Zach LaVine needs to get healthier; Lauri Markannen needs to get stronger; Kris Dunn needs to get better.
OK, it’s pretty clear the Bulls are not playing for the NBA title this season.
But with the introduction Tuesday of the three new players acquired in the landscape altering trade of All-Star Jimmy Butler last week, at least there’s certainty again where the Bulls are going.
Up, and it’s a long way to go, but at least they finally can begin to see through the haze.
“We've changed our direction,” reiterated Bulls executive vice president John Paxson. “We're not satisfied with being middle of the pack. If you're thinking about (the draft day trade) in terms of winning and losing, it's the wrong way to look at it. We defined a direction. Jimmy Butler's an All-Star player, so Minnesota got a great player in this deal. We've made the playoffs nine out of 10 years; wasn't good enough. We have to now reset what we're about. As you're going to see, when teams do rebuild, it takes time. Fred (Hoiberg) and his staff have done a tremendous job already this summer. They just keep demanding that these guys play the right way, work hard every day. (Fans will) see a product out there that I think they can be proud of and see hope. There will be painful times. There always are. But I think when you're all unified and that's the direction you're going, you have a chance. Our fans, if they give us time and are patient, we'll show results.”
You half expected everyone to have those “First Day of the Rest of Your Life” coffee mugs Tuesday morning in the Advocate center when Paxson, Hoiberg, general manager Gar Forman, Markkanen, Dunn and LaVine—with family, friends and agents in the audience—lined up across a long table to be introduced to Chicago.
LaVine’s agent is Bill Duffy, who also represents Rajon Rondo. Paxson said the Bulls and Duffy would be meeting Tuesday afternoon regarding Rondo’s future with the franchise. Duffy indicated Rondo had no issue being a player/mentor. The Bulls have a team option on Rondo’s salary of $14 million for next season. There is a buyout of about $3 million. Michael Carter-Williams will be a free agent and not return.
“That’s still to be determined,” Paxson said about Rondo’s return. “As far as Rajon, we told you how highly we think of him. We’re going to sit down with Bill and talk it through. We do understand that veterans are important for a young basketball team, the right veterans, guys that are good teammates, are supportive of the young guys and can continue to teach them how to be pros. Those are things we’ll be addressing.”
The indications are there will be one alpha remaining.
That’s Dwyane Wade, who opted in last week to his salary of $23.8 million for next season.
Obviously, Wade no longer fits with the Bulls direction.
Last year, the Bulls, in a lot of ways to further accommodate Butler, gave it one more try figuring the Marquette products could fit together and with Rondo and Robin Lopez still give the Bulls a strong presence in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, that didn’t work with the Bulls barely making it into the playoffs on the last day in a weak Eastern Conference and then losing in the first round, being swept four straight after Rondo went out injured.
Butler and Wade never could mesh.
Now Wade remains. But for how long? There were leaks last week about perhaps a buyout of Wade, though Paxson said there have been no such talks with Wade’s representatives (Wade remains in Europe on vacation).
“I know Gar has spoken with Leon Rose, Dwyane’s agent,” said Paxson. “As far as the buyout, that has not been broached. I would say this: In this type of scenario, it would have to benefit us. Dwyane was a great pro last year, and he’s been around a lot of different situations. He was in Miami when they had a couple rebuilding years as well. So right now we’re operating under assumption that he’ll be here. But like I said, if that subject is ever broached by them, it would have to be advantageous for us.”
The indications are Wade intends to collect his salary—he told TNT he has 24 million reasons to remain with the Bulls—and the Bulls didn’t seem to indicate any reason to pay off Wade.
Plus, with LaVine out perhaps until midseason after ACL surgery in February, there figures to be playing time for a shooting guard. Wade took time off last season on backs to backs, rested almost always in practice and often skipped trips when he wasn’t playing. The belief then was to rest Wade so he would be healthiest for the playoffs.
No one mentioned the P word Tuesday; at least not in connection with a year soon to come.
So it’s not as if the Bulls need Wade to rest for anything. Whether Wade chooses to and what use the Bulls will have for him while trying to feature their young players remains on ongoing question into this season. Neither side indicated they have an answer, direction or solution yet.
