Bulls

NBA Buzz: LaVine already showing All-Star potential and other league takeaways

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: LaVine already showing All-Star potential and other league takeaways

It's been interesting to hear and read the reactions of many Bulls fans worried about Zach LaVine's inconsistent play at the outset of his return from 11 months of rehab following ACL surgery. So many people pointed to his poor shooting percentage and questioned his shot selection and commitment on the defensive end. Forget the fact he hadn't played against NBA competition for almost a year and was trying to adjust to new teammates halfway through a season.

Well, how do you like Zach now?

Over his last five games, LaVine is averaging around 25 points while shooting 46 percent from the field and the 3 point line. He also has emerged as the team's closer, scoring the Bulls' last 11 points in the thrilling win over Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves last week, then coming up with a late steal and breakaway dunk in the closing seconds to give the Bulls a win over Orlando on Monday.

Clearly, LaVine was the centerpiece of last summer's draft night trade sending Butler to Minnesota. He was coming into his own as an NBA player in his 3rd season with the Timberwolves before the ACL injury, averaging nearly 19 points a game as the team's third scoring option, while improving his 3 point shooting to right around 39 percent. There's no way Tom Thibodeau would have included LaVine in the Butler deal if he hadn't suffered the injury.

Now, the Bulls are able to center their rebuild around the talents of the 3 players they acquired from Minnesota. LaVine turns 23 next month, Kris Dunn turns 24 on March 18th, and Lauri Markkanen is only 20. Dunn has emerged as a quality NBA point guard whose defensive skills and toughness bring out the best in his teammates and the 7-foot Markkanen could be a future All-Star with his smooth shooting stroke and versatile offensive game.

Still, even after just a 13-game sample size, it's clear LaVine is the player that figures to shine brightest on the NBA stage. The two-time slam dunk champion hasn't lost any of that explosive leaping ability and he has the charisma and self-confidence necessary to accept the responsibility of being "the man" in a major market like Chicago. Going head to head with Butler down the stretch of a close game shows LaVine won't back down from a challenge and isn't afraid of his team's fate resting on his shoulders.

With the Eastern Conference struggling to produce 12 All-Star worthy candidates this season, LaVine and Markkanen could inject themselves into that conversation as soon as next year. Yes, the Bulls traded a top 15 player to Minnesota, and Butler's arrival in the Twin Cities helped that franchise end a 13-year playoff drought. But the first big move in a rebuild can determine just how long the process will last, and it's already clear LaVine will be worth the near max level contract he signs with the Bulls this summer.

Around the Association 

Another reality in today's NBA landscape became apparent in the hours leading up to the February 8th trade deadline. Teams willing to take on money can get a lot accomplished.

The Cavaliers completely transformed their roster because much-maligned owner Dan Gilbert was willing to increase his already astronomical luxury tax bill. Make no mistake about it, the trade with the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. was all about money (and getting rid of Isaiah Thomas, who was a horrible fit in Cleveland both on the court and off). The Cavs were willing to take on the remaining years of Clarkson's contract, giving the Lakers the cap space they need to make a run at major free agents (including LeBron James) over the next two summers.

Similarly, Sacramento had instant buyer's remorse after giving veteran point guard George Hill a three-year, $51 million contract last summer, so the Kings were more than happy to send him on to Cleveland getting only Joe Johnson (immediately waived) and Iman Shumpert in return.

And, if you're wondering why Utah would send away promising swing-man Rodney Hood in the three-team deal while getting only Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose (immediately waived) in return, the answer is again money. The Jazz were fearful of what kind of contract Hood might command as a restricted free agent this summer, so they settled for the cost-certainty of the under-achieving Crowder, who has one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league.

So, by exploiting the financial concerns of three different franchises, the Cavs were able to turn an old, unathletic bench group into a young and hungry unit ready and willing to do whatever LeBron wants. And, Hill gives Cleveland a reliable veteran point guard who's no stranger to the pressure of playoff competition and can be a plus defender when motivated.

Just like that, the Cavs are once again the team to beat in the East and they just might be able to convince James to spend the rest of his career with his home-state franchise. Give credit to Gilbert and first-year general manager, Koby Altman, but really, it's all about the money.

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While we count down the days until Round 4 between the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, Golden State coach Steve Kerr came up with a unique way to get his bored defending champions a little more invested in the regular season grind. Kerr decided to hand the clipboard over to his players, and let them coach the team during a meaningless Monday night game against Phoenix.

