Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine's return more realistic in late-December or early January

Zach LaVine's return more realistic in late-December or early January

Zach LaVine’s optimism is necessary in a season that has him watching his new team lose nine straight games, where seeing a win on the horizon feels more like a mirage than reality.

That optimism had him aiming for a mid-December return but the reality places his debut in a Bulls uniform a little while away from his ideal target date, as Fred Hoiberg said LaVine is more likely to play in late December and early January.

“Yeah, I think that’s accurate,” Hoiberg said. “The big thing is he needs to string together a good 10 days of practice to where he’s not going every other day.”

“To where he’s going every day, going out there and going hard to really test his body to see where he is. I would say the next 10 days is not going to happen. He’s still going to be on the every other day program at least for another 10 days to two weeks, and then we’ll take it from there as far as getting him consecutive-day workouts, and then get him back shortly after that.”

He’s practiced with the G-League team, along with Nikola Mirotic, and will do so while the Bulls are away in Indianapolis and Charlotte for the rest of the week. At Tuesday’s practice, he was sporting a new accessory—a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee. He hasn’t hidden his displeasure with the contraption as Hoiberg said “he hates it.”

“Just for the first couple weeks, they wanted me to wear it when I’m practicing,” LaVine said. “I don’t like it but doctor’s orders.”

He said he would put in a request to see if he could play in a game without the brace but it’s clear the Bulls are taking all the extra precautions with LaVine, who tore his ACL last February.

LaVine said it’s restrictive, but risking another knee injury would be restrictive to LaVine and the Bulls’ long-term plans. And with the losing streak growing by the day, LaVine is more focused on keeping his teammates upbeat and not get so accustomed to losing.

“This isn’t a losing situation. We might not have the best record right now,” LaVine said. “But we don’t have that outlook on our team. We’re coming in and we’re positive. We go at each other. We’re looking to improve. We don’t have that loser mentality. I know I’m not a loser. They’re not losers.”

With that, it’s not surprising the Bulls are being conservative with the return plan and the brace on LaVine—resisting the natural urge to let him throw himself on the floor to pull attention away from a product that’s worst in the league.

But gradually working on his conditioning is the main concern right now as LaVine said he’s in training camp mode—as camp is usually three-to-four weeks away from the start of the season.

“I’ve been working my butt off, coming back late working and running. But nothing simulates game conditioning,” LaVine said. “I’ve been working out for the last eight, nine months and you come in and play 5-on-5 and you’re tired in 3 minutes. Just got to get that down, get my rhythm down. But I’m progressing really fast. And I feel good.”

In the interim, he’s starting to get a feel for Hoiberg’s read-and-react offense, one that desperately needs a perimeter shot-creator and shot-maker. Going through extra work with the assistant coaches is helping him get acclimated, along with the practices at Hoffman Estates since they run the same sets and systems Hoiberg employs.

In LaVine’s mind, it’s a matter of time before he gets a full feel of all the options offensively. Especially with Lauri Markkanen beginning to feel the weight of defensive attention recently, LaVine knows his presence will make life easier for the rookie.

“Everybody has ups and downs. But he goes out with the same mindset,” LaVine said. “He can miss four or five in a row or be 0-for-8 the night before and he comes in with the same attitude, smile on his face. And that’s something you have to respect from somebody. I remember me from my rookie year and I’d have my ups and downs, I’d be the dude who would be more angry.”

Whenever LaVine makes his debut, Hoiberg will not suddenly act like his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, and play LaVine 35-40 minutes a night immediately.

“Yeah, we’ll gradually bring him along, and the same thing with Niko when we get him back ready to play on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “We’re not going to throw him out there for 35 minutes the first night he’s ready to go. It will probably be a 12-to-18 minute stint, and I would anticipate the same thing would hold true for Zach honestly.”

Back with the Bulls, Nikola Mirotic in good spirits and on track to debut this week

Back with the Bulls, Nikola Mirotic in good spirits and on track to debut this week

That smiling bearded fellow was someone who hadn’t been around in quite some time as Nikola Mirotic cracked a few jokes and was in a light mood for the first time in a long time Sunday morning.

It was a far cry from his last appearance in front of the media’s cameras and tape recorders as he had to explain his feelings following his incident with Bobby Portis more than a month ago.

On that day, he was uncomfortable. On Sunday, well, Mirotic was as easy as Sunday morning as he’s likely to return to action this week after a few days of practicing with the Bulls and their G-League team in Hoffman Estates for a couple days.

“I'm feeling good. Feeling much better with my conditioning,” Mirotic said. “I've had two great practices with the G-League. Together with Zach (LaVine) it was really good. Enjoying the game, you know? Back to the team again.”

Mirotic raved about LaVine’s athleticism in their two practices with the G-League, saying LaVine looked “amazing, very fast, very strong,” and that the general experience of being around those players was a positive.

“It was good, trust me. It was my first practice with the G-League, and Zach’s too. And we had a lot of fun,” Mirotic said. “Those guys really compete, really play hard, play fast and they make us feel better. They really push us to the level to improve our condition, our game. So I was very thankful for that opportunity.”

