The Jimmy Butler trade last June probably was the most significant trade in the history of the Bulls franchise. Never had an All-Star player in his prime been traded. So the Bulls have considered the players acquired in that trade, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft rights to Lauri Markkanen, as the building blocks for the franchise’s future. All three have excelled at times this season, though because of injuries and LaVine’s recovery from knee surgery, the trio hasn’t played together that much. Still, they are expected to be the foundation for the team the Bulls hope to build in these coming years. Both Dunn and LaVine because of recent injuries and health problems will not play again this season. Markkanen continues to play, though it’s possible he misses some games in the last week because of recent back and elbow issues. I met with each last week during the Texas/Florida trip for a brief question-and-answer about their first seasons with the Bulls. This is the first of three parts.
Zach LaVine, a 6-5 shooting guard, has been considered the featured player in the trade because of his previous success in the NBA, though principally with back to back All-Star weekend slam dunk championships in 2015 and 2016. LaVine was drafted 13th by Minnesota in 2014 after one season at UCLA when he averaged just 9.4 points per game. He was known, obviously, for his unique athletic abilities. LaVine’s father played professional football and LaVine was a fan of the Michael Jordan Space Jam movie. He wore Jordan’s likeness jersey from the movie in his first slam dunk contest and became the second youngest dunk champion to Kobe Bryant. LaVine made second team all-rookie and started 40 games his rookie season, averaging 10.1 points and often playing point guard when Ricky Rubio was injured. LaVine had a 37-point game with six threes late in the season.
In his second season, LaVine averaged 14 points, playing in all 82 games with 33 starts, including a 35-point game off the bench against the Thunder. In the 2016-17 season, LaVine had a 40-point game with seven threes against the Kings and was averaging 18.9 points when he tore his ACL in February.
LaVine returned to the court in his Bulls debut on Jan. 13 and had 14 points in 19 minutes in a win over Detroit. The Bulls won back to back games in his return and against his former team, February 9, he led the Bulls to their most significant win of the season over the Timberwolves with 35 points, including the team’s last 11 points to clinch the game. LaVine played in 24 games until knee tendinitis ended his season after two months on March 15. He ends his first season with the Bulls averaging 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and three assists. He shot 38.3 percent overall and 34.1 percent on three pointers. He scored at least 20 points in 11 of his 24 games, and in one four-game stretch leading up to that Timberwolves game he averaged 26.8 points and 46 percent on threes. In his last game against Memphis March 15, he had 20 points and made 10 of 10 free throws.
Bulls.com: What did you expect individually for this season the day of the trade?
LaVine: The main thing was getting back onto the court. Working my way back there, getting to gel, know the group. I knew it was going to be a short season from me not being able to play at the beginning, not in training camp or anything like that. The main thing was coming back and getting my feet wet again. You miss a year, you have to work your way back into it. I was just happy to come back and play.
Bulls.com: Can you rate what you feel you accomplished versus your expectations?
LaVine: I had some good points, I had some low points. That’s what you expect coming off an ACL injury. I can’t really put a rating on it because for myself I want to go for 40 every game. It’s just not going to happen. I work extremely hard on what I do and regardless if it’s good enough or not, I always think I can do better. I think, overall, I showed what I can do. It showed this group is going to be really good together. And we also have things to work on going into next season. So regardless of me coming back and playing and getting into with everybody. I think it was a good year.
Bulls.com: What were you most encouraged about, more discouraged about?
LaVine: I’m encouraged by just the game, being able to play, still having my athleticism after missing so much. I didn’t really have an offseason to train. So being able to come back and still get to my spots and score and still know my game. What’s tough is going through the ups and downs. I’ve never really been a real inconsistent player, so having high games and low games was frustrating. But it’s what you expect after not having the time to get your rhythm back. So I have to take the good with the bad and continue to work. I didn’t get too low or too high with my games when I played, so just coming back was main thing and moving into next year and working and building off that.
Bulls.com: What was the highlight?
LaVine: My favorite game was probably my first game I came back against Detroit, being able to hear the crowd’s reception and being to able to talk, go to the arena early and interact with the fans and things like that. The first one back was the big one for me, especially with the time I missed. I love the game of basketball. It sucked being out, but I got so much excitement coming back that was probably one of my favorite games.
Bulls.com: When did you think you would return?
LaVine: There are so many different lengths to the injury. You hear about people coming back in six months and it’s not realistic. Especially the situation I was in. They said there was no reason to rush, I should come back 100 percent healthy. I came back in 10 and a half or 11 months, and some people miss more than a year. We really didn’t know. I had a target day. I remember when I got hurt I was saying I’d be ready for training camp. Mentally, I did because I wanted to play so much, but realistically it wasn’t a possibility. So I think we met somewhere in the middle.
Bulls. com: Was there a lowlight to the year?
LaVine: There are games that bug you about how you played or how the team played, but regardless you can’t get too low. I never try to get too high or low. I’ve been a pretty consistent player my whole career and not able to sustain that for long periods of time was frustrating. I feel that’s working yourself back into rhythm. That was the frustrating part, but I refocus quickly. I don’t get too low.
Bulls.com: What did you feel you showed about your game?
LaVine: “That I can be that consistent number one scorer guy, that number one option. I think everybody sees me as being one of the leaders on the team. I want to be that guy in that role and continue to show that. I’ve shown some spots of that and I’m going to continue to work at that. Going to the offseason that’s what I’m working at. I want to be an elite player in this league and I’m not going stop until I’m at that stage.