Bulls

Beginning a second rebuild, 'veteran leader' Zach LaVine sees similarities in Timberwolves and Bulls

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Beginning a second rebuild, 'veteran leader' Zach LaVine sees similarities in Timberwolves and Bulls

Zach LaVine knows what a rebuild looks like.

Entering his fourth NBA season, it's all the 22-year-old has known.

It'll be more of the same from what LaVine experienced in Minnesota for three seasons, after the Bulls acquired him and two others in exchange for All-Star Jimmy Butler blockbuster deal this offseason. But unlike those years in Minnesota, where LaVine played in the shadows of two No. 1 overall picks and was known more for his Slam Dunk Contest victories than anything else, LaVine will be front and center as a core piece of a Bulls franchise in need of a reviving.

The talent LaVine brings to a Bulls roster in desparate need of just that will be crucial. Just as important, however, is the experience and leadership he'll bring. LaVine has appeared in 206 career games, third most on a Bulls roster touting 14 players with two years or less of NBA experience. The two players with more games under their belt - Robin Lopez and Quincy Pondexter - aren't part of the team's future. At Monday's Media Day, general manager Gar Forman spoke of "our veteran leaders" who had been leading summer workouts. Among those named was LaVine.

And while he'll have to do that leading from the sideline in the short term - there's still no timetable for when he'll return to the court following ACL surgery in February, though John Paxson admitted Opening Night isn't likely - the experience he's brought has been invaluable.

"Regardless of what the record is, what the score is, you always go out there and compete," LaVine said. "You go into each game looking to win. We're not looking at wins or losses because it proves something as a team. We go into every game trying to get better. As long as you compete, we're gonna play our hearts out, we're improving every day."

The Timberwolves drafted LaVine with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, then promptly dealt four-time All-Star Kevin Love to the Cavaliers two months later, initiating yet another rebuild for the franchise with the league's longest playoff drought.

LaVine showed promise in his rookie season, stealing All-Star Weekend festivities in New York City by becoming the youngest Slam Dunk Contest champion since Kobe Bryant, and averaging 14.2 points in 29 games after the break. Andrew Wiggins, the key piece in the Love deal, won Rookie of the Year honors for the 16-win Timberwolves, who then won the NBA Lottery in May. That netted them Karl-Anthony Towns, who a year later joined Wiggins as the first teammates to win back-to-back Rookies of the Year awards in more than 40 years.

Wiggins just finished 16th in the league in scoring, and is preparing to sign a five-year max deal with the Timberwolves. Last year Towns became the 15th player in NBA history to compile 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a season last year and is on the edge of stardom. And LaVine, before the left knee injury, averaged 18.9 points in 47 games and was rounding out his game on both ends. The promising individual performances in a daunting Western Conference resulted in just 60 combined wins the last two seasons, but there was always optimism. A tight-knit locker room helped matters, and it's something LaVine believes the Bulls can replicate as they begin their own rebuild.

"When you're going through that process like we are here, where it's almost a rebuilding process where you're looking just to improve, for Minnesota we had such a tight locker room. It never seemed like we were in a losing situation," he said. "It was such a fun group. And that's the same way I can see how it is here.

"The chemistry should be the same. Our second year, if we don't win 28 games or whatever it was (in Minnesota), we felt like we were a 50-win team. We felt like we competed. No one came out feeling sorry for us. We went out feeling good about ourselves because we're competing, we're getting better."

The Bulls will need to add talent around LaVine in the coming years, and they have both the draft picks and cap space to do so. LaVine will become a restricted free agent next season if he and the Bulls don't agree to a deal by Oct. 16, but either way it's clear he is a major part of the Bulls' future, and he's taking the leadership reigns to get his second rebuild off on the right foot, same as he did in Minnesota.

"I know I'm a big part of this team and I'm excited to be in (contract) negotiations with them. I want to be here for a long period of time. If it's now or later, I know it's going to be done either way," he said. "But right now I'm focused on basketball and getting my knee healthy. But it's always good to be in negotiations because it means you're wanted."

NBA Buzz: Should the Bulls pursue Paul George in free agency?

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NBA Buzz: Should the Bulls pursue Paul George in free agency?

Anyone who watched the Oklahoma City Thunder implode in Game 4 of their first-round series against Utah Monday night probably had the same thought run through their mind. “Paul George is so out of there.”

Speculation about George signing a max free agent deal with his hometown Lakers has been running wild since the All-Star forward forced a trade out of Indiana last summer. And, who can forget the scene of George’s parents sitting in the front row at Staples Center cheering on their son as he played a strong game against the Lakers earlier this season?

But if we’ve learned anything through the years watching top level free agents make decisions on their future, it’s that it’s almost impossible to predict what factors will turn out to be most important.

Take the George free agency for example. Sure, he’s talked openly about his desire to play in southern California and his love of the Lakers and Kobe Bryant through the years. But what if LeBron James decides to take his talents to L.A. this summer? Will George be happy playing secnd fiddle to “the king” in his own hometown (if the Lakers can create cap space for a second max contract), or will he look for a better option to showcase his game and his brand?

