Rotten to the core: Can the Bulls’ ‘Big Three’ really compete in East?

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic have shown an ability to dominate on the court together, but not on a consistent basis. Therein lies the problem for the Bulls’ front office if it chooses to bring the core back.

SHARE Rotten to the core: Can the Bulls’ ‘Big Three’ really compete in East?
Zach LaVine

Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas made it very clear that he wants to keep his “Big Three” core intact. Is that the right call in the Eastern Conference?

Nathan Denette/AP

The House of Karnisovas is here to stay.

Even before executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and most of his front office were given contract extensions early on in the 2022-23 campaign, there wasn’t the slightest hint of the Reinsdorfs losing faith in Karnisovas in Year 3 of his reign.

Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, either.

That’s the Reinsdorf way.

Karnisovas made this mess, and ownership will give him every opportunity to clean it up. That’s where the focus needs to be.

Is Karnisovas capable of building beyond mediocrity?

That’s the question this offseason, and one that’s not off to a great start.

When Karnisovas addressed the media after the Bulls were eliminated from the play-in tournament by the Heat, their 14-9 record after the All-Star break carried a lot of weight in him wanting to bring back the same core of players with a few tweaks.

“The word of this year is probably inconsistency,’’ Karnisovas said. “We would figure it out and be on the right path and have a drop-off. But we were very competitive. And we wanted to be a tough out anytime anybody is playing Chicago, especially in this building. That’s what the fan base can ask for.

“The result is not what we wanted. And we look like a .500 team. But the way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path.’’

Right path?

Yikes.

Forget the entire NBA playoff landscape on display the last month, just take a glance at the Eastern Conference portion of it.

The best team in the conference was eliminated in the first round by the best player, as Jimmy Butler put on his cape and willed the Heat to the upset over the top-seeded Bucks. The 76ers and MVP Joel Embiid have overcome injuries to suddenly look like a legit force. Boston is a beast. And even teams that were eliminated — the Cavaliers and Hawks — have better immediate futures than the Bulls.

The Bulls have limited draft capital the next few seasons, and Karnisovas’ roster has painted itself into a salary-cap corner. If there’s a “right path,’’ it’s tough to currently envision.

That starts with the core.

Karnisovas’ trio of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic (assuming the free agent returns) is maybe — and that’s a big maybe — the eighth-best core in the East, and that doesn’t include role players.

If the Bulls plan to improve on a 40-42 season, here are the top seven cores they will have to overtake.

1. Bucks — Even with center Brook Lopez a free agent, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday make the Bulls core look very pedestrian.

2. Sixers — Embiid is a monster, and if Tyrese Maxey continues showing star power, even if James Harden opts out, the 76ers have a one-two punch the Bulls cannot compete with.

3. Celtics — It will be interesting to see what happens with Jaylen Brown, but the Celtics seem to have more of a coaching issue than a talent one.

4. Heat — “Playoff Jimmy’’ showed the Bulls what elite looks like, as he sent them home. Bam Adebayo and a healthy Tyler Herro are solid secondary players, but it’s all about Butler come April and May.

5. Cavaliers — Donovan Mitchell proved to carry more star power than LaVine this season, and Cleveland’s core of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley has a much higher ceiling than the Bulls.

6. Knicks — No backcourt player in the East understands how to impact winning like Jalen Brunson. Plus, the Knicks are going to outwork the opposition on most nights in the regular season.

7. Hawks — Changes could be coming for them this summer, but as of now Trae Young, Dejounte Murray and De’Andre Hunter are a better core than the Bulls’ three because of their ability to heat up from three-point range.

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