CHICAGO — Zach LaVine has been active for the Chicago Bulls for 11 games so far, his 2017-18 season off to a tardy start due to the intrusion of surgery and 11 months of rehab work on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
As far as a lot of Bulls and NBA fans are concerned, though, his comeback began an instant before LaVine got the ball in the second quarter of Monday’s game at Sacramento and ended moments later to Jakarr Sampson’s extreme dismay.
With time running down late in the period, LaVine turned the left corner on the Kings’ Garrett Temple and exploded toward the rim. Sampson, leaving his man to help, arrived late and paid a poster-worthy price. Wham! Bulls TV analyst Stacy King’s narration of the play and several replays can take us from here:
“Stop it, Sampson! He didn’t come for the massage, he came for the facial! Oh my goodness. Why, Sampson, why! I think he didn’t remember that Zach LaVine is a dunk contest winner. … Look at Sampson, Sampson’s upset. You know, when you get dunked on, you want to push somebody.
“Why even jump? … He’s back, ladies and gentlemen.”
Easier said than done, for both LaVine’s statement dunk and the comeback that dragged on with an indefinite return date and no guaranteed result from the moment the 22-year-old wing went down in Detroit last Feb. 4.
LaVine – who switched teams from Minnesota to Chicago while rehabbing, via the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night last June – wasn’t as wowed by the West Coast moment as folks who knew him mostly from the highlights and his reputation as a two-time Slam Dunk champ (2015 in New York and 2016 in Toronto).
“It’s just another play to me because I don’t have to think about it,” LaVine told NBA.com in a conversation this week. “I went into the [rehab] process knowing that, I’m a pretty mentally tough kid. So I got over the ‘scared’ factor. To me, it was just another dunk. Ha!”
Even LaVine had to laugh at making the remarkable sound mundane. His leaping ability and in-air maneuvering appear to deny, not just defy, gravity. Did before the injury, and do again.
Whatever happens is going to happen. I have no fear in that.”
Bulls’ Zach LaVine
“But I was more in tune with the game than anything,” he said. “I don’t see it from the outside, from the fans’ perspective where, ‘Oh, Zach dunked on somebody again.’ To me, it was two points and I went on to the next play. I feel like it gives other people confidence, but I already had the confidence.”
Chicago’s trip to face the Trail Blazers, the Clippers and the Kings was notable for LaVine because the fourth-year wing averaged 23.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals, while making 10 of his 18 3-pointers and shooting 46.9 percent overall. After returning in the Bulls’ 43rd game on Jan. 13 on a tight 20-minute leash, LaVine played 31 minutes in each of the past two games.
Heading into Friday’s home game against the Timberwolves (9:30 ET on ESPN) – a big return game for the Wolves’ Butler and Taj Gibson but emotional for LaVine too, given the Minnesota roots to his career – he’s happy with what he knows is a progression, not some isolated highlight.
“It’s about getting back into the flow of things,” LaVine said. “It’s inconsistency. You haven’t played in NBA games in almost a year, so you can’t simulate your legs being fatigued the way they get. It’s a matter of getting back into it and learning to be OK with sometimes struggling at points to get you better.”
Only a handful of players have won more than once the Slam Dunk contest that began at the 1984 All-Star Weekend. Two are legends: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Three are footnotes: Harold Miner, Jason Richardson and Nate Robinson.
LaVine wants to wind up closer to the former than to the latter, when the story of his career is complete. The Bulls want that, too, since they’ll be the ones most likely to pay him after he hits restricted free agency this summer.
One fellow who knows LaVine and his game well believes he’s a sound investment.
“I think Zach has All-Star potential. I really do,” said Sam Mitchell, who coached LaVine in his first two NBA seasons, first as a Minnesota assistant, then as a hurried replacement when Flip Saunders died in October 2015. “I think he has the chance to be one of the best two guards in the league.
“He’s got unlimited range shooting. He’s a gym rat, he loves working on his game. He loves getting better. I’ve got nothing but high praise for Zach and obviously the Bulls feel the same way or they wouldn’t have traded Jimmy Butler for him.”
