Things are very polite in the Chicago Bulls locker room, but conflict is coming.
No matter whether Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton walks through that door to help this ailing team, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are due for some uncomfortable moments.
They both know it, too.
Someone will have to take the lead for the Bulls and a pecking order must be established. This isn't conflict that will lead to fisticuffs but competitiveness will overflow.
“It's gonna be a tug of war, a tug and pull between somebody,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com Monday night. “That's for us to figure out. It's either with somebody's play or mentality-wise; we have to be better with that.”
LaVine wants to take the reins.
"Can't be friends with everybody," LaVine said. "That's just the way it is sometimes."
He says he's ready.
"If you put anybody in that right mindset they can turn into that dude," LaVine said.
Even with a disaster like Monday where the Bulls were run out of the United Center by the Boston Celtics, down by as many as 37 points, everyone is still getting by under the cover of being a young team trying to find itself.
Friday’s win against Dallas, where LaVine, Dunn and Lauri Markkanen all made big shots late, is the outlier.
Expectations for all will rise next season, and with them some natural friction will develop. Right now, everybody’s being nice.
“We're young. Right now, nobody wants to step on each other's toes,” Dunn told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We're still learning how to win. Each and every game you gotta bring it.”
LaVine agreed, and said nobody has said a cross word to a teammate yet.
“We all take responsibility. We're in the huddles talking and encouraging each other,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. “It's gotta be more than that. It's gotta come from each person to police themselves and push themselves and hold themselves accountable.”
The usually affable LaVine was highly irritated by his own performance against Boston, when he went one-for-11, even airballing a wide-open corner three in the second half. Being unable to stop the Celtics from embarrassing the Bulls early was his biggest annoyance, but he said if this is March of 2019 and he's the established figure he expects to be.
"You have to be more vocal,” LaVine said. “You have to be more assertive. You have to be in that role. Whether I'm 1-12 or 10-12, I gotta be that dude to do that. Or somebody has to do that. There's no way you can be a contender or winning team without that type of personality.”
LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen have all surpassed the modest individual expectations coming into the season. None has intersected with the other.
LaVine wanted to get back on the floor, fully recovered from his ACL injury. Check.
Dunn wanted to wash away his dreadful rookie season and reclaim his pedigree as a top-five draft pick. Check.
Markkanen is a rookie who's still figuring out the NBA game but has surprised with his skill level and acclimation, particular amongst the team's early drama. Check.
Hence, the honeymoon period of the young team.
“I'm pretty sure you can't show me too many teams that have so much high talent that don't go through growing pains. It's tough,” Dunn said. “Trying to figure out how many touches people are gonna get, who's gonna be aggressive."
“I'm not worried about it. We have to keep bringing it every day. The harder you go, it settles itself out.”
While that’s true, it’s where head coach Fred Hoiberg’s job becomes a lot more difficult next season. He’ll have three guys, along with two first-round draft picks, looking to establish themselves further. Or in LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen’s case, looking for their place in the hierarchy of the franchise and the league.
“I don't worry about that. I don't get into that — who's the best player and all that,” Dunn said. “We all have to be leaders for this team. We have to be leaders in different ways. It's a matter of time to see how we jell out. Right now we just keep playing.”
The talent level between the three is obvious. The Bulls got it right on the Jimmy Butler trade, and Dunn and LaVine each have had a moment as the go-to guy late in games.
But remember, Dunn’s run in December — illustrated by his big game against the Utah Jazz where he lit up anybody defending him, yelling “(bleep) him! (bleep) him!” to nobody in particular after hitting a clinching jumper — occurred when LaVine was weeks away from his season debut.
And in LaVine’s signature moment — outdueling Butler in Chicago for a 35-point performance in early February—he was caught by cameras yelling, “This is my (bleep). This is my (bleep)” to a raucous crowd at the United Center — Dunn was out recovering from a concussion.
So while Hoiberg’s belief that playing together is important, what’s more critical is a level of mutual respect that won’t truly be established unless those uncomfortable moments happen.
“We're all grown men at the end of the day,” Dunn said. “If you can't take criticism for the better then this is not the sport for you. It's gonna come. I'm not worried about it. The coaches are doing a good job; they're gonna figure it out for us too.”
It feels as though the Bulls offense is equal-opportunity, which can lead to confusion and a general lack of internal accountability.
“It takes time,” Dunn said. “It's tough when there's so many talented players . … A lot of high talent who can score at any given moment. Get 20 at any given moment."
"You gotta find the balance."
Dunn plays the position most would define as one of leadership, and Hoiberg wants him to be more vocal.
Markkanen has the higher ceiling but is less likely to be vocal given his personality, and down the line will have the greatest mismatch for Hoiberg’s offense to exploit.
LaVine is the most accomplished of the three and will be rewarded with a long-term contract this summer, while also having an offseason when he won’t have to rehab.
He's also been waiting for his voice to carry considerable weight. Having played with No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, he admitted to being vocal but stopping himself given his lack of pedigree.
“In Minnesota I was a vocal guy, but I was just in a different role,” LaVine said. "But coming into this situation, I didn't play half the year. It's tough to do that. I'm not the type of dude to come in and control things. So I gotta let my play and my work speak for itself.”
Each player will eventually have the opportunity to make his case — on the court and off — to lead the Bulls.
“The season's too far ahead,” LaVine said. “We'll figure this (stuff) out in the summer. It comes out. I'm a very likable guy, but you can change your entire personality on the court.”
Conflict is coming, but hopefully it'll be constructive.
“It's gonna come,” Dunn said. “It comes. I've been on plenty of teams like this. It comes. We're young. We're not trying to step on each other's toes but eventually it will come.”
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