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.