With games Monday against the Cavaliers, Wednesday on the road against the Pacers and Friday in Charlotte, it appears he’ll make his season debut. By that point, the Bulls' eight-game losing streak could be hitting double digits.

Since this last week has been the first time he’s gone through real basketball activity since mid-October, Mirotic’s body is in a training camp mode of sorts, so he’ll have to go through the process of getting over the bumps and bruises.

Bumps and bruises that come with basketball activity, it should be noted.

“A lot, we’ll determine after today’s practice,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He had two really good days with Windy City but is very sore, almost like training camp-like soreness with Niko being back really for the first time. We’ll get him another good day of contact today, then make the determination to see what his week looks like.”

Hoiberg also noticed Mirotic’s improvement in attitude, and it seems the team is ready to move forward with Mirotic and Portis as teammates and co-workers, as professionals.

“Niko’s in great spirits,” Hoiberg said. “Again, the important thing is to get him back in basketball shape right now. He and Bobby have had their moments together since he’s been back on the practice court. Again, they’ve practiced with each other on the same team, and they’ve also gone against each other. I do think that’s behind us now. The important thing is just going out, concentrating and focusing on basketball.”

When Mirotic gets on the floor, Hoiberg will be tasked with some personnel decisions. Some players have gotten used to receiving heavy minutes and increased roles, but given the Bulls’ paltry 3-18 record, it’s highly doubtful anyone has real room to complain.

David Nwaba returned to action after his sprained ankle caused him to miss a few weeks, and LaVine is on the mend, though he’s still a few weeks away from making his Bulls debut.

Hoiberg even mentioned the forgotten Cameron Payne as someone who’s not far away from being available.

“Getting Niko back will help just because of his experience at this level,” Hoiberg said. “And then when we get Zach back, you get your full complement of players. It’s going to give us some challenges as far as who’s going to be in and out of the rotation, but it’s going to be nice to have the roster that we had going into the season.”

But for now, the smiling bearded man who’s been limited to shooting contests with Lauri Markkanen is as close to hitting the floor as he has been in nearly two months — allowing the Bulls to do the closest thing to hitting the reset button as possible.

Windmill-dunking Zach LaVine and Nikola Mirotic will practice with G-League team this week

Windmill-dunking Zach LaVine and Nikola Mirotic will practice with G-League team this week

The bounce was back in Zach LaVine’s step as he easily put home a windmill dunk after Bulls shootaround Tuesday before their game against the Phoenix Suns.

So clearly, it must mean LaVine is getting ready to return to action sooner rather than later, right?

Not so fast.

A timeline that seemed closer to mid-December looked to be a bit liberal as it’s more likely he returns sometime before January, as he experienced some expected soreness following his initial contact practices.

LaVine, along with workout buddy Nikola Mirotic, will be practicing with the Bulls’ G-League team in Hoffman Estates when the NBA team is away in Denver Thursday, which could become custom with the 16-game December schedule.

“The plan was put into place,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He didn’t do a lot [Tuesday]. He was really sore, especially in his hamstrings and in his quads, so we just have to be really careful about not overloading him too early in this process as he returns to the floor. But he’s itching to get back.”

LaVine tore his ACL in early February and the nine-month date is approaching but the Bulls have no incentive to rush him back to action aside from temporary cosmetic relief following an ugly stretch of basketball over the last couple weeks.

The Bulls’ west coast swing provided a chance for LaVine to ease his way back to contact activity, slowly ramping things up with one-on-one games and even taking a hard shot from Cristiano Felicio during three-on-three work in California last week.

With Mirotic returning to practice, it gives Hoiberg a chance to at least envision what things could look like with a full roster.

“He showed a lot of things that he can do that can help out team in a big way all across the board,” Hoiberg said. “With his athleticism, his ability to shoot the ball, all the little things he’s done as a proven 20-point scorer in this league, so it’s great to have Zach back. Getting Niko out on the floor also was very positive step for our team. Obviously both of those guys are rusty right now.”

Hoiberg was in such a decent mood all things considered, he took a playful shot at reserve guard Antonio Blakeney, a man who never met a shot he didn’t like. Blakeney and LaVine usually play one-on-one after practices.

“Well, [Antonio] Blakeney is one that he’s playing a lot against. A very talented one-on-one player that sometimes doesn’t understand the other four people that are on the floor anyway, so he’s good one-on-one,” Hoiberg said. “But it’s good to get a kid that’s really an explosive one-on-one player.”

While there’s no timeline for Mirotic or even a definitive one for LaVine, the only thing that seems to be left as a hurdle is speaking with Bobby Portis—a hurdle that seems more like a boulder as time goes on.

“Obviously that’s an important part of it,” Hoiberg said. “Those guys were on the floor together at certain points at practice [Monday], and they were against each other. It’s an important part of the process that we’re working through everything to get this thing as normal as possible moving forward, and to get those guys out there on the floor together is an important part.”