NBA Buzz: LaVine already showing All-Star potential and other league takeaways


NBA Buzz: LaVine already showing All-Star potential and other league takeaways

It's been interesting to hear and read the reactions of many Bulls fans worried about Zach LaVine's inconsistent play at the outset of his return from 11 months of rehab following ACL surgery. So many people pointed to his poor shooting percentage and questioned his shot selection and commitment on the defensive end. Forget the fact he hadn't played against NBA competition for almost a year and was trying to adjust to new teammates halfway through a season.

Well, how do you like Zach now?

Over his last five games, LaVine is averaging around 25 points while shooting 46 percent from the field and the 3 point line. He also has emerged as the team's closer, scoring the Bulls' last 11 points in the thrilling win over Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves last week, then coming up with a late steal and breakaway dunk in the closing seconds to give the Bulls a win over Orlando on Monday.

Clearly, LaVine was the centerpiece of last summer's draft night trade sending Butler to Minnesota. He was coming into his own as an NBA player in his 3rd season with the Timberwolves before the ACL injury, averaging nearly 19 points a game as the team's third scoring option, while improving his 3 point shooting to right around 39 percent. There's no way Tom Thibodeau would have included LaVine in the Butler deal if he hadn't suffered the injury.

Now, the Bulls are able to center their rebuild around the talents of the 3 players they acquired from Minnesota. LaVine turns 23 next month, Kris Dunn turns 24 on March 18th, and Lauri Markkanen is only 20. Dunn has emerged as a quality NBA point guard whose defensive skills and toughness bring out the best in his teammates and the 7-foot Markkanen could be a future All-Star with his smooth shooting stroke and versatile offensive game.

Still, even after just a 13-game sample size, it's clear LaVine is the player that figures to shine brightest on the NBA stage. The two-time slam dunk champion hasn't lost any of that explosive leaping ability and he has the charisma and self-confidence necessary to accept the responsibility of being "the man" in a major market like Chicago. Going head to head with Butler down the stretch of a close game shows LaVine won't back down from a challenge and isn't afraid of his team's fate resting on his shoulders.

With the Eastern Conference struggling to produce 12 All-Star worthy candidates this season, LaVine and Markkanen could inject themselves into that conversation as soon as next year. Yes, the Bulls traded a top 15 player to Minnesota, and Butler's arrival in the Twin Cities helped that franchise end a 13-year playoff drought. But the first big move in a rebuild can determine just how long the process will last, and it's already clear LaVine will be worth the near max level contract he signs with the Bulls this summer.

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Another reality in today's NBA landscape became apparent in the hours leading up to the February 8th trade deadline. Teams willing to take on money can get a lot accomplished.

The Cavaliers completely transformed their roster because much-maligned owner Dan Gilbert was willing to increase his already astronomical luxury tax bill. Make no mistake about it, the trade with the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. was all about money (and getting rid of Isaiah Thomas, who was a horrible fit in Cleveland both on the court and off). The Cavs were willing to take on the remaining years of Clarkson's contract, giving the Lakers the cap space they need to make a run at major free agents (including LeBron James) over the next two summers.

Similarly, Sacramento had instant buyer's remorse after giving veteran point guard George Hill a three-year, $51 million contract last summer, so the Kings were more than happy to send him on to Cleveland getting only Joe Johnson (immediately waived) and Iman Shumpert in return.

And, if you're wondering why Utah would send away promising swing-man Rodney Hood in the three-team deal while getting only Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose (immediately waived) in return, the answer is again money. The Jazz were fearful of what kind of contract Hood might command as a restricted free agent this summer, so they settled for the cost-certainty of the under-achieving Crowder, who has one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league.

So, by exploiting the financial concerns of three different franchises, the Cavs were able to turn an old, unathletic bench group into a young and hungry unit ready and willing to do whatever LeBron wants. And, Hill gives Cleveland a reliable veteran point guard who's no stranger to the pressure of playoff competition and can be a plus defender when motivated.

