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.
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.
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.