As of now — in part because three targeted candidates withdrew before interviewing — the recruiting process for John Paxson’s soon-to-be vacant role has seemingly been narrowed down to two choices: Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik and Denver Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas.
Zanik has formally interviewed, with Karnisovas to do the same later this week. While we know little about the interview process itself, we’ve been told to expect the Bulls to move quickly on a hire.
In some respects, it’s refreshing to see the Bulls move this way on a legitimate franchise-changing decision, doing so by scanning the market for available executives before any other team has a chance to follow suit. Such a move may create a competitive advantage, but it’s also fair to question if this is all moving a little too quickly.
Perhaps that is simply past skepticism of change ever occurring during a Reinsdorf reign. Still, is it not odd that the Bulls have suddenly shifted in a matter of days from allowing Paxson to be one of the most tenured and untouchable executives in the league, to now honing in and choosing their next head of basketball?
For better or for worse, as a player, analyst, and an executive, John Paxson has been with the Chicago Bulls for over 30 years. If it felt that like he was never going to leave, it’s because he wasn’t. Not when the ever-loyal Reinsdorf clan held him in such high regard.
But now Joe Cowley of the Sun-Times suggests there could be an upcoming Bulls reality that doesn’t include Paxson at all, if the new hire sees that as how they want to proceed. While this is an encouraging development, we should still be operating under the assumption that Paxson will remain with the franchise. It also means little until we know who will be running the Bulls for the foreseeable future.
This swift change in philosophy may prevent proper due diligence, though there is some solace to be had in Zanik and Karnisovas being the two most prominent names linked.
Comparing the two, it’s Karnisovas that appears to be everything the Bulls should want and need in their next hire. And acccording to Vince Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, Karnisovas the “clear leader” over Zanik.
Rising through the ranks of the Nuggets’ front office since 2013, Karnisovas has been an influential presence in successfully building a young, competitive team through the draft, most notably with the selection of All-NBA center Nikola Jokic. More importantly, the talent the Nuggets have brought into the franchise have all developed into quality pros. While player development may not be directly attributable to Karnisovas — or any other single executive — putting in place quality coaching, player development and scouting staffs is critical for any management executive, something the Nuggets have clearly done, and something the Bulls so desperately need.
It doesn’t stop there. Who could forget the now infamous draft day deal which saw the Bulls exchange Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic for Doug McDermott. Remember that? Of course you do. We have John Paxson and Gar Forman to thank for negotiating such a terrible deal, one Karnisovas and Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly exploited to build out their young core.
The Bulls have also tried to rebuild their franchise through the draft and trade market while avoiding the pitfalls of playing chance in free agency. But they failed, while in Denver such a model has been successfully implemented.
While Zanik is a respected executive who has a wealth of experience as a player agent, the resume Karnisovas has built is hard to overlook. In fact, it’s much simpler to identify and interpret the work Karnisovas has been involved in given his long tenure with the Denver Nuggets is easier to trace, particularly when comparing this to Zanik.
Like Karnisovas, Zanik has been an integral member of a well-run organisation built through the draft. The Jazz are a legitimate playoff team in a tough Western Conference, one Zanik returned to in 2017 after a short stint in Milwaukee. With this in mind, how much of the Jazz’s recent success is attributable to Zanik or his boss, Dennis Lindsey? Given his short tenure in Milwaukee, it would also be hard to credit any of the dominance the Bucks have had over the past two season to Zanik, either.
While Zanik comes with high praise and credentials, we can’t forget that it was only last week that Johnson also reported the Bulls would not be interested in candidates “with any ties to player agency.” Zanik, who previously worked as a player agent (represented former Bull Omer Asik), was initially ruled out from consideration, yet only days later is the first to interview. This development is an oddity at best and a glaring concern at worst.
Zanik also has the stench of cronyism. His time as an agent was under Mark Bartelstein, who just so happens to be good friends with Jerry Reinsdorf. All three have Northwestern ties, and Michael Reinsdorf is on the board of trustees there (where Collins’ son is the head basketball coach). That not-so-subtle link may be unfair to hold against Zanik, but we can’t ignore it.
Irrational or otherwise, those fears do not exist with Karnisovas. Not only does he not have any clear connection to the current maligned establishment, Karnisovas’ executive career began with the Houston Rockets, a forward-thinking franchise who has behaved and managed their franchise in a way the Bulls would never dare. That fact in itself is refreshing, and if bringing in a new voice who has experience with best practices from around the league is atop of Reinsdorf’s criteria list, Karnisovas’ history with the Rockets and Nuggets suggest he would be a quality hire.