Zach Lavine will return to the court this Saturday
and he's ready to play.
NBA teams reached the season's midpoint this week with major milestones now coming fast, All-Star voting beginning with the game a month away, the trade deadline moved up two weeks with teams about to make significant moves. And it was the Bulls Tuesday who made the first one, adding one of the league's elite athletes and top shooters.
Talk about your big time, headline making additions.
Zach LaVine will make his Bulls debut Saturday in the United Center against the Detroit Pistons on Zach LaVine bobblehead night.
Fans get a picturesque prize; the Bulls may be adding the face of the franchise.
I'm a team player, I'm a winner. At the end of the day, that's all I want to do, go out there and help the best I can.
"I've been in the gym late nights," LaVine told reporters in the Advocate Center before the team left for New York. "I've played a lot of games with myself, thinking it's opening night. I've been playing with my teammates in practice almost every other day. I don't know how I'm going to go out, but I'm going to play the same way. I still have the same feel for the game. I still have explosion, the same athleticism, the same speed. I feel like I worked on a couple of other things. I worked on my body. I got a little bit bigger. I shoot the ball the same way. I've been shooting the ball really good in practice. There's nothing for me to think about out there. I'm just going to go out and play the way I always have. I think it will be a good thing."
It could be a great thing for the Bulls, who did pretty well the last time they introduced a super athletic shooting guard to the roster.
No Jordan comparisons, please. But LaVine, a 6-5, two-time slam dunk contest champion who was averaging almost 20 points per game on 40 percent three point shooting when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament last February, was the centerpiece of the trade with Minnesota for Jimmy Butler.
Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen from that blockbuster deal have come fast, solidifying roles in the Bulls starting lineup and becoming the team's two leading scorers after Nikola Mirotic (Mirotic traveled, but remains questionable for Wednesday's game with flu).
Not to diminish the impact of both Dunn and Markkanen, who have impressed league observers, but LaVine has the breakout star possibilities with his unique physical makeup and basketball skills. The way the game is played now with speed, shooting and athletic mastery, LaVine represents the profile of the modern era star.
It's presumptuous and premature to suggest he'll achieve that given the vagaries of success and his serious injury which has kept him from playing the last 11 months. He began practicing with the team in late November, and has been pushing hard to return since then. He's played, teammates and coaches say, with a joie de vie, confidence and certainty that resembles that of the great figures in the game.
He was lobbying furiously to play Wednesday, and not because his debut will come Saturday against the team he was playing when he was hurt last season in Minnesota. The appealing feature of his intense desire to play Wednesday was that he wanted it to be on arguably the biggest stage in basketball, Madison Square Garden.
C'mon, see what I've got!
So here's a 22-year-old who hasn't played in a year coming off the game's most serious injury who wants his first game back to be under the greatest urban microscope, New York City and its unforgiving, critical audience. That suggests more than anything LaVine could say about his lack of hesitancy about not only his return but the player he expects to be.
"I was pushing to play two months ago," LaVine said with a laugh. "But the decision was made for it to be Saturday. I'm a ballplayer, man. I want to be out there and I want to be able to play. I know I'm a starter. I don't know if I'll start right away or come off the bench. It doesn't matter to me for the first little bit. It's about me being out there helping the guys the way I can.
"It's gonna be great," said LaVine. "You can see how much fun this team has. I want to bring a spark, bring some energy, be a leader figure. Someone who can make plays. Hopefully, I can help us get some more wins."
Bulls vice president John Paxson said LaVine will play 20 minutes per game at first. There's just one back to back before All-Star break and LaVine won't play in the second game. Coach Fred Hoiberg said whether LaVine starts and his place in the rotation still remain under consideration with practices Thursday and Friday. As LaVine improves without setbacks, he will play more. Paxson emphasized the Bulls will remain conservative regarding LaVine's playing time, health status and contribution.
"Our mindset is this is still part of the rehab for Zach," said Paxson.
But adding a player of LaVine's profile at midseason is like adding an All-Star to your team. There's an adjustment period as players assume and accept new roles and responsibilities, someone likely to lose a starting spot, others minutes played. There'll be experiments with different lineups. But it's mostly an increase in overall talent, which should compute to more wins and better games.
Which for this unusual Bulls season produced several media inquiries that effectively were saying, ‘Why are you doing this? You are supposed to lose games for a higher draft pick.' Wink, wink. Just don't tell anyone.
