Bulls

Zach LaVine dishes on free agency, defense, and his plan to lead the Bulls back to glory: 'I want to be great'

Zach LaVine dishes on free agency, defense, and his plan to lead the Bulls back to glory: 'I want to be great'

The chaos of restricted free agency never truly reached Zach LaVine’s feet, as the guard was too busy working in the Seattle area, strengthening his body and hitting the court to continue the evolution of his game.

To the surprise of some, the Bulls matched the Sacramento Kings’ $78 million offer sheet within minutes of the news breaking on a Friday night, and although LaVine was disappointed he couldn’t reach an initial deal with the Bulls, his reaction was simple: “Cool, let’s get to work.”

“I never wanted to leave, that's the main thing. But business is business,” LaVine said. “The offer sheet happened and thank God the Bulls matched it. That's exactly what we wanted to happen. I never wanted it to get to that point.”

LaVine sat down with NBCSportsChicago for an exclusive interview days after his deal was finalized—and one day after he welcomed to Chicago a new teammate, fellow 2014 draftmate Jabari Parker.

Although Parker signed later than LaVine, he has a leg up on the city. The Chicago native knows this place inside and out. Last year, LaVine barely had more than a couch in his condo not far from the United Center.

Now settled with a long-term deal, LaVine’s family was in town helping him look for a house—a resolution he wasn’t sure would happen so quickly.

“It's tough. Especially the first (free agency experience),” he said. “You go in not understanding a lot. But the good thing (was) I had good agents and I sat back and I did a lot of stuff at the house, I was working out, keeping my mind off it.”

Having an up-and-down 24-game stretch in his first season with the Bulls was the reason many felt LaVine would have an protracted experience in restricted free agency. Coming off ACL surgery, he didn’t make his debut until mid-January and averaged 16.7 points in 27.3 minutes, albeit on 38 percent shooting.

He didn’t look fully comfortable in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, and was trying to adjust to a new team while getting back to playing basketball for the first time in over 11 months.

“I think a lot of last year was me getting into the groove,” LaVine said. “I had a lot of really good games. I had some bad games. You should expect that coming from injury. I proved a lot of people wrong, being able to be explosive and score, affecting the game in ways I don't think a lot of people can do.”

He was never going to look like a finished product in 2017-18, which gave the Bulls leverage in contract talks. It didn’t get ugly, but if there are lingering feelings LaVine will have those conversations with management then move onto basketball.

“I'll let you know if there's something wrong,” LaVine said. “Obviously there's ups and downs with everything, emotions with everything. But right now I'm getting down to business, excited and ecstatic to be back here.”

Fully healthy and still set on being in the best condition of his career, LaVine is excited for the season. The Bulls have one of the youngest teams in the league, tabbed with that dangerous label—“upside.”

Since starting their rebuild, the Bulls have added LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and now, Parker.

“I'm excited because we have so much offensive versatility, I feel like the floor can be really spaced,” LaVine said. “Regardless if somebody has a bad game, we'll be able to pick up the slack at different positions. I think we'll be able to get after it. I'm excited to get to work.”

LaVine, Markkanen and Parker each can make the case to be the lead dog next season, and many feel some uncomfortable friction can develop while that process is taking place.

“If everybody understands the hard work and the sacrifice,” LaVine said. “Everything's not gonna be fair and feelings hurt here and there or emotions thrown in. But at the end of the day if it's done right you can speed that up.”

He’s seen what he calls the "politics" of basketball at different stages of his young career, and after being shuffled through different positions and then the ACL injury, he jokingly calls himself a “really experienced rookie.”

“You battle with certain politics, right or wrong,” LaVine said. “If you're a higher draft pick, or if you're younger or a veteran in front of you, you have to battle through those things. There's politics but right now everything's level. I'm going into my fifth year, I understand the league, what I'm good at, what I need to work on.”

A lot of responsibility will fall on Hoiberg to manage the personalities, but LaVine looks forward to the internal competition—a believer in the adage “iron sharpens iron.”

“That's something good for the team. I think it brings the best of everyone,” LaVine said. “Media will put their own thing either way. It's for us to figure out and the best is gonna come from who rises from that.”

He certainly wants to blend in with his teammates and sees a mutual respect growing within that competition. Still, though, he relishes the chance at being a leader—for this franchise, in this city, with this basketball history.

Sacramento has some advantages, but the Kings don’t have a statue of the greatest player of all-time in their atrium.

