CLEVELAND --- This June will mark six years since the Chicago Bulls traded for Zach LaVine.
In that time, LaVine has experienced many highs---the team’s first playoff berth in five years, two All-Star selections, sublime scoring explosions, an Olympic gold medal, a max contract worth $215 million.
He also has experienced several lows---high-profile benchings by two coaches, a knee injury at a time of individual and team ascendance, critics of that max contract, questions about his fit with DeMar DeRozan, needing to sign an offer sheet in 2018.
For whatever reason, he remains a polarizing player.
Through it all, LaVine has conducted himself with professionalism. He rehabilitated his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to become the face of the franchise during a rebuild, answering all questions as the losses piled up. He played through a torn ligament in his thumb and a knee injury that required an offseason arthroscopic procedure---in a contract year---to help the 2021-22 Bulls make the playoffs and experience postseason basketball for the first time in his nine-year career.
And still, there remains outside speculation about his long-term future with the Bulls.
LaVine hears some of the noise but, invariably, doesn’t let it affect him. His standard response, which he shares below at one point, is nobody is harder on him than himself.
Following Saturday’s morning shootaround, LaVine sat down with NBC Sports Chicago for the wide-ranging interview that follows, which is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
NBC Sports Chicago: After your slow start, you’ve pulled your averages up to 23.9 points and 4.1 assists, but you’ve recently been playing with that right middle finger injury. Is that something that can get better during the season? Are you getting treatment on it?
LaVine: It just needs rest and for it to not get hit in the game. Some games, it feels really good. Other games, if it gets jammed or hit again, it hurts. But I’ve been shooting the ball pretty well. So it’s OK.
NBC Sports Chicago: You’re averaging the same number of turnovers as last season at 2.6 per game but you’ve had some late-game ones of late. Where do you think your overall decision-making stands?
LaVine: I think on all my turnovers, they’ve come from good intentions where I’m trying to help the team win by making a play for me or somebody else. Sometimes you turn the ball over when you’re being aggressive.
NBC Sports Chicago: Going into last season, questions surfaced about your fit with DeMar, which you guys seemed to answer with your on-court success and All-Star selections. But with Lonzo Ball still sidelined, those questions are back. Where do you think that fit is now?
LaVine: I think without Lonzo, it just puts a little bit more weight on me and DeMar to play different roles almost. Having a facilitator like Lonzo, a lead guard like that, helps us both out. We miss him, but you can’t put the blame on us not playing well because of Lonzo. We have to figure it out. That’s how the NBA is---people are going to be injured. Your best players have to lead the way and your supporting cast has to help as well. We have to be more consistent.
NBC Sports Chicago: You know how this league works. Stars drive teams’ fortunes and futures. You just signed a five-year deal. You’re in your first season of it. Are you still happy here and do you think you’ll be here for the life of the deal?
LaVine: I signed here to be here for five years. It’s not up to me if I’m here or not. That’s for people above my role. But the franchise committed to me the same way I committed to them. As long as I have a Bulls jersey on, I support Chicago. I always have ever since I got traded here. It’s a franchise that wanted me and has helped my career out. You understand the position you’re in---the first year of a contract that people put a label on for some reason. I’m the same player since I came here. That contract didn’t change me.
NBC Sports Chicago: You were vocal both publicly and privately with how much Billy Donovan’s decision to sit you in crunch time that one game (Nov. 18) stung you. Where is your relationship currently with Billy?
LaVine: Our relationship is fine. We’ve had numerous talks. And that’s happened from Day One of our relationship from when he got here. He’s very personable. His door is always open. Do we agree on everything? No. And look, there are certain things I do that he doesn’t agree with. So I think that incident was one situation where we didn’t agree. We talked about it. We moved on. And we’re, what, 40-some games past that point? It’s not like I’m still hanging on to it.
NBC Sports Chicago: Do you feel you’re being put in the best positions offensively to succeed individually to help the team win?
LaVine: I go out there and play the role that’s given. There are certain things in the role that you’re given and the things that you’re asked to do that you have to go do for your team. And I do them to the best of my ability.
NBC Sports Chicago: That doesn’t really answer the question.
LaVine: That’s the answer I’m giving. But look, there are plenty of opportunities for me to try to do more. When those present themselves, I try to do that as well.
NBC Sports Chicago: So that makes me come back to fit. Do you still think you, DeMar and Vooch (Nikola Vucevic) have a high enough ceiling to be a championship contender?
LaVine: We’ve been together for what, a year-and-a-half now? We see what we did last year and where we’re at this year. I think everything is up for evaluation. But I think you can say that about a lot of teams, a lot of “Big Threes,” a lot of players. I know this: I love my teammates. I love Vooch. I love DeMar. Relationship-wise, we’re all perfectly fine. We just have to win games to be looked at as that (a championship contender).
NBC Sports Chicago: Why do you think you’re still such a polarizing player?
LaVine: That just comes with the territory, and you want to be held to a high standard. That’s a good thing. But regardless, I hold myself to a higher standard than anybody who can write or say something about me. I always try to let my game do the speaking for me. Obviously, I’m in a big market---Chicago, LA, New York. If your best players are on the court and your team isn’t where it’s supposed to be, that’s what is going to happen. I understand we need to be in a better position as a team. If we do that, those things go away.
NBC Sports Chicago: What drives you?
LaVine: I always try to be the best player I can be and help my team any way I can. I always try to get better---always. It’s great to make people eat their words but it’s even better to have your own self-gratification by working to achieve goals you’ve set and succeeding. Every offseason, I set individual goals for myself, but they’re based on trying to help the team win. I play for my franchise, my teammates and for my family. That’s more than enough motivation for me each day.
NBC Sports Chicago: The playoffs were very important to you last year, evidenced by your decision to play through that nagging knee pain. Do you think some people still label you as about yourself and not the team?
LaVine: I can’t control what people say about me. I’ve played through numerous things that I don’t bring up. If they are brought up, I don’t complain about them. I know what I’m about. That stuff is for other people to talk about. It doesn’t affect how I go play.
NBC Sports Chicago: Given last season’s playoff berth and expectations entering this season, how frustrating has the team’s inconsistency been?
LaVine: It’s very frustrating. We’re a good team and have shown many flashes of being a good team. But it hasn’t been very consistent for us. And even last year, we were the top team in the East and then dropped a lot of seedings. It just shows we still have a lot to work on. Nothing is going to be perfect. But we’re all out here trying to get better.
NBC Sports Chicago: Do you feel you receive the proper amount or an inordinate amount of individual blame for where the team currently stands?
LaVine: I think that when you’re not playing as well as a team, critics or narratives or naysayers, that’s their time to thrive. They get extra attention. And by throwing out certain people’s names, you’re going to get more of a look on that. I understand it. Does it affect me and the way I play? No. Does it affect the outlook of the team? No. I think it’s more media attention on it than how we feel about it as a team. We’re here to play basketball, work to get better each day and try to win games. We do hear some of the noise. But at the end of the day, we’re focused on our jobs. We know we have to do better at them.
NBC Sports Chicago: Is this game still fun for you?
LaVine: I have fun whenever I can play basketball. This is my dream. It’s a great job. There’s nothing for me to be upset about in the big picture. Now, do I take my job very seriously? Do I want to have bad games? Does the losing bother me? Of course. I do get upset at times. But having fun, that’s always at the top. I get to live out my dream.