Bulls

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

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USA TODAY

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."

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

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USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.