“Obviously that's what you work for. I put all this hard work in not to be second fiddle,” LaVine said. “Not saying there's something wrong with that. There's a lot of successful Hall of Famers that were second fiddle. Second options, third options. You come here, you put all this work in, that's what you want.”

A self-described “gym rat,” LaVine wanted to establish himself as a leader for the first time in his career—not too dissimilar from Jimmy Butler, a player he was traded for on draft night a year ago—who believed the best way to lead was through hard work more than anything.

“You can't come in halfway through the season, be the straight-up leader of the team,” LaVine said. “You ain't played half the year. You got to get to know everybody. I feel like now I have my feet in the water.

“It's a tough situation but you can still be a leader off the court: be at practices, at film, showing the people how hard you're working. That's the main thing, I showed how I worked. I'm around the same age as everybody, so we all get along.”

LaVine is a man who hears everything, a 23-year old who admittedly monitors social media and other platforms, seeing what’s been said about him. So he’s seen the criticisms about his defense and admits it’s been a point of emphasis in his offseason workouts.

“I have to step it up a lot,” LaVine said. “I've always been somebody that can keep somebody in front of me. I've had mishaps off the ball, with awareness and things like that. That's always something you can improve on.”

The goal, LaVine said, is to be great on both ends of the floor. He’s watched clips of his best and worst defensive moments this season, calling himself “my harshest critic” and said he’ll do what’s necessary to get better.

At his position, the guys who can score 20 a night are plentiful. James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson can get that in their sleep.

Being able to give it back while also slowing them down some is what separates the tiers of shooting guards in today’s NBA.

“I'm not gonna slack off from that,” LaVine said. “I hear people talk: 'You can't do this.' it helps me pay more attention to it and get better. I could care less. It's something I want to be better at, and I want to be great on both ends.”

If that happens, it makes the talk of playoffs seem a lot more realistic than it feels at the moment.

“We have a young and exciting team. I feel like Chicago needs to get that stamp of approval back to where we were in the 90's,” LaVine said before correcting himself.

“I'm not saying we're going to be there next. We need to trend toward that way. Trending that way.”

He’s smiling, pointing upward. He saw his former mates in Minnesota get a taste of the postseason a few months ago and now, he’s feeling a little parched, not quite satisfied with expected baby steps.

“We should be walking now," he said. "Almost jogging. Not quite running. We're working, though.”

Before the playoffs or even training camp convenes, LaVine is off house-hunting and presumably furniture shopping, looking for another couch.

“What color should it be? All white,” he joked.

If the Bulls are playing beyond April 16 next season, there’s sure to be more than a few fans willing to foot the bill for an all-white couch.

NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

When the Bulls acquired Otto Porter Jr. on the eve of the trade deadline in a deal with Washington, John Paxson and Gar Forman knew they were effectively taking themselves out of the running for one of the elite free agents in the class of 2019. Paxson admitted as much, telling reporters the Bulls wouldn’t be able to attract superstars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson at this stage of the team’s rebuild.

With Porter owed approximately $55 million dollars for the final two seasons of his contract, the 25-year-old forward basically represents the Bulls’ big strike with their available cap space. And, in the small sample size we saw Porter on the court with the Bulls other foundation pieces, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the results were encouraging. The Bulls had the 9th best offensive rating in the 15 games that Porter played before his season ended early because of a shoulder injury.

Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen raved about the Porter acquisition, telling me, “I read an article that said it was one of the best, biggest trades in the last 5 to 10 years in the league. We got positional size. We got positional expertise. We got a high character guy. When he comes in the game, it just calms us down. He makes the right play, a good decision. He makes a tough shot that stops their run. He has a feel for that, which is a big skill. He understands our defense and can play in his gaps with his length, 7-foot-2 wingspan.”

But it’s what Porter contributed on the practice court and in film sessions that really impressed his coach. Boylen says Porter routinely reinforces his coaching points and has been important in getting the younger players to buy in to the culture he’s trying to create. “Some guys haven’t been coached hard. Some guys haven’t been told the truth. When I tell these guys the truth, he (Porter) understands that’s what has to happen. They need that. We need that. I’m not caring for them if I’m not doing that to them, and he understands that. Not everybody does.”

Porter returned the compliment, telling reporters before the final home game, “He (Boylen) cares very much about the Bulls’ organization and about his players, and about growing and being together. I think that’s very important that the guys understand what he’s trying to say as far as everybody needs to be on the same page. We have one goal in common and that’s to win a championship, and guys have to buy into that.”

