon Carter this offseason. But they didn’t really double-down. It’s not like they mortgaged more Future for the current squad. On the flipside though, they clung to cherry-picking Win-Loss stats to show the hypothetical potential of their team. For example, I’ve never seen a front office be so proud of a post-trade deadline record of 14-9 when the only major addition was Patrick Beverly. They should have known after 1 season that the Zach-Demar combo was not going to work, and they should have traded at least one of them before this season began.
Flexibility Grade: C
The record is the record, so they’ve failed thus far. The roster construction is their biggest black mark. I do appreciate the strategy. Many GMs cling to their jobs by trading for pick after pick after pick and then selling Hope & Patience to the fanbase, saying “Yes, our team sucks right now, and will likely continue to suck for a few more years. But look at all these draft picks we’ve got!” Ultimately, AKME picked a lane and that lane hit a dead-end. However, they didn’t gamble away all their future assets to do it. And ultimately, shouldn’t we give a management group at least 5 years to turn things around? Jerry Krause had 15 seasons. GarPax had 17. Can’t we give AKME more than 3.5!?
Final Grade: C