But this day was about the kids, and Paxson, Forman and Hoiberg were beaming like proud parents.
Though there are reasons the Bulls were able to get them.
If LaVine weren’t injured, there’s no chance he would have been included in the trade the way he was breaking out as dunk champion and highlight video star.
Minnesota coach/president Tom Thibodeau is anxious to contend for the playoffs in his second season. And he should be for a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2004. Last year at the draft, the Bulls engaged the Timberwolves in trade talks because the Bulls were high on Dunn.
It would not have been much more than Butler for the pick to select Dunn. So the Bulls balked.
LaVine became available because of his injury and even as Minnesota looks for a point guard to replace Ricky Rubio, Dunn became available because of a poor rookie season, though he didn’t play regularly. The Bulls got the Timberwolves’ lottery pick in exchange for their own at No. 16. But the three players the Bulls targeted all were taken before No. 16. So it became easier to also surrender their pick.
Thibodeau, unable to move up to get Kansas’ Josh Jackson, also didn’t feel the No. 7 pick, which he intended to use on Markannen, could help this season. So the package of three players became available at a time the Bulls, surprisingly, were not being offered lottery picks or even high level starters for Butler.
Boston declined to offer a lottery pick this year or next. Same with Phoenix. The Nuggets had just No. 13 this year, but would not offer even their top young player, Jamal Murray. Though Butler is an accomplished player, it’s often a matter of fit as well for contending teams.
None of the three players the Bulls received from the Timberwolves, Thibodeau rightly calculated, were going to make much difference for him this season. Certainly not compared to Butler.
The Bulls a year removed from effectively breaking up their team in losing Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, discovered Wade and Rondo were not enough to elevate the team with Butler. The Bulls’ difference had to come with growth, and so it begins.
LaVine was ambiguous about when he might return, mentioning the typical nine to 12-month average recovery from ACL surgery. Rose was condemned in Chicago when he didn’t return nine months after the surgery. Perhaps the community realized its mistake. No one seemed to be angry LaVine said he’ll make sure he is fully ready before returning. Though reports are his tear was not nearly as severe as was Rose’s.
“I’m feeling really good,” said LaVine. “I’m attacking this injury like I do everything in life, working my butt off for it every day, in the gym and doing as much as possible. There’s always that base timeline of nine to 12 months with it. I feel like with my ability I’m able to come back early. But I really haven’t set a timetable for that. I’m very confident that I’ll come back better. This has given me time to work on my mental game, my strength and learn the game more. I have no fear at all coming back from this.
“I’m just here trying to do the best I can,” LaVine added. “I’m humble and very happy to come to a great franchise like this. Not everybody gets this opportunity. Growing up, I was a Space Jam fan. I know everything about Michael Jordan. I was talking to Pax, who knew him since before I was born. It’s a great opportunity and humbling and satisfying to be here in these colors and this city. I’m going to be safe (about recovery). That’s the main thing, always being safe. I always have to take care of myself and this franchise, as well. I’m going to do everything I can physically to get back. I’m the type of person that’s going to work my butt off to get there as fast as possible. I’m going to be ready when I am there.”
The relief and enthusiasm was like a sign on Hoiberg’s face.
For the first time as Bulls coach, he gets to coach a team aligned to his philosophy of the game: Speed, unselfish play, youth and aggression. Hoiberg has worked in Timberwolves management and still is close with the organization. He said Minnesota staff was effusive about LaVine.
“Zach is a guy that not many people have, the athletic skill set with his ability to get up and down the floor and shoot it from anywhere and then fit in with the guys we had in Denzel, Paul, Jerian, Cris and Bobby as well as some of the other veterans we have coming back,” Hoiberg said. “You look at last year, there were only five teams that played five players in their first and second year. The other four were Phoenix, Philadelphia. New York and Miami. We developed our young guys and made the playoffs and that was our goal last year, which we did accomplish. I know a lot of people in the Timberwolves organization from my time there. And the way that people just rave about his work ethic, about his daily approach, about the time he's spent in the gym, about how he's tackled this injury on a daily basis to get himself back on the court as soon as possible, it's unbelievable. He's got a high ceiling. Because of how athletic he is and the way he shoots the ball, he's still got a lot of room to grow. It's exciting when you have a guy who can get out and make highlight level plays above the rim and also shoot the ball five feet behind the three-point line. It's very exciting right now with this young group.”