Just like that, the Cavs are once again the team to beat in the East and they just might be able to convince James to spend the rest of his career with his home-state franchise. Give credit to Gilbert and first-year general manager, Koby Altman, but really, it's all about the money.


While we count down the days until Round 4 between the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, Golden State coach Steve Kerr came up with a unique way to get his bored defending champions a little more invested in the regular season grind. Kerr decided to hand the clipboard over to his players, and let them coach the team during a meaningless Monday night game against Phoenix.

Kerr explained, "It had to do with me reaching my team. I have not reached them for the last month. They're tired of my voice. I'm tired of my voice. It's been a long haul these last few years and I wasn't reaching them, and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different. I thought the players responded really well. I just feel like when we're focused, we are really tough to beat, and tonight we were focused. And I think just having to count on each other, and not hearing my voice -- which sort of sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher or parent or whoever's voice that is. At this point, that's what I sound like to them. So, they needed a different voice."

Kerr's motivational trick obviously worked. Golden State handed the awful Suns their fourth loss of the season by 40 points or more, 129-83. And veteran forward Jared Dudley summed up the state of basketball in Phoenix, where the Suns have lost 11 of their last 12 games. "It shows a lack of respect for an opponent, and maybe right now we don't deserve respect," Dudley told ESPN. "When you keep getting beat by 40, teams won't respect you. But it's up to us to change that."

Or not. After all tank season is in full effect, and it's quite a race among the bottom 8 teams.


Since the NBA moved the trade deadline ahead of All-Star weekend, this is the first season teams will have more time to analyze potential buyout targets before the March 1st deadline for playoff eligibility.

Boston added big man Greg Monroe to strengthen their second unit, while the Rockets are poised to sign both veteran Joe Johnson and shot blocker Brandan Wright for the stretch run and playoffs.

Atlanta bought out former Bulls guard Marco Belinelli, who signed with the 76ers.

But we're still waiting to find out where Derrick Rose will land. After being waived by Utah, Rose isn't exactly finding a robust market for his services. There had been initial reports about Thibodeau being interested in signing his former star point guard to play a back-up role behind Jeff Teague, but that would mean taking Tyus Jones out of the rotation. Washington was reportedly interested, but now the Wizards are considering bringing Ty Lawson back from China to take over the point guard minutes available because of injuries to John Wall and Tim Frazier.

Remember when Rose left the Cavs for a few weeks earlier this season to ponder his NBA future? It's possible the league will make that decision for him. The youngest MVP in NBA history is only 29.

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Finally, back to Steve Kerr's decision to let his players make the coaching decisions Monday night against Phoenix. Kerr had a quick conversation with Suns' coach Jay Triano after the final buzzer, explaining he didn't mean to be disrespectful, which brought this response from Triano in his post-game media session.

"I noticed their plays were a little better out of timeout tonight." "Nah, I didn't have a problem with what Steve did."

Probably a good idea for Triano to keep his options open. The interim head coach figures to be looking for a new job at the end of the season.

Bulls make history for 3-point futility in loss to Knicks


Bulls make history for 3-point futility in loss to Knicks

It was a bad night for the Bulls from beyond the arc. That's putting it lightly, seeing as it was perhaps their worst 3-point performance under Hoiberg and, for volume's sake, one of the worst in NBA history.

Let's try to break it down with the numbers, beginning with the raw ones: The Bulls shot 3 of 30 (10%) from 3-point range in their 110-92 loss to the Knicks. Those three makes all came from bench players (Bobby Portis, Noah Vonleh, Antonio Blakeney). Their starters were an incredible 0-for-19 from beyond the arc. The reserves looked like the Rockets in comparison, going a blistering 3-for-11.

The Bulls began the game missing their first eight 3-point attempts in the first quarter, then another to begin the second quarter. Vonleh broke the skid with a triple, making the Bulls 1-for-10. The Bulls missed their next two triples before Portis splashed home his only deep make of the night. The Bulls were then 2-for-13. They finished the second quarter 2-for-12, and the first half 2-for-20.