That’s where the Bulls could come in.

John Paxson said in his season ending news conference it’s unlikely the Bulls would be major players in free agency this year, but he also said he never wanted to go through another season like the one his team had just endured, and that the front office will always be on the lookout for opportunities to add a star player to the mix.

With Zach LaVine’s cap hold and the salary slots included for the sixtth and 22nd picks in this year’s draft, the Bulls would have around $73 million in salary commitments for next season, leaving them just enough space to fit in the first season of a max contract offer for George. And even if they wind up just a little bit shy of a max slot, they could easily create more space by trading one of their back-up point guards or another reserve player.

Would George be receptive to a Bulls offer? Hard to say. The Lakers are obviously his first option and he might also consider the Clippers and 76ers. Doc Rivers would have to do some salary cap gymnastics to make a run at George, but Philadelphia will be in position to sign a major free agent outright, and the thought of George joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be scary for the other Eastern Conference contenders.

After years of toiling in Indianapolis, it’s hard to imagine George being interested in joining a rebuild in Chicago, but as I mentioned earlier, stranger things have happened in free agency.

The assumption in league circles is the Bulls will wait until 2019 to make their big move when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving could be on the market, and might consider signing with the Bulls after watching another year of development from LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

But Paxson couldn’t have been more transparent in describing the mental pain he endured watching his team play for the best possible draft position during a 27-55 season, so he’s not going to pass up on a chance to add a franchise player if one suddenly becomes available this summer.

Paul George signing with the Bulls is an extreme long shot, but it’s not totally impossible.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

The biggest surprise in round one of the playoffs has to be the Pelicans’ 4-0 sweep of Portland. After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, not many people expected New Orleans to even make the playoffs, much less win a series.

But Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry designed a new offensive system, utilizing a three-guard offense of Jrue Holiday and former Bulls Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore to get the ball to superstar big man Anthony Davis, with another ex-Bull, Niko Mirotic providing floor spacing as a third scoring option.

Add to that the almost annual transformation of Rondo into an elite playoff performer, and all of a sudden the Pelicans are dangerous. Granted, they’ll probably come up short in the next round against Golden State, but casual basketball fans are finally getting a chance to see just how good Davis is playing on a national stage. He’s a top 5 talent, who has consistently pledged his loyalty to the organization that originally drafted him.

Assuming the Pelicans re-sign Cousins this summer, it will be interesting to find out what the ceiling might be for this team that seemed to be treading water just a few short months ago.

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On the other side of that series, losing four straight playoff games could signal major changes ahead for Portland. The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the league’s best, but the Blazers are capped out and have to make a decision on signing restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic.

Portland was one of the biggest offenders in the Wild West free agent chase in 2016 after the new tv contracts ushered in a $20 million spike in the salary cap. The Blazers signed Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Myers Leonard to ridiculously inflated contracts and then overpaid free agent forward Mo Harkless the following summer.

General Manager Neil Olshey was able to unload Crabbe’s contract in a deal with Brooklyn, but the Blazers are already over next year’s projected salary cap with the contracts already on the books, making it extremely difficult to improve the team’s frontcourt.

So, would Portland consider trading McCollum or Lillard for a package of young players and picks? Lillard just had his best season and is a fixture in Portland, so it’s unlikely he would be moved. But if Olshey decides the current roster has maxed out, he might explore trading McCollum to bring in the reinforcements the Blazers need to contend in the brutally tough West.

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Similarly, what’s next for Tom Thibodeau and the “Timber-Bulls” after they get eliminated by top seeded Houston in round one?

It’s been fun watching Derrick Rose re-kindle memories of his MVP past with his end to end attacks and twisting finishes at the rim. Rose has averaged around 15 points off the bench in the series, probably earning an invitation back to be a rotation player for Minnesota next season.

But what about the uneasy alliance between Jimmy Butler and the TWolves young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? Butler has one guaranteed season left on his contract, but in an interview with the Sun-Times' Joe Cowley, Butler admitted it’s been tough watching players who don’t share his passion for winning and constantly working to improve their games. Don’t be surprised if Jimmy isn’t already planning his exit strategy with an eye towards Los Angeles.

Butler also said in the Cowley article he has a lot of love for the Reinsdorf family and wouldn’t rule out finishing his career in a Bulls uniform. Now that sounds like an even bigger long shot than my Paul George idea, but after all this is the NBA!

Just visualize Kevin Garnett screaming in his on court interview after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008. “Anything’s possible!”

Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

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Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

Joakim Noah played in only seven games for the New York Knicks this season, having last appeared in action on Jan. 23. A few weeks later, Noah was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the team.

So what's the former Bull up to now?

Well, apparently he's attempting to audition for one of the latest wild life survival shows.

In honor of Earth Day, Noah showed off his new look on Instagram:

Jah bless the earth

A post shared by Joakim Noah (@stickity13) on

"God bless the Earth and the trees and the sun," he says in the video.

No. God bless you, Joakim.