Kerr explained, "It had to do with me reaching my team. I have not reached them for the last month. They're tired of my voice. I'm tired of my voice. It's been a long haul these last few years and I wasn't reaching them, and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different. I thought the players responded really well. I just feel like when we're focused, we are really tough to beat, and tonight we were focused. And I think just having to count on each other, and not hearing my voice -- which sort of sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher or parent or whoever's voice that is. At this point, that's what I sound like to them. So, they needed a different voice."

Kerr's motivational trick obviously worked. Golden State handed the awful Suns their fourth loss of the season by 40 points or more, 129-83. And veteran forward Jared Dudley summed up the state of basketball in Phoenix, where the Suns have lost 11 of their last 12 games. "It shows a lack of respect for an opponent, and maybe right now we don't deserve respect," Dudley told ESPN. "When you keep getting beat by 40, teams won't respect you. But it's up to us to change that."

Or not. After all tank season is in full effect, and it's quite a race among the bottom 8 teams.

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Since the NBA moved the trade deadline ahead of All-Star weekend, this is the first season teams will have more time to analyze potential buyout targets before the March 1st deadline for playoff eligibility.

Boston added big man Greg Monroe to strengthen their second unit, while the Rockets are poised to sign both veteran Joe Johnson and shot blocker Brandan Wright for the stretch run and playoffs.

Atlanta bought out former Bulls guard Marco Belinelli, who signed with the 76ers.

But we're still waiting to find out where Derrick Rose will land. After being waived by Utah, Rose isn't exactly finding a robust market for his services. There had been initial reports about Thibodeau being interested in signing his former star point guard to play a back-up role behind Jeff Teague, but that would mean taking Tyus Jones out of the rotation. Washington was reportedly interested, but now the Wizards are considering bringing Ty Lawson back from China to take over the point guard minutes available because of injuries to John Wall and Tim Frazier.

Remember when Rose left the Cavs for a few weeks earlier this season to ponder his NBA future? It's possible the league will make that decision for him. The youngest MVP in NBA history is only 29.

Quote of the Week

Finally, back to Steve Kerr's decision to let his players make the coaching decisions Monday night against Phoenix. Kerr had a quick conversation with Suns' coach Jay Triano after the final buzzer, explaining he didn't mean to be disrespectful, which brought this response from Triano in his post-game media session.

"I noticed their plays were a little better out of timeout tonight." "Nah, I didn't have a problem with what Steve did."

Probably a good idea for Triano to keep his options open. The interim head coach figures to be looking for a new job at the end of the season.

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

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Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

The Chicago sunlight followed Jabari Parker as he walked through the East Atrium doors of the United Center, facing Michael Jordan’s statue before meeting with the media, introduced as a Chicago Bull for the first time.


For his sake, the brighter days are ahead instead of to his back as he’ll challenge the perception of being the hometown kid who can’t outrun his own shadow.


Parker re-enters Chicago as the No. 2 pick in the draft that the Milwaukee Bucks allowed to walk without compensation despite holding the cards through restricted free agency, damaged goods on the floor but not giving the Bulls a discount to don that white, red and black jersey he’s always dreamed of wearing.


“There were other teams but as soon as I heard Chicago, I just jumped on it,” Parker said.


It took a two-year, $40 million deal (2019-20 team option) to get Parker home, along with the selling point that he’ll start at small forward—a position that’s tough to envision him playing with on the defensive end considering three of the game’s top six scorers occupy that space.
It was a dream come true for his father, Sonny Parker, and high school coach, Simeon Academy’s Robert Smith, who both couldn’t hide their joy following the first question-and-answer session with the media.


“This is where he wanted to be,” Sonny Parker said. “His family’s happy, the support is there. All I know is the United Center will sell out every game. He can’t wait.”


“Normally guys get drafted here. He signed to come here. He had a couple offers from other teams but he wanted to come here.”


The biggest examples of Chicagoans who arrived with outsized expectations for this franchise had varying results, but Derrick Rose and Eddy Curry both came away with scars of sorts that had many wondering why any hometown product would willingly choose to play for the Bulls.


The risk seems to far outweigh the reward; the emotional toll doesn’t seem worth the fare. And with the roster makeup not being ideal for Parker, no one could blame him for going to a better situation—or at least one more tailored to his skills rather than his heart.
“I think every situation is different. Derrick was excelling,” Bulls executive vice-president John Paxson said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “MVP of the league in his hometown before the injury. Eddy was just a young kid who didn’t have the savvy Derrick had. I think every situation is different. Jabari is such a grounded, solid person that he’s gonna be just fine.”


