Maybe it’s time to stop pondering Zach LaVine trade possibilities and focus on the right complementary moves to be able to extend him this offseason.
Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on Zach LaVine’s faults and appreciate his strengths.
Maybe it’s time to stop talking about how he never has appeared in the playoffs and realize that his work ethic and commitment to making the right play can be part of winning basketball.
LaVine’s 39-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist performance in the Bulls’ 118-92 dismantling of the Magic added to the growing body of evidence that his game continues to evolve. That it came one night after he focused on accepting the defensive attention and deferring more than scoring before blitzing the Magic for 24 fourth-quarter points in Friday’s loss displayed his entire package.
You’d miss LaVine if he’s gone.
“Man, he’s truly special,” Denzel Valentine said.
LaVine posted his ninth game this season or 30 points or more. If the 89 percent free-throw shooter didn’t uncharacteristically miss three of five, he would have bagged his second 40-point game.
But scoring is what LaVine always has done, sometimes making it look effortless. That he’s averaging 5.3 assists, well above his previous career best of 4.5, is emblematic of his maturity and recognition.
That dynamic can cut the other way, too, though. With his postgame comments to reporters Friday, LaVine essentially warned the Magic he would come out more aggressively on Saturday night. With Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. all out due to injuries, he scored 11 first-quarter points and 22 by halftime.
“He does something new every night that I just sit there like, ‘Damn.’ He’s really, really, really good,” Valentine said. “He’s definitely an All-Star, superstar-type player. So I’m blessed to be his teammate. And he’s a good guy too. So you root for him.’’
LaVine’s teammates see his care factor. Those with him in Minnesota saw him rehabilitate from a torn left ACL without complaint and with singular focus. Those with him now see a player who looks inward to try to improve his deficiencies -- careless turnovers, off-the-ball defense -- because he’s sick of losing.
“He’s had trials and tribulations throughout his career. Going to Minnesota and then coming here, coming off an ACL and being thrown into the fire like, ‘Alright, the Chicago Bulls are yours.’ Trying, at 23, to be the best player on a top-three market team, that’s a lot of pressure,” Valentine said. “I think he’s gotten better each and every year, and it’s amazing to see.”
In a recent piece at Bleacher Report, longtime salary cap expert Eric Pincus laid out an intriguing scenario in which the Bulls could utilize part of their projected cap space this offseason to extend LaVine. The cost would be significant -- earmarking roughly $14 million of projected cap space for a four-year, $151 million deal. But LaVine’s play is making such deliberations intriguing.
Of course, the Bulls are under no obligation to do so as LaVine is under contract through 2022. However, picking a lane on LaVine’s future with the franchise landed on Artūras Karnišovas’ to-do list almost immediately after he took the executive vice president of basketball operations job.
As coach, Billy Donovan’s focus is of the more micro variety for now. And he’s been pleased with LaVine’s coachability and desire to become more of a two-way player who impacts winning.
“He’s a great guy and he’s a great teammate and he wants to win. He hasn’t. He wants to take that step. And sometimes when you are looking to take that step, you think, ‘OK, maybe I have to get my teammates more involved. So let me try to facilitate. Ok, it’s not going well. Now I need to go to score,’” Donovan said. “He’s got to play to an identity of what our team needs from him, and he has to be a two-way player.
“And I agree it is a lot to ask him to do, and he has incredible endurance and stamina. But winning sets the rules, I don’t. The game sets the rules. It is hard to win... He’s really trying to figure those things out. And he also wants to be a good teammate. He wants to be an unselfish player. He wants to make the people around him better.”
As he answered questions on his Zoom call Saturday night, LaVine chuckled when asked if his aggressive performance is what the Bulls need in light of so many injuries.
“I’ve been doing this,” he said.
And he should be in a Bulls uniform for years to come. Or he’ll be missed.