Zach LaVine’s future, Bulls’ core will be focus of looming offseason

LaVine’s future, Bulls’ core will be the focus of the offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

With Zach LaVine landing in the league’s health and safety protocols and Alex Caruso still in concussion protocols, it almost feels cruel to recall what Artūras Karnišovas joked sat atop his wish list as February’s trade deadline passed with no action.

“My wish list was to get healthy,” Karnišovas said then.

Thanks to Lonzo Ball’s bone bruise never fully healing, that never happened. LaVine’s jarring development on Tuesday on top of Caruso’s wrong-place-at-wrong-time play from Sunday just feels like piling on at this point.

If the Chicago Bulls season ends on Wednesday in Milwaukee, the offseason speculation will continue in further earnest. It has already begun, with coach Billy Donovan even downplaying a question on whether or not LaVine, who is an unrestricted free agent, may already have played his last game as a Bull.

Karnišovas typically addresses reporters at season’s end. But it’s instructive to recall his words from as recently as February — when optimism reigned that the Bulls would be whole.

“We were pretty busy last trade deadline. We were pretty busy this summer. So we made a lot of changes. We’re pretty much looking for continuity,” Karnišovas said then. “This group has shown we can compete in the Eastern Conference and our record (34-21 at the time) reflects it. We were taking calls, but basically the mutual feeling with all our group was that let’s get our guys back and see what this group can do when they’re all healthy.”

If the Bulls lose in five games, particularly if the third straight loss is non-competitive, Karnišovas certainly will be asked if his stance remains the same. But in February, he did point to a top-five offense and defense in the lone 16 games the majority of his and his staff’s projected core played together.

As for LaVine’s future, Bulls president and chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago in February that the franchise’s “hope is that he’s here for years to come. And Zach knows how we feel about him.”

Reinsdorf said this even after LaVine had visited a specialist for temporary relief for his persistent knee issues, which likely are headed towards some sort of offseason procedure. That’s because Reinsdorf, like management, knows the MRI showed nothing structurally wrong with LaVine’s left knee.

Whether management’s stance on if there are structural issues with its version of a “Big Three” — LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević — has changed is unknown. But again, as recently as February, Karnišovas expressed confidence.

As an unrestricted free agent, LaVine also has say in his future. LaVine said on media day back in September that his focus is on this season, not his contact. But each time he has addressed his future publicly, he has indicated his happiness in Chicago and in playing for the Bulls, as well as his positive relationships with ownership, management, the coaching staff and teammates.

The only future on the minds of Donovan and LaVine’s teammates following Tuesday’s short session at the Advocate Center before the team bus ride to Milwaukee was how to win Game 5 and positive thoughts for LaVine’s health and recovery.

“It’s part of sports,” Vučević said about the Bulls not being whole again. “I’m sure if you look out throughout the NBA, a lot of teams have gone through a lot of different ups and downs and injuries and COVID stuff. You just have to deal with it.

“At no point, we did feel sorry for ourselves or we will feel sorry for ourselves. It is what it is. It’s unfortunate, but mainly for the guys that want to be out there with us and compete and they can’t. It’s an opportunity for somebody else.”

Whenever the Bulls’ postseason run ends, management will have its opportunity to reshape the roster. To this point, Karnišovas and his staff have taken an aggressive approach to doing so.

Next season’s roster certainly will feature at least some changes. But expect some continuity as well.

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