Bulls

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

The time goes by fast for Zach LaVine, from tip-off to the time he’s subbed out for Denzel Valentine as part of his minute-restriction plan.

“It goes by really quick. I look up, I’m like man, it’s already seven minutes,” LaVine said. “But that’s why I’m trying to make the most of the 20 minutes, think I’m doing a good job so far. I set out to help in every way I can.”

For the damage he does in his limited time, it’s making the Bulls and their winning-restriction plan go to mush, as he put up 18 points with five rebounds, five assists and more importantly, more minutes will be on the horizon sooner rather than later. After the Bulls’ 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Monday at the United Center, one has to wonder if the Bulls are approaching a crossroads for the season—or if unfortunately for the front office, the checkpoint on the long-term plan has already been unwillingly passed to the point of no return.

At 17-27, the Bulls are, in a sense, where they didn’t want to be—straddling the line between going for a playoff spot or getting as bad as possible to get in the best possible position for the lottery.

They’re here because Kris Dunn is playing like a top-half point guard and Lauri Markkanen is performing like a top-three rookie, shooting the three with a volume that would be the best for a first-year player in NBA history—a perfect fit for Hoiberg’s system.

Markkanen is growing perhaps into the superstar they hope to draft in June while LaVine will do everything he can to prove he’s more than a max player but a legit superstar who can play winning basketball along with filling up a box score.

And they’re managing to win close games at a rate experienced teams usually do, playing with a poise and freedom that stemmed from low expectations and a 3-20 start.

“We knew they were on a winning streak and just tried to play hard,” Markkanen said after a 17-point, nine-rebound night. “And play unselfish like we always do. And we had much success, so that tells a lot.”

The Heat was in a similar position last season, starting out 10-31 before making a charge so strong the Bulls had to win every game down the stretch to secure the final playoff spot.

After a so-so start, the Heat are nearly on a 50-win pace with a similar roster and no one with the ceiling of LaVine or Markkanen—along with having to replace Dion Waiters’ scoring and swagger, as he’s out for the season with ankle surgery.

John Paxson took the reins this offseason and firmly made the decision to begin a painful and possibly long, rebuild. But when affordable acquisitions like Justin Holiday starts shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and torches the Heat for seven triples and 25 points, it makes then plan harder to execute.

When Nikola Mirotic sprinkles some pixie dust on his game before the start of the fourth quarter to go from being scoreless to scoring 18 in the last 12 minutes to close out their third straight win, it puts the pressure firmly on the front office to make a big decision, yet again.

“The thing we’re chasing is that we’re trying to continue to grow and get better,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take steps in the right direction. That’s all we talk about. We’re not talking about what’s at stake.”

Hoiberg is keeping his eyes and ears away from the front office's plans, as it does him no good but to bunker down with his locker room and peck away at this record.

He may not be discussing it with his team, but LaVine said the team is watching the Eastern Conference standings, game-by-game. At six games behind eighth-seeded Detroit, there’s four teams between the Bulls and a playoff spot—while being four-and-a-half games behind the Orlando Magic at the cellar.

And with the Magic rumored to be going all-in on selling before the trade deadline, willing to unload Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, according to the New York Times, it’s clear they’re trying to cement themselves at the top of the lottery.

The Golden State Warriors are coming to the United Center in two days, and it’s likely the requisite beating will take place to quell some of the immediate optimism. But after that, the Bulls have some winnable contests that will likely have them right about where they are now, with each passing game lessening the likelihood of plummeting to the bottom.

It leaves Paxson and the front office in a precarious position, as the team is playing with more spirit and togetherness thus leading to praise the front office for its roster construction.

Trading a fourth-quarter performer like Mirotic would go over well in most circles, and although Mirotic is saying all the right things about having the most fun in his NBA career and wanting to play more with Markkanen, he still wants out and he prefers to go West.

One could see the Bulls taking a deal from the Utah Jazz in the form of expiring contract Joe Johnson and a protected first-round pick, then possibly buying out Johnson and letting him go to a contender with the pick being the crown jewel of the deal.

The longer he stays, the more games the Bulls win, the harder this becomes—and one has to ask about the futures of Robin Lopez and Holiday—who would be valuable as a reserve for a playoff team.

But would the Bulls trade anybody for the sole purpose of getting worse in the meantime? Hard to say but hard to envision Paxson doing anything less than what he deems equal value.

This season started with drama, proceeded as planned but took a turn towards something unexpected—and rather quickly.

And like LaVine’s minutes, the Bulls will have to make another decision because deadlines are approaching faster than even they could foresee.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”