Zach and Lauri. They were supposed to the next great duo for the Bulls. Perhaps not MJ and Scottie, but at least The Jet and Butter, the slashing, scoring, brash Zach LaVine and the accurate, cerebral and committed Lauri Markkanen, the two primary players to reconstruct the Bulls in wake of the Rose, Butler Noah era. Either could be Mr. Outside. Both got inside. Zach with his dash and Lauri with his dimensions. The Bulls' new Butch and Sundance, ham and eggers with the variety and chill of Ben and Jerry's.
But three years later, the Bulls high scoring guard and Finnish seven footer began Bulls training camp Tuesday as a mystery for the likes of Holmes and Watson.
Despite becoming one of the NBA's elite scorers, LaVine's name comes up in Bulls trade speculation—if not from anyone within the organization—perhaps more than any because of the team's losing records the last few years as LaVine averaged 25-points per game with a relatively modest stars' contract for this era. Markkanen's future as a Bull, and perhaps even as an NBA player, is debated even more following his poorest season as a pro in 2019-20, fellow top players from his 2017 draft class signing $100 million contract extensions while his status with the organization is debated.
Both met with media members Tuesday morning via Zoom, the vehicle for basically all interviews this pandemic season, and both, as expected in that optimistic time before anyone loses a game, expressed confidence in the season ahead and their futures with the Bulls.
"I understand the business of basketball," LaVine said. "But at the end of the day anybody can get traded on any team and anybody can go anywhere just like injuries can happen to everybody. As long as I'm on this team, I'm going to continue to (add) my input and try to be a leader and show what type of guy I am and what my value is. If something happens, it happens. I understand that. I got traded here from Minnesota. Things happen. But while you're on this team you have to be all in. I've been all in since the first day I've been here. I really like Chicago. But if something were to happen, I'm not a resentful person. I understand the business of basketball and I keep moving forward."
Similarly, Markkanen, who tends to be less expressive and revealing than LaVine, said he doesn't dwell on the possibility of a contract extension (Basketball operations chief Arturas Karnisovas said later in the day The Bulls would "make every effort" to retain Markkanen and liked him as part of the organization).
Markkanen said he is gently pushing his representatives to work something out. Which may be a conundrum for the new management: Get the so called home town discount with Markkanen coming off a poor season? Which impacts the team's available money for free agency next summer. Or play it out and allow Markkanen to become a restricted free agent and risk a recovery season when he was being compared with the top players from his class like Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell? And then perhaps end up paying tens of millions of dollars more, which happened with Butler.
"Obviously, I see the other guys getting (extensions). But I'm not worried about that," said Markkanen. "I'm going into the season with high expectations no matter what happened last year and I'm really motivated to get out there and perform at a high level. I check in every now and then (with my agents). But like I said it's not something I think of. I don't want to put too much effort, too much energy thinking about things I can't control. Of course he kind of keeps me in the loop. I don't know what's going to happen. Hopefully, they're going to come to an agreement. I can't say how likely that is. But like I've said before, I really want to be here for the long term. So I'm putting some pressure on my agent to get it done."
It's perhaps as much or more pressure on the new Bulls management led by Karnisovas and Marc Eversley.
The roster remains essentially unchanged from last season's prematurely terminated 22-43 season in which the Bulls were even omitted from the restart games in Orlando. It was a substantial setback and humiliation that eventually resulted in a massive franchise reorganization with a new management team, new coaching staff, new scouts and new trainer.
With contracts locked in that exceeded the salary cap and reduced value for the players because of the losing season and league mandated second class citizen status for the franchise, the Bulls were not able to make trades or add a substantial free agent. They drafted a promising player, Patrick Williams, but second youngest in an already exceptionally young draft class. The Bulls also added a veteran shooting guard free agent reserve, Garrett Temple, and filled out their two-way G-league contracts with speedy point guard Devon Dotson.
So essentially the same starting five from last season—with the addition of 2019 rookie Coby White—which limped through the distress and discord figures to start again, led by LaVine and Markkanen with Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr.
All have much to prove to both themselves and management: Can White be both facilitator and scorer as a point guard? Can Porter recover from two years of injuries and return to the form that made him a $100 million player? Can Carter also swat the injury bug and become a force in the middle?
Their Bulls futures, especially for Porter and Carter, also rest with this season's performances.
Though perhaps none more than LaVine and Markkanen because of how much they were supposed to mean.
And it did seem like it would work.
The seven foot Markkanen, a smooth shooter, exploded into the NBA as a sensation, by his second season showing bursts of brilliance like the run of five games of at least 30 points in three weeks with double figure rebounds in almost every one. He tip toed close to a 20/10 season with a domination of touted Kristaps Porzingis in Madison Square Garden in an exciting two seasons.