LaVine, Butler have one thing in common
In so many ways, LaVine and Butler hardly could be more different.
LaVine comes from a solid, athletic family background, his father Paul a former USFL and NFL replacement linebacker and his mother C.J. a softball player. Butler was tossed out of his own home in Tomball, Texas, as a teenager, by a mother overwhelmed in raising him.
LaVine went to UCLA, one of college basketball’s most celebrated institutions, and managed to turn the attention he got in one season as a reserve there into a legitimate shot at the NBA. Butler spent one year at Tyler (Texas) Community College, which earned him the right to be a near-nobody again the next year at Marquette.
LaVine was a lottery pick, No. 13 in 2014, a reach by a coach/president of basketball operations who nonetheless handed him game opportunities to learn. Butler just snuck into the first round in 2011, and had to earn grudging minutes from a coach predisposed to dismiss rookies.
LaVine has made his name in the league courtesy of the Slam Dunk contest, unsheathed a blistering 3-point shot last season before he got hurt and still needs remedial work on the defensive end. Butler pushed into former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation with his defense, grew his game one facet at a time and plugged his way to what will be his fourth All-Star Game Feb. 18 in Los Angeles.
The two men, however, do have one particular thing in common: they are, as it’s so indelicately put in this game, gym rats.
Which is to say, what cheese is to the rodent world, hardwood is to guys like LaVine, Butler and a million others who love them some basketball. The irony is that, while gym rats are easy to spot at YMCAs and in rec leagues, they’re much more rare at the NBA level.
It’s like the rest of us; once your passion becomes your job, it’s sometimes hard to keep it as your passion.
Now imagine forcefully separating the rat from his pack.
“It’s terrible,” LaVine said of the early months of rehab, where he wasn’t allowed to practice even the most rudimentary basketball skills. “It was terrible. That was the hardest thing for me, dealing with that. But it’s the best thing for you at the time, because you can’t be putting too much stress on [the leg]. So you work on your body in different ways and you try to better yourself, and keep your mind working.”
The one-year anniversary of LaVine’s injury passed without celebration but without incident, too, a normal NBA day in Sacramento between road games.
Normal, of course, is good compared to what came before.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” LaVine said of his rehabilitation regimen, split between Minnesota, Los Angeles and finally Chicago. “It takes a long time. And especially when you’re injured in the middle of a season – that’s why I feel for KP [Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis] right now, having a great year. I said some words to him on Twitter.”
Porzingis’ season ended Tuesday when the ACL in his left knee ruptured Tuesday. He’s now on the LaVine track and the track of so many other ACL survivors, an NBA fraternity of which no one wants to be a member.
“Me and Jabari [Parker, Milwaukee’s two-time ACL patient] talked,” LaVine said. “Jamal Crawford is one of my good friends, Nate Robinson, and they both had one. Ricky Rubio had one. So I talked to a lot of guys that knew about it personally and they helped me get through little things that were tough.
“I think everybody does it differently. Whatever works for them is the best. But you’ve just got to attack it. You’ve got to go into it with the right mindset. You can’t be ‘poor me’ or anything like that. It’s a really messed-up injury but the way technology is now and how driven us athletes are, you come back better.
Many trainers and coaches, going on experience, believe that the first full season after an ACL victim’s comeback is when they’re fully, finally “back.” But so far, so good, says LaVine, claiming no concessions at all to the injury.
“I’ve got my same explosiveness. Same quickness,” he said. “I got a little bit stronger and grew my game a little bit.”
Crawford, who has known LaVine since he was in high school as members of Seattle’s tight basketball community, is a close friend (in spite of a wicked prank pulled for a late-night talk show).
The veteran NBA scorer, now with Minnesota, said he never doubted LaVine would work his way all the way back.
“When it happened, I was one of the first people to text him,” Crawford said Wednesday after Minnesota’s game in Cleveland. “People around the league always feel bad for their brothers when they first go down. But he was probably the most positive. He got back to me: ‘Nah, I’ll be back. No problem.’”
‘Trade that worked for both’
It figures to be Butler’s night at United Center. Butler’s and Gibson’s and even Thibodeau’s, the three former Bulls favorites reunited in the Twin Cities. They are bound to end the Timberwolves franchise’s 13-year playoff drought, the NBA’s longest.
The Bulls? Not so much. They’re about to renew one, missing the postseason for only the third time in the past 14 seasons. A lot of their customers are cranky about it, too, unconvinced about the rebuilding embraced ever so eagerly John Paxson and Gar Forman in the front office and coach Fred Hoiberg.
LaVine said he won’t take personally any love lavished on the former Bulls, even though he’s linked by trade to Butler.
“They deserve a standing ovation,” he said. “Dudes who spent how many years here? They put hard work and dedication into the team and into the city just like we’re going to do. So I expect nothing less than a big ovation for those guys.”
The trade that shipped Butler and the Bulls’ No. 16 pick in the first round to Minnesota (Creighton center Justin Patton) delivered LaVine, guard Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick (Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen) to the Bulls. No one doubted Butler would have an impact on the Wolves – he’s an alpha dog brought in to show his young teammates how to win, how to not back down.
The other side of the ledger was more of an unknown, given Dunn’s disappointing rookie season, Markkanen’s slim frame and NBA unfamiliarity, and LaVine’s injury. But the first two have shown plenty to Chicago – Dunn playing like the Rookie of the Year favorite he was supposed to be last season, Markkanen demonstrating a feathery 3-point shot as well as grit in the paint. That leaves LaVine, who no longer carries the burden to make the trade successful but doesn’t want to be the laggard either.
“This is one of the rare instances where there’s a trade that worked for both,” said Mitchell, who works now as a studio analyst for NBA TV and in Toronto where he coached from 2004-2008. “Jimmy Butler obviously is a good player – Minnesota got a veteran guy who can lead them to the playoffs. But Chicago got three, young talented players who are going to be starters for them. And out of the three, one or two of them is going to make a copule of All Star teams.”
Said Thibodeau, who made the deal as both Wolves coach and president of basketball operations: “Both teams, we just happened to fit each other. What we were looking for, what they were looking for, we matched up. Jimmy has transformed our organization, just from going from where we were to winning, which I think is the most important statistic there is. And then Chicago, they had a great run and thought it was time to reset, and they’re well on their way.”
LaVine shrugged off the suggestion that he faces less pressure to balance out the trade, based on Markkanen’s and Dunn’s play so far. And Mitchell knew he would.
“Zach don’t think like that,” Mitchell said. “He just loves playing ball, man. He’s not thinking it and I’m glad he doesn’t. Sometimes young players get traded and they hear people praising them or talking about big plans, they lose focus on their growth and development. All Zach cares about is winning and getting better.
“I told him when he got traded, ‘This is a good move for you.’ He said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because in Minnesota, you were always going to be the third wheel [behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins]. In Chicago, they don’t have a pecking order. So if you go in and prove that you’re ‘that guy,’ you’re going to be ‘that guy.’ Or one of ‘those guys.’
Said LaVine about facing his pals from Minnesota (Dunn remains out while recovering from a January concussion): “I’ve just got on a different uniform now. We still have the same friendships. But it’s game time. I played there for three years, so I think there will be a lot of competition. A lot of trash talking, and some fun as well. But people who will try to evaluate who got a good trade out of one game really aren’t basketball people.”
LaVine also won’t let himself feel rushed to cram a season’s worth of achievement into 29 games. He won’t necessarily be negotiating this summer from a position of strength in restricted free agency, but between his ongoing potential and established work habits, he believes business will take care of itself. Most likely right where he’s at in Chicago.
“Whatever happens is going to happen. I have no fear in that,” LaVine said. “It’s unfortunate I had the injury. I was in a good spot in Minnesota, the team was picking it up at that time. But that’s part of the game – injuries happen – and one way or another, I’ll get a contract sooner or later. That doesn’t worry me at all. I know my play and my hard work and dedication will take care of that.
“I’m working my butt off every day to play that out. I think I’m gonna be fine and the team’s gonna be fine.”
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