Sam Smith looks at the minutes distribution for the Bulls players and makes an argument for pushing up Zach & Lauri's time on the court to give them a chance to find more rhythm and therefore make more impact on games.
The Bulls in their 6-11 start to the season seem to have found themselves often lost deep in the woods of disappointment and despair. But in Zach LaVine's magnificent game winning show of three pointers and 49 points in Charlotte Saturday, the Bulls probably shouldn't mistake the forest for the trees.
Free Zach LaVine; Lauri Markkanen, too.
LaVine's prodigious game might have been one of the most remarkable in NBA history. Not only for the game winning shot with less than a second left and the 13 three pointers, a feat achieved only by players many consider the greatest shooters in NBA history, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. It came, strangely enough, just a day after the opprobrium LaVine endured with that hasty benching against Miami.
Zach LaVine Hits 13 3s Against the Charlotte Hornets
Saturday became a wonderful and memorable moment in an uncertain start to the season. It was one of the most exciting closing last minutes of the NBA season and perhaps in franchise history, if not in overall significance.
The larger picture beyond the trees, though, is the towering redwood of talent that LaVine is to the roster. He may not be all everyone would like him to be — sorry, he'll never be that two-way star, just like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard aren't — but there aren't many players who can do what he did.
Basically no one else on the Bulls roster.
Maybe Coby White someday, if probably not quite yet.
Which is why LaVine and Markkanen, even with the latter having the poorest start in his three NBA seasons, need to remain the team's focus and priority.
It's been a shaky adjustment period to start the season for the Bulls with, in effect, a new coaching staff and five new rotation players. So no great surprise, really, if unfortunate. It wasn't guaranteed to go smoothly. But with two games this week starting Monday against Lillard's struggling Trailblazers, the Bulls are reaching the quarter pole of the NBA season. It's generally when teams indicate who they will be going forward.
It may be too soon to make that judgment for the Bulls given the absence of Otto Porter Jr. and the changes with rookie White moving toward the top of the rotation.
But no team is playing its best talents fewer minutes than the Bulls with LaVine, when healthy, basically at a three-year low, and the only Bulls player averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Markkanen is at a career low in minutes despite not missing any games with injuries. Sure, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau often was criticized for extended playing time, and now it's gone the other way with so called "load management" to rest players trendy around the NBA. But the best teams play their best players by far the most.
To their credit, LaVine and Markkanen — and actually everyone else on the Bulls roster — wants to play. Markkanen probably is even playing through some stuff he'd never disclose.
Kendall Gill, the tough playing 15-year NBA veteran who now is an NBCSports Chicago analyst on the Bulls, often explains how much playing rhythm matters to players. And that the most talented players improve with more, and regular playing time.
Sure, Ryan Arcidiacono was brilliant again in helping disrupt that pass which led to LaVine's game winner.
Tomas Satoransky's pump fake three pointer was crucial to extend the possibilities.
Wendell Carter Jr. created at least five points keeping balls in play during that amazing stretch despite basically never being able to look an opening in the eye.
White was daring and dazzling with a pair of driving baskets.
But it took LaVine's unique ability to finish that game. Who else picks up that ball along the baseline and sprints back with time virtually expired, turns and makes that shot falling away? C'mon, seriously! If it were not Saturday in Charlotte in November and May or June in Los Angeles, there would be a statue.
True, the other players were essential. And it's to the Bulls' credit the way they have developed those reserves and how they compete. But undrafted players aren't in the vanguard of success as much as we love the overachieving little guy story.
Monday's opponent, the Trailblazers, are illustrative. They are enduring a poor start at 5-12 after making the conference finals last season. But they're prospered relying on their best talents, Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Many have said the Trailblazers cannot win a title that way, and they're probably correct. Most teams cannot without the ultimate star. Neither player is that. Unfortunately, there are not enough to go around. But by trusting their best talents, the Trailblazers at least have extended hope through a successful run.
The Trailblazers seem to be celebrating what they can be rather than bemoaning what they are not.
It's likely a parochial element because fans and media tend to watch most carefully just their own teams. So LaVine's shot selection becomes microscopically scrutinized. But you'd gasp watching where Lillard often shoots from. And he's conservative compared to, say, Harden and Westbrook. But that's also what defines greatness; you know, can't make ‘em if you don't take ‘em. White seems to subscribe to that philosophy as well, which is a strength. And quietly Boylen has been trusting White more often with Satoransky and LaVine in optimistically offensive lineups.
The Bulls may have stumbled onto something else in that unforgettable Charlotte game.
LaVine started fast, which was to his credit after the unpleasant events from Friday's loss. I probably would have still been pouting.
"I've always said Zach is a really good guy and a good person and he wants to do well," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said after Saturday's game. "He wants to help the team. I have said this to you guys since I got the job: My job is to push the guy to a place he can't take himself and that happens sometimes with tough conversations, meetings and maybe some uncomfortable moments; that's what my job is.""
The Bulls award winning social media team sends players photos and video highlights after each game that they can use for their social media (yes, Larry Bird probably wouldn't have, I know). They sent LaVine a picture of his winning shot. He asked instead for one of him celebrating with teammates. That's who he is. He never runs away from media after poor performances. He is among the most available and conversational with fans. He was out in the community donating Thanksgiving meals last week even amid all the turmoil.
LaVine is probably the best pure shooter on the team. But with the offensive system changes and desire for multiple players to handle the ball and make plays — which LaVine can do even if it's not a strength — he hasn't been in spot up, catch-and-shoot situations as much. He was against the Hornets to start the game, and he made all his threes in the first half. The theory of multiple versatile players is laudable. But you need a lot of talent. Many of the best teams have a primary decision maker, from LeBron James to Luka Doncic to James Harden. Of course, if the Bulls had one of those guys it's likely he'd be their primary decision maker.
Which lately always brings the conversation back to Markkanen and what's wrong.
"I didn't think Lauri played poorly," Boylen said Saturday night after Markkanen's season shooting percentage fell to 35 percent, 28 percent on threes. "He did not shoot the ball how we know he can. Just like Zach, Coby, KD, Arch, just like everybody, I'm going to keep coaching. We're going to keep working at it. I think he is special and I am going to keep coaching him that way and I'm confident he'll respond."
Maybe the Bulls just need to stay in Charlotte, where Markkanen opened the season with a 35 points and 17 rebounds game and LaVine Saturday bookended with the ultimate game and game winner.
There have been outside suggestions lately for Markkanen ranging from a stint in the G-league to coming off the bench to playing with dark glasses to remind him of November in Finland. Markkanen is just under his average minutes played from his rookie season when he had back problems that limited him some games. He's down about 10 percent in playing time from last season, like LaVine.
As a fan of the team and basketball, you love what players like Arcidiacono, Shaquille Harrison and Kris Dunn bring, the defensive rage perhaps you wish LaVine and Markkanen had. A few great players bring both, but very few. You need those role guys around, like the Clippers with Patrick Beverley. But they don't want him closing out the games.
The Bulls are more work in progress than the best teams, obviously, but with Arcidiacono averaging at least 20 minutes since the beginning of this month, they're playing 10 players at least 20 minutes per game. Most teams play six or seven. Of the NBA players averaging at least 20 points per game, only Joel Embiid is averaging fewer minutes per game than LaVine.
Like Thaddeus Young said repeatedly early in the season, he came to the Bulls to help try to make Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen All-Stars. That work needs to continue.
Free Zach and Lauri!