Then came the collapse of last season with the uncertainty with the coaching staff, his role and again injuries. He faded to the perimeter and mostly stood around, unclear if the often taciturn Markkanen had given up or given in. Yet still just 23.
"I'm the guy who always looks in the mirror first before complaining. So I've been trying to look at what went wrong and I've been trying to stay even more active on the floor and involved and moving a lot without the ball, make myself available," said Markkanen. "Early in the season I wasn't making shots. So I'm not nervous about that. That's going to keep coming from the confidence I have with the work I put in. That's the biggest thing I've been looking at, how to stay more active and be on the move on the floor.
"Like I said I can't control what we do on that coaching side and what kind of plays we are running and stuff. I'm just looking at myself and I think I wasn't as active as I should have been," Markkanen conceded. "I'm looking at that. Of course there were some times we'd talk about it with Jim (Boylen, former coach) and how we use me and run some plays for me. I'm looking at myself."
So is LaVine in a different way.
He did everything to be called an All-Star but make the team.
The 25-year-old 6-5 guard was among the league leaders in scoring at more than 25 per game and shot 38 percent on threes despite being constantly double teamed with so many teammates injured. LaVine averaged more than four assists and four rebounds as one of the game's more versatile players as an All-Star slam dunk contest winner and last year three-point contest participant.
But there are no accolades when you play for a losing team even if LaVine is far more talented than many who were named All-Stars. He just never had the right guy to stand next to.
So does that make him a Robin to the missing Batman? It didn't hurt Pippen's career or reputation.
LaVine's talent and reputation has been diminished by the lack of team success, which obviously gnaws at his competitive nature. But chicken or egg? Is it because of him or because of the others?
"I think I did a good job last year, just like I thought I did a good job the year before," LaVine said. "I think I've made strides. I think I did a lot of things right. But the main goal is to win games. So that's the main thing I'm trying to continue to get better at. With the attention I bring on offense, I can continue to be a better playmaker and a better defender. I'm one of the most athletic guys in the league; there's no reason I shouldn't be somebody to go out and be a (defensive) stopper. I think I've shown flashes of that. I just want to continue to show it and help winning basketball. Because when you win games, it helps everybody throughout the whole organization. I know individually I'll be able to take care of myself. I've always been somebody to go out there and try to put the team on my back, but I just want to be able to help the team win as well.
"I don't do this to be a regular guy," LaVine added. "I don't take my body to exhaustion just to be a role player or something. I want to be great in this league. So to be great you have to make your team better and you have to go to the playoffs and play winning games. I haven't gotten that part of my career yet and it sucks. For somebody that wants to be at that caliber or that stage, being traded here I wanted to bring the team back to the glory days and get toward that stature again. I work my ass off to get there and hopefully I continue to make the city proud, my family proud and go out there and do what I have to do."
It began Tuesday with individual workouts and regular testing for the virus. It will be a challenge for the NBA with plans to start the season Dec. 22 and regular travel. Media will not be at practices or arenas, for the most part, with all interactions with players this season by video sessions. So individual caution will be a priority and will hang over every team all season.
Teams can begin scrimmages by this weekend and then start exhibition games Dec. 11.
"I think everyone is glad to have the season back and having our job back, our livelihood," said LaVine. "We just pretty much have to be safe and continue to wear masks, wash our hands, stay distant and take responsibility off the court as well. Knowing where you're at and who you're around, just being safe so that we can continue this process of getting the season going. I was upset that we didn't make the bubble. It was really good to see basketball back and moving on, but it was really tough to just sit there and watch and not be a part of it.
"Obviously not playing with fans is going to be different for everybody that's played in the NBA before," LaVine noted. "It's always been an entertainer's game and hopefully if we don't have fans we can still provide that type of excitement for our fans. If we do [have fans] we just have to be safe and the fans have to know that we have to keep our distance, not just for you but for everybody to stay safe. I think it's going to be tough for everybody that was off for those games and people that weren't in the bubble just because you haven't played basketball in almost a year. I've been working out. Usually your first two years you look forward to preseason and then after that, you just to hurry up and get to the regular season. I think this might be the first time in a couple years that you're looking forward to preseason games."
The Bulls will play four preseason games, two each at home and on the road against Houston and Oklahoma City. It thus begins not only the hope—though no one wants to talk about it as much as last season's media day—and the chance to compete for the playoffs. Though especially the evaluation of this group of players and who will be part of of the franchise's future.
It looked like it would be the Zach and Markkanen show three years ago. Could it still be?