Dunn after being the high riser at point guard in last year’s draft averaged just 3.8 points and shot 37.7 percent last season. Though there’s perhaps nothing more difficult than being a rookie point guard for the demanding Thibodeau, and with a team in which the offense was directed through LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. So Dunn was shaken, and he knew it. So he is reveling in the chance to reset as well.
“My rookie season, there were a lot of ups and downs, basically like a roller coaster ride,” Dunn said. “Playing under Tom, he helped me become a professional. He loves players that love to work. Tom really helped me be a pro. What I can bring to the Bulls is my tenacity on defense. I really take pride in my defense. I’m going to try to bring that over here and just interact with my new teammates. Get to know a lot of guys, their personalities. Come out here and try to prove every day. Just by being in the gym every day and showing my team that I’m committed to work hard and learn the game and buy into the system. That’s the biggest thing. To be able to do what you want to do, you have to build each and everybody’s trust. I think I’ll come in and be myself, let my personality show and show guys I’m willing to work with them.”
Similarly with Markkanen, who probably is the least ready to play of the three.
He just turned 20 last month and has been in the United States one year after playing at the U. of Arizona.
“Getting to watch Lauri these last couple days on film with his ability to stretch the floor and play both frontline positions is where this league is going,” said Hoiberg. “His ability to shoot, playmake and put the ball on the ground, he’s a sneaky athlete.”
So I had to ask about the big matzo ball hanging out there. Or with him being Finnish, a big kalakukko hanging out there. I’m sure it’s got something to do with herring.
You know: Seven foot white guy. White men can’t jump. Or can they? And are they tough enough?
He didn’t exactly stare me down, but I did detect an eye roll. Yeah, buddy, just wait!
“I know that stereotype is there, but I don’t include myself in that. I’m not soft,” Markkanen said. “I play hard. I see why everybody thinks it’s (going away) slowly, from players just coming from overseas and changing that.”
Which is true. You wouldn’t want to run into any Jokics or Steven Adams these days.
And this kid can really shoot. Really, really shoot. It gives the Bulls the ability to play a stretch center that would make Artis Gilmore flinch. Though Markkanen says for now it’s stretch four.
“I can play multiple positions,” he said. “That’s one of my strengths. Point guard is what I used to do at home. I started as a guard and last season played as a five. So I’m really comfortable doing both, defensively and offensively. I know the game is changing. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life; glad it’s going that way so I can fit.”
He admits he keeps hearing the Dirk Nowitzki comparison. “We have similarities,” he admitted. “Being tall, being able to shoot the ball. Put the ball on the floor.”
Markkanen wasn’t promising the results. No one can.
Though my one concern was he said he asked Brian Scalabrine about wearing his No. 24. My surprise wasn’t so much he didn’t mention Bill Cartwright winning three titles wearing that number or Reggie Theus making two All-Star teams. I never knew the Bulls actually gave Scalabrine a number.
LaVine took No. 8. It was Robin Lopez' number. LaVine had called and asked if he could buy it from him. Lopez told him to have it and enjoy. Stanford guys know of a lot of other numbers.
The Bulls can only hope.
“Obviously, Kris and Lauri have huge upside in terms of development,” said Paxson. “Zach's still a young guy. He's not even reached his prime yet. That's what's exciting. They're all really talented, they all have the work ethic that we want to see, and their prime is well in front of them. They have the opportunity to grow as basketball players and grow within the organization. That remains the most exciting part about this. That's where we're going to define what we're going to be as an organization.”
Dunn, Markkanen and Denzel Valentine likely will play for the Bulls’ summer league team starting games July 8 in Las Vegas. Cameron Payne and Paul Zipser likely will play in some games. Hey, back to back summer league championships? Got to start somewhere.
“I appreciate my time in Minnesota with those guys; those were my best friends,” said LaVine. “It taught me a lot, especially growing up as a 19-year-old and all the way to now, I'm only 22. I'm ready for it. I'm very humble. When it's time for me to get going, I'm going to come in here and work my butt off like I always do, going in with full confidence. I'm just extremely excited to get this ball rolling and see what we can do.”