They somehow managed to attempt just two 3-pointers in the third quarter, both misses. Then they missed their first two attempts of the fourth quarter before Blakeney's triple with 8:00 left in the fourth quarter. It'd be the last triple the Bulls made - they missed their final five attempts.

OK, got that all? It wasn't pretty. Here's how not pretty it was, dating back to 1983-84 (major shoutout to Basketball Reference for having these stats available):

-- Prior to tonight, only three teams in NBA history had attempted 30 or more 3-pointers and made less than 10 percent of them. The Bulls are now the fourth.

1. 2016 Rockets: 3 of 35 (8.6%)
2. 2017 Nets: 3 of 33 (9.1%)
3. 2018 Suns: 3 of 32 (9.4%)
4. 2018 Bulls: 3 of 30 (10.0%)

-- The 10% shooting from 3 was the second worst performance from deep under Hoiberg.

1. 2016 vs. Warriors: 1 of 20 (5%)
2. 2018 at Knicks: 3 of 30 (10%)
3. 2016 vs. Heat: 1 of 8 (12.5%)
4. 2016 at Pistons: 2 of 15 (13.3%)

And to put it all in perspective, the Bulls' 3 of 30 shooting from deep was nearly twice as bad as Pistons center Andre Drummond's career 3-point field goal percentage: 5 of 26 (19.2%).

Not great, Bob. But for the tanking crowd, it was a helluva night.

NBA Buzz: Big summer ahead for Bulls' young foundation players


NBA Buzz: Big summer ahead for Bulls' young foundation players

Even though the Bulls front office is hoping for the best possible draft position in June, the last thing John Paxson, Gar Forman and the coaching staff wanted to see was a prolonged absence for young foundation players Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.

Because of injuries and LaVine's ACL rehab, they had only played four games together before the All-Star break. So, when Paxson met the media after the break, he said the primary goal for the remainder of the season would be to try to build chemistry between the three, and all of them could expect to play 30-35 minutes a game to start that process.

I had a chance to sit down with LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen last week at the Advocate Center to do a feature interview for Bulls Pre-Game Live, and the players conceded their on-court chemistry is still a work in progress.

LaVine told me, "We're getting better day to day with it. Rome wasn't built in a day, that's what I keep saying. It's going to be tough getting everything down perfect, just like, championship teams weren't built in one day, one season, so we're building towards that, but each and every game we're getting more comfortable with each other."

Second year point guard Dunn added, "It's slowly going to come, like I said before we're all competitors so we're going to find a way to make it happen, but at the same time we're young, we're trying to find our way individually, and then, we've got to try to figure out how we can do it collectively. Once we do that, we'll get this thing rolling."

Unfortunately, all three are currently sidelined. Dunn suffered a sprained toe in last week's game in Memphis, while Markkanen is dealing with another bout of back spasms, and LaVine is experiencing some soreness in his surgically repaired knee. None of the injuries are considered serious, and the hope is they'll be able to resume their on-court chemistry project very soon.

Still, the summer ahead will be crucial for all three players as they try to take the next step from intriguing prospects to potential NBA All-Stars. LaVine can't wait to get back to work after missing 11 months of game competition following his ACL surgery.

"You've got to work to improve your game each summer" LaVine told me. "I think that's where NBA players make the biggest jump is in the off-season. You get your experience through the season, you build on what you want, and you go back and evaluate it. Me personally, that's where I put a lot of my work in. Obviously, last year, I didn't get a summer so I'm really looking forward to it. Me and Kris talk all the time, this is going to be a big summer, we're going to make a big jump, there's not going to be any messin' around. We're going to go to work."

Markkanen says he's hoping the Bulls three young stars can continue to develop their chemistry over the final three weeks of the regular season, but he knows the importance of continuing to put in the work over the summer.

"I think it's going to be a good summer for all of us. Personally for me, just the first summer in quite a while not having too many national team games and actually having time to work on my craft, so I'm look forward to it."

