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.