It's been a difficult road for the Bulls to navigate. The presumed rainbow of riches in the NBA is at the end of those most unsuccessful, much condemned and hopeless of seasons when a team can qualify for a top draft pick. The history of the NBA suggests the star players who lead to championships come from the top picks in the draft, like LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon; yes Jordan, too. Except when they don't, like with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson or a bunch of Detroit retreads. Plus, many more teams with top three picks never become even seriously competitive.
To mimic the Philadelphia 76ers' model of rebuilding that's often mentioned, the Bulls presumably would have to trade Dunn and Markkanen this month for future draft picks.
But what the Bulls accomplished with the Butler trade was to exchange a top player for immediate potential. It should be to the Bulls' delight that those players are developing and maturing faster than anyone predicted. So they will win more games than anticipated.
This was once considered a good thing.
Does it end up resulting in not landing a transformative player in the June draft? Perhaps, though there never is a guarantee when there is a lottery. And when the targeted players are teenagers with one year of college. Paxson dismissed suggestions than winning, no matter how limited as the Bulls are 14-27, is a negative for the franchise.
"The thing I've said consistently since we made the trade is that I do know that it's hard to win at a high level in this league when you're young," said Paxson. "Medically, Zach is ready to play. I know there's been a lot of talk (about the draft). But you haven't heard me say anything about our goals changing. Zach is ready to play. So he's going to get that opportunity to play. I said this when the season started: I never met a coach or a player who goes out there and tries to lose games. I'm very happy that our young guys are playing well. That was part of the deal and we aren't going to put the brakes on that. The big part of the trade, obviously, was Zach, getting the pick for Lauri and Kris Dunn. I'm very happy with the way the two guys have been playing and I'm happy to see Zach get back."
And Hoiberg probably is as much as anyone other than LaVine.
The coach who has been able to finally express himself with his preferred method of play has dealt with a crushing ambivalence, the desire to get a player who fits seamlessly with his offensive patterns while being patient with a young man's health at the start of hopefully a long career.
"Obviously, all of us have been waiting for this moment," said Hoiberg. "He's shown a lot in practice, a lot of things which get you excited just about his versatility as a basketball player. He's a guy who can handle it on the break. He can play some minutes at the one, some minutes at the two. He gives you a playmaker and, obviously, a great athlete who can get out and run and a guy who has unlimited range; that being said, I think we all need to be patient with this process. He's going to have rust; he hasn't played a basketball game in almost a full calendar year. This is all part of the end of the rehab process, that final hurdle to get him back in uniform. But we are excited. His teammates are excited, the fans are excited to get his back out there.
"I think he and Kris will develop a nice chemistry out there," said Hoiberg. "They obviously have played together in Minnesota for stretches. "The thing I think about is pairing him with David Nwaba for stretches as well. It gives you a very athletic back court if you have Kris Dunn out there with those two players to really get out there and run and push the pace and attack and get into the paint and make plays.
"I'm sure for Zach there is a little bit of a mental hurdle and it will be good to take that first blow and first hit to where he does get knocked down," said Hoiberg. "But he's shown in practice he has no fear; he's going out there and playing on his instincts, which you have to do. So he's attacking the basket in practice these last three weeks. We don't have any concern about that, but for Zach I'm sure it will be good to take that first blow and get knocked on his ass."
It's, of course, everyone's fear, especially in Chicago after the emotional years following Derrick Rose's return from the same surgery. LaVine says he hasn't contacted anyone who's had the surgery. He says he just wants to follow his own path, chart out his own reality.
"Obviously, I'm going to be anxious," he concedes. "Adrenaline is gonna be rushing, crowd is gonna be into it, team is gonna be loving it. It's gonna be a good feeling, Anybody gone on a 40-game winning streak? I'm going to go out there and do the best I can do. I'm a team player, I'm a winner. At the end of the day, that's all I want to do, go out there and help the best I can.
"I just want to see how it feels to be out there again for the first time in a while," LaVine said. "I don't think it's going to take that long. I haven't had any setbacks over these last five, six months. So I don't think anything is going to go the wrong way because I've been hitting every point so well. I've been ready for a while."
Like everyone else. The door to the Bulls' future cracks open a little farther again Saturday. The destination perhaps gets a little closer.
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