The players know expectations will rise next season with Bulls fans looking for the emerging "Big 3" to lead their favorite team back to the playoffs. It's a challenge all three men embrace. Dunn sees the championship banners hanging at the United Center, and hopes it won't be long before the Bulls are contending again. 

"We all showed flashes of what we can do individually and what we can do collectively. As far as chasing banners, we know how much hard work it is, it's definitely not going to be easy. There are so many good teams out there that you gotta be on your "A" game, and right now we're just trying to take steps. Next year, we're going to chase the playoffs, after that we keep going and going."

LaVine is also confident this young Bulls team can eventually contend for titles.

"It's going to be very special. We're building towards that. We have high expectations because this is one of the best franchises in NBA history. The fans got spoiled in the '90s, so we got to live up to the expectations of chasing those banners up there. We're building toward that, and I think we're going to get there sooner or later."

But leave it to the 20-year-old Markkanen to take a page out of LeBron James' infamous Miami Heat welcome rally when he talked about his hopes for the new Big 3.

"Of course, that's the goal of ours, not just one, but actually get multiple championships. Like Zach said in the beginning, it's not going to be an overnight thing. We're building towards it, and like I said, a big summer ahead of us. We just gotta get better and go from there."

Not one.... not two.... No, Markkanen wasn't trying to channel James with that quote, matter of fact he couldn't have said it in a more humble understated way. You can hear it for yourself when we bring you Part 2 of my interview with Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn Wednesday night on Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago.

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The season-long soap opera continues in Cleveland, where head coach Ty Lue is stepping away from the team for at least the next week while he deals with ongoing health issues. Lue told reporters, "I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is."

Lue was unable to coach the Cavs in the second half of Saturday's win at the United Center. It was the third time this season he had to leave a game early because of health issues. Assistant coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue's absence. Drew has previous NBA head coaching experience in Atlanta.


Meanwhile, the Cavs did receive some good news with the return of All-Star forward Kevin Love. Love had been sidelined since fracturing his left hand January 30 in Detroit. He missed 21 games because of the injury.

Love's return gives the Cavs a second reliable scoring option behind LeBron James, who's averaging almost a triple double in the games Love has missed. Love is averaging almost 18 points and 9 and a half rebounds while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. Now the question is, can the Cavs get him integrated into the rotation in the remaining games along with the four players acquired at the trade deadline? (George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.) Something tells me Cleveland still is the team to beat in the East despite Toronto’s impressive regular season record.


Out west, no team is hotter right now than the Portland Trail Blazers, winners of 13 straight games heading into action on Tuesday. All-star guard Damian Lillard has taken his game to a whole new level, averaging 29 points during the month of March. Lillard's running mate C.J. McCollum is also averaging over 20 points a game for the season, and Portland is now getting more consistent production from 23-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic, who's shown a lot more toughness inside than what we saw in previous years.

The Trail Blazers winning streak has lifted them to the No. 3 seed in the West, and NBA fans are already looking ahead to a potential second round series between Portland and Golden State which could provide some of the most wide open post-season offense we've seen in years. Blazers coach Terry Stotts doesn't have the deepest roster to work with, but the firepower of Lillard and McCollum should make for quite a shootout against the Warriors' "splash brothers", Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.


And finally, Houston still owns the best record in the West and should be a lock to nail down the No. 1 seed with all the injuries facing the Warriors right now. Chris Paul has fit in perfectly with NBA scoring leader James Harden, and the three-point happy Rockets have also benefitted from the improvement of young center Clint Capela.

Paul has never been one to back away from a fight, and Sunday night he was pushed to the floor by Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng after a foul in the fourth quarter. Paul's teammate Gerald Green came charging in to push Dieng from behind, bringing players from both sides together for a little shoving match before order was restored.

Paul said afterwards he would pay any fine that Green receives, and that sort of one-for-all mentality should serve the Rockets well as they attempt to dethrone the champion Warriors in the playoffs.