The latest from the Bulls is the inauguration of a so called leadership committee to perhaps prevent issues like the multiple player and team meetings that occurred Sunday instead of practice that followed the historic 56-point loss to the Boston Celtics.
“We had a situation over the weekend that could’ve been handled by a leadership group walking into my office and saying, ‘You know what, Coach, this is how we feel today. What do you think?’ That was the teaching moment and the moment we built on this morning,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said before the team left for Mexico City to play the Orlando Magic Thursday. “We’ve got a good group of guys and a good leadership group that has a sparkling of the layers of our team. I’m juiced, man. I’m jacked up about it.”
Not to diminish the additional layer of player bureaucracy, but it also sounded like a chance for a really good guy, Zach LaVine, to begin to get out from under the latest avalanche of media and internet scrutiny, some unkind, that inevitably comes with controversy.
“We get talked about regardless,” said LaVine. “There's interviews every day. There's something different on Twitter every day. It doesn't bug me because I don't think of it as a big deal. I just think of it as something you have to go through as a team. Things like this happen in professional sports. It's not the first or last time it's going to happen with a team.”
It’s true that sports, politics and entertainment with its high profile celebrity and economics is a draw for anger and enmity, especially when things don’t go well, as it has been for the Bulls with the coaching change, losses and the recent player/coach interaction.
One talking point, not surprising in this era or any previous era, is that of the spoiled, selfish athlete who doesn’t want to work hard for his money. It’s the variation of, “I’d do that for free,” and “You could ask me to run down Michigan Avenue naked for that kind of money.”
As painful as that might be to the rest of us.
So the Bulls are going to work through this with some sort of player liaison group, which doesn’t necessarily mean Boylen won’t communicate with everyone individually. But if there is an incident like occurred following the Boston game it can be dealt with a bit more privately.
There probably won’t be, though Boylen had raised the possibility during Sunday’s talks, noting that the Spurs did something similar with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. This Bulls player group is said to include LaVine since he was most identified as one of the leaders of the meeting along with Justin Holiday, and the player who spoke up for teammates.
It’s perhaps appropriate since LaVine has the longest and largest contract after the Bulls matched a four-year deal last summer LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent.
“I’ve always been a leader in my own way,” said LaVine. “I think right now I’m trying to be more vocal. I’ve always been somebody that’s tried to lead by example, hard work and stuff like that. Try and go out there and play the best I can. There might be times you’re lazy or you have a play off or whatever, but I’m trying to work that down. But you can’t ever question how hard I work and how much the game means to me. I can say that I know I’m a natural leader, but there’s always things you can work on. I’m doing that now.’’
The 6-5 guard has been the team’s best player this season, averaging 23.8 points along with nearly five assists and five rebounds. And that with enduring a greater responsibility because of the injury absences until the past week of Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis.
Amidst the dark times of the staggering start, injuries and coaching change, LaVine along with rookie Wendell Carter Jr. has been a bright light among the players, always available to the media, upbeat and buoyant, friendly and cooperative. He’s been quick to joke and chat informally with media and staff and a player whom teammates seem to welcome.
But that sunny aura clearly darkened the last few days with the disagreement some associated with him because of his media availability. It can be the negative price of leadership.
LaVine reverted to smiling much less with shorter answers in more tense media sessions, at least until Tuesday morning. Though he, like other players in similar situations, was quick to dismiss any negative commentary, it clearly was bothersome.
LaVine has been one of the favorites of teammates, staff and media wherever he’s been. He’s by all accounts been a devoted son, loyal friend and welcome teammate. When the Bulls wanted to do one of their brilliant TV features on a player this summer, LaVine welcomed the crew and staff into his home as if they were family. He didn’t need the publicity or attention; he just wanted to help.
It seems to have hurt him even more that he was being targeted as a poster child for the spoiled athlete. LaVine has been the opposite, and certainly around the Bulls, humble, friendly and conversational, grateful to be playing in the NBA and for the Bulls.
“We both care a lot,” LaVine said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think he (Boylen) knows how competitive I am, and I put a lot of hard work into this. I know how much he cares as well. I can see his emotion and actually how much he cares, and that’s something we both have in common. You can go from there, but we both want what’s best for the team.’
“It’s tough; it’s an adjustment. New coach, new offense, new voice, new players coming back. It’s a lot of different things thrown at you, and you have to take that into account,” said LaVine. “But we’re the ones on the court, we’re the ones that are out there playing. So we have to adjust to that. We’re the professionals. You can’t say it’s an easy thing."
Though the players’ recalcitrance Sunday was regarded by some as the epitome of the spoiled athlete, it wasn’t LaVine or others leading some sort of insurrection. There were indications they weren’t even walking away from the work, but seeking some dialogue, which perhaps has led to this committee setup.
“I want the leadership group because they will have input on what we do and how we operate,” said Boylen. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not the head coach and they’re the players. But they’re going to be respected as men at this level.
“My door, of course, is always open for anybody,” Boylen explained. “It could be a family thing. It could be an ‘I don’t understand my role’ thing. A guy isn’t going to go to the leadership committee when he doesn’t understand his role. What I expect the leadership group to do is respect and honor the soul of the team. If they have any issues present them in the right way.
“I’m honoring what my ownership and management wants me to do,” Boylen insisted. “The great thing about it is it fits my personality. It fits what I believe in, that the game is bigger than all of us. We’ve got to take ownership of our behavior and our actions, be accountable for the things we do wrong and improve on the things we can. It fits right into my wheelhouse. It’s a blessing for me. I think it had to happen and we’re better for it.”
It would be just unfortunate if it all leads to a lesser opinion of LaVine.
He isn’t Michael Jordan or LeBron James. He isn’t always the best decision maker on offense or the best defender, and maybe he can’t be your best player even though he is trying to be. But he cares and he tries. And he’s got ample talent as a scorer and shooter, an elite athletic with a strong whiff of elan. He’s been swamped with defensive attention for two months amidst the turmoil and eagerly stood up for his teammates and responsibilities. He seems genuine and committed, and it’s obvious all of this is not who he is; and it hurts.
“What I’ve learned (about LaVine) is he has a big heart,” said Boylen. “He wants to be great. He wants to lead. He wants to take ownership. He wants to make plays at the end of the game. He wants to make his teammates better. And I have to help him do that. I have to help him in those teachable moments to grow in those areas. He’s done it at times and done it well. We’ve also had times we can do it better. That’s what my job is. I’m glad he’s here.”