“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with him to figure out he’s got it together. He knows who he is. Comfortable in his own skin. A quiet guy. Hopefully he’ll thrive here. The goal is it works great for him and works great for us.”


It seemed like he was bred to be a pro—and not just any pro, but the type Chicago demands of its own when a covenant to play 82 nights a year has been reached. If the constant prodding from his father didn’t break his façade, or older brother Darryl doing everything he could to coax emotion from the most gifted of the Parker clan couldn’t do it, two ACL surgeries on his left knee may pale in comparison.


The numbers from Parker’s recent stint with the Bucks don’t bear it out, but Smith sees a player who’s back on track to being what his talent has always dictated he should become.


“Even watching him work out lately, it’s like whoa,” Smith said. “But of course, everything with Chicago period you have to be cautious. With his family and the support system he has, this thing is about winning basketball games and giving back to the community.”


“He’s had that (target) on his back since he stepped on the court at Simeon, coming behind Derrick and being one of the top five players as a freshman and No. 1 player as a junior. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, it can help him a little bit. If he has those moments if something doesn’t go right, he has someone to help him.”


Parker is more known for his restarts than his unique skill set in his young career, but even at 23 years old speaks with a sage of someone 20 years his senior, unwilling to tab this portion of his journey as a fresh start.


After all, it would be easy to envision his career beginning from the moment he left Simeon as a phenom followed by his one season at Duke—having two games where he totaled just 24 minutes with just two points to start the Bucks’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics isn’t typical of a star’s story if he sees himself that way.


“I don’t. I don’t want to forget all the hard work I had,” Parker said. “To forget I hurt myself and came back is to discredit my success. That in of itself is something outside the norm. I want to always remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far. I want to use that as a sense of motivation.”


Bringing up his awkward pro beginnings in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to an unexpected strata mirrored thoughts he might’ve had of himself before his injuries, didn’t cause him to growl.


“I’ve never got jealous a day in my life. That’s why it wasn’t hard because I wasn’t jealous,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “My journey is my journey. I gotta be proud of that and be patient. I took that and I move forward.”


The mention of his defense didn’t make him defensive, either, as he definitively pointed out the truth as he saw it, that today’s game is far more offensive-minded than the bruise-fests of the previous decades. Telling by his words in subsequent interviews, the best defense is a great offense and when he’s right, there aren’t many who can get a bucket as easily and with as much diversity as himself.


The only time Parker broke serve was at the notion he’d be following in the footsteps of Rose’s perceived failures, the setbacks Rose suffered when his knees began to fail after reaching inspiring heights players like Parker wanted to emulate.


At the podium for all to see, he corrected a question formed around Rose’s “rise and fall”, a sound byte copied and pasted by a couple Chicago-bred NBA players on social media in support of Parker’s words and feelings.


“Derrick had no lows. He didn’t. He still maintained. Derrick’s a legend, no matter what…no rise and falls. Injuries are part of life. Derrick is one of the best icons in Chicago. He accomplished his duty already.”


And later, he wanted to set the record straight again, drawing a line from how the media has presented Rose compared to how the people of Chicago see him, and vice-versa.


“We didn’t turn on Derrick, the media (did),” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re hometown. I speak for everybody, we love our hometown.”


The love of Chicago meant more than the prospect of not being able to live up to a glorious prep past, even though he should be well aware wanderlust can turn to villainy in a heartbeat—or the wrong step.


“There’s no pressure for me,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “I’m just happy I get to play with some young guys, and I don’t harp on the negative. Anybody and everybody is gonna have an opinion. I value more my dreams than their opinions.”


And the dreamer steps forward, with a confident gait, eyes wide open and a city hoping it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of its past.


“There’s no fear,” Parker said. “I haven’t faced any other pressure than bouncing back. I’m back on my feet and moving on.”


“When you struggle more, you succeed more.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

David Haugh, Patrick Finley and KC Johnson join Kap on the panel. Jabari Parker is officially a Chicago Bull. So does that make the Bulls a playoff team? And who will play defense for Fred Hoiberg’s young team? Vincent Goodwill and Mark Schanowski drop by to discuss.

Plus with Manny Machado now a Dodger, are the Cubs no longer the best team in the NL?

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: