Mutual respect tug of war between Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn shows conflict is coming


Mutual respect tug of war between Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn shows conflict is coming

Things are very polite in the Chicago Bulls locker room, but conflict is coming.

No matter whether Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton walks through that door to help this ailing team, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are due for some uncomfortable moments.

They both know it, too.

Someone will have to take the lead for the Bulls and a pecking order must be established. This isn't conflict that will lead to fisticuffs but competitiveness will overflow.

“It's gonna be a tug of war, a tug and pull between somebody,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com Monday night. “That's for us to figure out. It's either with somebody's play or mentality-wise; we have to be better with that.”

LaVine wants to take the reins.

"Can't be friends with everybody," LaVine said. "That's just the way it is sometimes."

He says he's ready.

"If you put anybody in that right mindset they can turn into that dude," LaVine said.

Even with a disaster like Monday where the Bulls were run out of the United Center by the Boston Celtics, down by as many as 37 points, everyone is still getting by under the cover of being a young team trying to find itself.

Friday’s win against Dallas, where LaVine, Dunn and Lauri Markkanen all made big shots late, is the outlier.

Expectations for all will rise next season, and with them some natural friction will develop. Right now, everybody’s being nice.

“We're young. Right now, nobody wants to step on each other's toes,” Dunn told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We're still learning how to win. Each and every game you gotta bring it.”

LaVine agreed, and said nobody has said a cross word to a teammate yet.

“We all take responsibility. We're in the huddles talking and encouraging each other,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. “It's gotta be more than that. It's gotta come from each person to police themselves and push themselves and hold themselves accountable.”

The usually affable LaVine was highly irritated by his own performance against Boston, when he went one-for-11, even airballing a wide-open corner three in the second half. Being unable to stop the Celtics from embarrassing the Bulls early was his biggest annoyance, but he said if this is March of 2019 and he's the established figure he expects to be.

"You have to be more vocal,” LaVine said. “You have to be more assertive. You have to be in that role. Whether I'm 1-12 or 10-12, I gotta be that dude to do that. Or somebody has to do that. There's no way you can be a contender or winning team without that type of personality.”

LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen have all surpassed the modest individual expectations coming into the season. None has intersected with the other.

LaVine wanted to get back on the floor, fully recovered from his ACL injury. Check.

Dunn wanted to wash away his dreadful rookie season and reclaim his pedigree as a top-five draft pick. Check.

Markkanen is a rookie who's still figuring out the NBA game but has surprised with his skill level and acclimation, particular amongst the team's early drama. Check.

Hence, the honeymoon period of the young team.

“I'm pretty sure you can't show me too many teams that have so much high talent that don't go through growing pains. It's tough,” Dunn said. “Trying to figure out how many touches people are gonna get, who's gonna be aggressive."

“I'm not worried about it. We have to keep bringing it every day. The harder you go, it settles itself out.”

While that’s true, it’s where head coach Fred Hoiberg’s job becomes a lot more difficult next season. He’ll have three guys, along with two first-round draft picks, looking to establish themselves further. Or in LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen’s case, looking for their place in the hierarchy of the franchise and the league.

“I don't worry about that. I don't get into that — who's the best player and all that,” Dunn said. “We all have to be leaders for this team. We have to be leaders in different ways. It's a matter of time to see how we jell out. Right now we just keep playing.”

The talent level between the three is obvious. The Bulls got it right on the Jimmy Butler trade, and Dunn and LaVine each have had a moment as the go-to guy late in games.

But remember, Dunn’s run in December — illustrated by his big game against the Utah Jazz where he lit up anybody defending him, yelling “(bleep) him! (bleep) him!” to nobody in particular after hitting a clinching jumper — occurred when LaVine was weeks away from his season debut.

And in LaVine’s signature moment — outdueling Butler in Chicago for a 35-point performance in early February—he was caught by cameras yelling, “This is my (bleep). This is my (bleep)” to a raucous crowd at the United Center — Dunn was out recovering from a concussion.

So while Hoiberg’s belief that playing together is important, what’s more critical is a level of mutual respect that won’t truly be established unless those uncomfortable moments happen.

“We're all grown men at the end of the day,” Dunn said. “If you can't take criticism for the better then this is not the sport for you. It's gonna come. I'm not worried about it. The coaches are doing a good job; they're gonna figure it out for us too.”

It feels as though the Bulls offense is equal-opportunity, which can lead to confusion and a general lack of internal accountability.

“It takes time,” Dunn said. “It's tough when there's so many talented players . … A lot of high talent who can score at any given moment. Get 20 at any given moment."

"You gotta find the balance."

Dunn plays the position most would define as one of leadership, and Hoiberg wants him to be more vocal.

Markkanen has the higher ceiling but is less likely to be vocal given his personality, and down the line will have the greatest mismatch for Hoiberg’s offense to exploit.

LaVine is the most accomplished of the three and will be rewarded with a long-term contract this summer, while also having an offseason when he won’t have to rehab.

He's also been waiting for his voice to carry considerable weight. Having played with No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, he admitted to being vocal but stopping himself given his lack of pedigree.

“In Minnesota I was a vocal guy, but I was just in a different role,” LaVine said. "But coming into this situation, I didn't play half the year. It's tough to do that. I'm not the type of dude to come in and control things. So I gotta let my play and my work speak for itself.”

Each player will eventually have the opportunity to make his case — on the court and off — to lead the Bulls.

“The season's too far ahead,” LaVine said. “We'll figure this (stuff) out in the summer. It comes out. I'm a very likable guy, but you can change your entire personality on the court.”

Conflict is coming, but hopefully it'll be constructive.

“It's gonna come,” Dunn said. “It comes. I've been on plenty of teams like this. It comes. We're young. We're not trying to step on each other's toes but eventually it will come.”

NBC Sports Chicago is on Apple News. Favorite us!

LeBron James' brilliance overpowers Denzel Valentine's career night for Bulls


LeBron James' brilliance overpowers Denzel Valentine's career night for Bulls

It look a little longer than perhaps LeBron James expected—or maybe not, given the recent woes from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But it happens in a flash—no matter if it is a fadeaway jumper, darting pass through multiple defenders or a swat into the third row for an unsuspecting Cameron Payne, who acted like he hadn’t seen James’ movies.

It took an almost Herculean effort from the game’s best player to put away a pesky Bulls team, 114-109 Saturday at the United Center. James was without several regulars, including Rodney Hood, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver—and his coach, Tyronn Lue, didn’t join the bench in the second half after getting ill.

The no-look passes, the easy drives to the basket, it’s hard to realize he’s playing in his 15th season but he’s at a level few can match, even if his team struggles to keep up.

Whatever he’s lost in athleticism, he’s gained in mastering the game and making sure it’s played at his pace.

Of course, we can quibble with his indifference to defense at times and make note of how that permeates to the rest of the team, as they let the Bulls back in way too many times.

But when you say that, it’s just as easy to see his passing makes his teams unselfish. The Cavs routinely swing the ball from a good shot to a great shot, even if it’s facilitated by James himself, as they had 25 assists on 44 field goals.

“Right now the game is effortless,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “LeBron wants to be a passer first and that’s where he was hurting us early. And then he got loose and got to the rim.”

James led them with 12 in addition to his 33 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes, and the Cavaliers needed every bit of his production as the Bulls emptied the reservoir with four of their five regular starters out.

“I just want to get healthy,” James said. “It’s unfamiliar territory for a lot of guys, going in and out the lineup and having six guys out…I think it was a good (road) trip for us.”

The Bulls were missing Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez for various reasons.

Denzel Valentine filled in admirably for a career night and luckily, didn’t throw a cringing behind-the-back pass to the expensive seats. Buoyed by a lax defense from the opposition, he led the Bulls with 34 points, seven rebounds and six assists, hitting eight of 11 from long range in 34 minutes.

If it wasn’t for a late foul on Jordan Clarkson when the Bulls improbably tied the game at 105 with 1:41 left, the Bulls would’ve made things very interesting. But he made contact with Clarkson in the corner and the Cavaliers took a four-point lead.

James got a steal on the next possession and hit a fadeaway to complete his night, his 15th triple-double of the season.

“As soon as I went in a little bit he threw it out there,” Valentine said of James. “And I went to close out and boom. It’s just a learning moment.”

Valentine has earned praise from Hoiberg for filling a leadership void while Lopez and Justin Holiday have taken a backseat due to the organization’s wishes to evaluate young players for the rest of the season.

In the meantime, Valentine hopes he’s proving to be a starter at this level, not just a plug-and-play role player.

“I believe I’m a starter in this league,” Valentine said. “I believe I can be an important piece of an NBA team. But whatever my role on the team is that they want me to do, the organization wants me to do, I’ll do. But personally, I believe I’m a starter and I can contribute in major ways. I just got to keep working and keep getting better.”

Whether he’s a fringe starter or valuable piece off the bench, Valentine has at least shown to develop a consistent jump shot—which in today’s game puts him as a fit on any team. Shooting 39 percent on the season means if the Bulls make him available this offseason, they will have callers.

“It just shows what I’m capable of,” Valentine said. “I believe in myself even when I’m out there playing bad. But I put the work in no matter what happens, if I’m playing well [or], if I’m playing bad.”

His fearlessness, along with Bobby Portis and Cameron Payne, pulled the Bulls back from the brink after the Cavaliers took a 17-point lead before halftime.

Sixteen of his points came in the third, sending the United Center into a frenzy despite the fact a loss would be more beneficial for the franchise considering the New York Knicks destroyed the Charlotte Hornets, paving the way for the Bulls to slide back into eighth in the lottery standings.

Payne did his best to undermine the tank, with a career-high 10 assists go to with 13 points on five of 11 shooting. Portis was solid with 15 points and 15 rebounds, but had a late dunk blocked by Jeff Green.

And combined with Antonio Blakeney getting his shots up anytime he touched the ball, including on fast breaks when the Bulls had multiple-man advantages, just enough was done to give the Cavs the necessary room to end their 13-day road trip on a high note.

“We’ve got a lot of guys in positions they haven’t been in all year,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Cam was unbelievable pushing the pace, especially early in the game.”

Green added 21 and Clarkson came off the bench to score 19. All can thank James for their night—along with a fan he threw his armband to afterward, who was left in tears.

And had the Bulls actually won this game, both James and the Bulls fans would’ve been in tears.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Should the Bulls consider Trae Young?


Bulls Talk Podcast: Should the Bulls consider Trae Young?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Vincent Goodwill, and Kendall Gill discuss the concern over Zach Lavine’s inconsistent play, plus is it smart for the Bulls to offer him a max contract? Kendall also explains why the Bulls need to be careful not to lowball Lavine, like the Hornets did with him early in his career. Plus the trio discuss the early exit for Oklahoma and Trae Young. He’s likely to be there when the Bulls make their first pick, should they take him? And Vincent shares who the consensus top 5 picks are after talking with several NBA talent evaluators.