It will simply be called another basketball season, but Zach LaVine may best remember 2018-19 with the Bulls as his time being lost spelunking.
To begin it seems exciting and invigorating, like when LaVine looked around to start the Bulls season and nobody was there, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine all disappearing in the dark crevices of injury. So the 6-5 uber athlete, finally healthy again after his serious knee injury, explored with excitement.
LaVine was as good as any player in the NBA to start the season, averaging 32.3 points the first four games, averaging almost 10 free throw attempts per game and shooting 40 percent on threes and 57 percent overall. Through the end of the first month, LaVine still was averaging 28 points and shooting better than 50 percent despite defenses following him around like his shadow. The victories weren’t there for lack of comparable companionship. But LaVine, at least for now, could find the excitement in exploring his own latent abilities, mostly silenced the last two years by injury.
"Hopefully we can stick in the good times. You can see a light in the dark tunnel. You try to prepare yourself for the times you are going to be playing for something, and that’s definitely what we want to do (now) as a team." - Zach LaVine
Eventually, however, the exhilaration of the recently discovered diminishes amid the reality of finding a way out.
Zach LaVine with all that promise and potential became lost in a Bulls maze of turnover and change.
Though both he and the team finally appear to be seeing that light, an escape to perhaps even better times ahead.
"We feel good," LaVine was saying late Sunday despite the loss to the Atlanta Hawks. "We have a little bit of a swag to us going out there. We are feeling good and hopefully we can continue to carry it out throughout the end of the season."
That’s the Bulls goal for now as they prepare to play in Indianapolis Tuesday. It begins a testing four-game stretch against Eastern Conference playoff teams with Jimmy Butler and the Philadelphia 76ers in the United Center Wednesday. It will be a further examination of this new Bulls ethic and accomplishment since the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. In the 10 games since, the Bulls are 6-4 and 6-2 when Porter plays, though there were two games each in there with Memphis and Atlanta. These Eastern guys are playing for something. Porter sat out Sunday for rest after the four-overtime game Friday. He is expected to play Tuesday.
That Porter period has encompassed most of February, during which the Bulls have been one of the league’s best offensive teams and had a .500 record. Not threatening to the contenders, but also not representative of their current 18-46 mark, fourth poorest in the NBA.
"(Keep) the consistency and play with the effort and that type of swagger we are playing with," said LaVine. "We have to try to build this chemistry for next year."
It’s now all about next season for these Bulls, who finally seem to have discovered a compass pointing in the correct direction. The threesome of LaVine, who’ll be 24 Sunday, Porter, 25, and Lauri Markkanen, 21, comprise a workable core to which the Bulls will add a top draft pick and a free agent with the possibility of trades from a combination of draft picks and players.
Markkanen had his best month as a professional in February, averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds. Porter averaged 17.6 points and 46 percent on threes, but 19.8 points and 52 percent on threes as a Bull.
LaVine in February averaged 24.5 points and shot 49 percent on threes, and since the All-Star break 27.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists even with Sunday’s quiescence following his career-high 47 points in the four overtimes.
It has thrust LaVine despite doubts among some—you tend to examine more microscopically and critically those closest to you—among the elite in the NBA.
Zach LaVine top 20 in the NBA?
There are 21 players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds and four assists.
They are James Harden, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Blake Griffin Kemba Walker, Devin Booker, Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Luka Doncic, Nikola Vucevic, Nikola Jokic and LaVine. There are 15 including LaVine averaging at least 23 points, four rebounds and four assists. There are some top players sacrificing scoring on top teams, but that list mostly defines the elite in the NBA.
And LaVine understood quickly after the initial thrill of testing his body and his game that those dark corners of the NBA are nowhere to be on your own.
Because it seemed no matter how much LaVine did, 28-7-7 against the Spurs, 28-8-4 against Minnesota, 24-9-7 against Milwaukee, it was loss upon loss upon loss. LaVine never seemed to crack with an outburst of anger, but his frustration mounted; there seemed no way out.
A month into the coaching change to Jim Boylen even with injured players returning, there was 10 straight losses, 14 in 15, 18 losses in 21 games; by 37 points to the Warriors, 30 to the Nuggets, 20 at home to the Atlanta Hawks. The Atlanta Hawks! But then came the first signs of spring and rejuvenation, if certainly not outside. There was the trade, the All-Star break to rest those ankles that carried so much weight all season, 42 points in the win over Boston, 47 in those four overtimes to win.
Zach LaVine records a career-high 47 points against the Atlanta Hawks.
"I don’t try to think negatively, but when you are going through those down times it seems like the days are longer," LaVine admitted. "I feel now like...I’m glad we are out of that and hopefully we can stick in the good times. You can see a light in the dark tunnel. You try to prepare yourself for the times you are going to be playing for something, and that’s definitely what we want to do (now) as a team."