Porter went on to say, “That’s something I was able to see and understand what he (Boylen) wants. Once the guys started to see me following that model, I think that’ll continue to help us, and they’ll continue to understand what it takes. How much hard work you have to put into it.”

Boylen has big plans for Porter in his first full season with the Bulls, saying the 6-foot-8 forward will play a critical role with his 3-point shooting and ability to create in pick-and-roll situations. Boylen also plans to use Porter at power forward on occasion with Markkanen sliding over to center, giving the Bulls their best offensive lineup. And, with Wendell Carter Jr. returning next season to provide added rim protection, Porter’s defensive versatility will become an even more impactful weapon.

Porter shot 49 percent from beyond the arc in his 15 games with the Bulls, giving the team much better offensive spacing for Markkanen and LaVine to attack one-on-one coverage. The six year NBA veteran saw enough to believe a healthy Bulls’ team can challenge for a playoff spot next season. “I just have confidence in my guys. I’ve seen what we’re capable of doing, and we still didn’t have everybody. Just imagine if we did.”

Porter unleashed a hearty laugh and a big smile at the end of that last statement. Let’s hope a productive offseason has Bulls’ fans smiling with anticipation about what lies ahead.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Two of the Bulls’ division rivals head into the offseason with some uncertainty after suffering first round playoff sweeps. The Indiana Pacers hope to have All-Star guard Victor Oladipo back at full strength for the start of next season after he suffered a serious leg injury in January, but they’ll have multiple players heading into free agency, including starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.

The Pacers could look to upgrade at point guard by using their cap space to pursue three-time All-Star Kemba Walker, who’s hinted at testing the market after seeing his Hornets fall short of the playoffs once again. That could mean saying goodbye to Collison and top reserve Cory Joseph, both of whom could be considerations for the Bulls if they look to add a veteran point guard in free agency.

Collison turns 32 before the start of next season, which could put him outside the Bulls’ timeline, but the durable Joseph might be a possibility. Joseph has contributed off the bench for quality teams in San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana, and he’ll turn 28 in August.  The former University of Texas star has played in at least 79 games in each of the last five seasons, and could help a rookie point guard like Ja Morant or Darius Garland learn the ins and outs of life in the NBA.

Collison would also be a more affordable option than established starters like Collison, Ricky Rubio or Patrick Beverley.

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The future is also looking a little murky in Detroit, where the Pistons were drummed out of the playoffs by Milwaukee, losing all four games by at least 15 points. Granted, All-Star Blake Griffin sat out the first two games and was limited in the final two because of a knee injury, but the Pistons looked outclassed in every area.

Griffin has three years left on the max deal he signed with the L.A. Clippers and he’s been dogged by injuries throughout his career. Plus, the Pistons are still waiting for high-paid starters Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to live up to their contracts on a more consistent basis. With little salary cap flexibility, the Pistons are basically locked into their roster for the foreseeable future. Dwane Casey did an excellent job in leading Detroit to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, but the challenges facing him could grow even more difficult in the years ahead.

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Still, the situations in Indiana and Detroit pale in comparison to what’s going on in Phoenix. After finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference again, the Suns promoted long-time NBA player James Jones to head of basketball operations. Jones initially said he was planning to retain head coach Igor Kokoskov, since he was involved in the hiring process last year. But Monday night, Jones changed his mind, firing the well-respected, long-time NBA assistant after just one season.

That means the Suns will have their fifth different coach in the last five years when they report for training camp in September. Phoenix has received permission to interview the hottest coaching candidate on the market, 76ers assistant Monty Williams, but Williams is also under consideration for the Lakers’ job, along with Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard.

The Suns have a number of talented young players on the roster, including high-scoring shooting guard Devin Booker, 2018 No.1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton, 2018 lottery pick Mikal Bridges, 2017 No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr., but to this point they’ve been unable to show any upward mobility in the standings.

Phoenix is in desperate need of a starting point guard and would love to add Morant if the lottery combinations fall their way. Right now, the Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers all have a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in the upcoming draft, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, high draft picks don’t always translate into immediate success.

Season in Review: Wayne Selden gives Bulls house money after Justin Holiday deal

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Season in Review: Wayne Selden gives Bulls house money after Justin Holiday deal

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono | Otto Porter 

Midseason expectations: The Justin Holiday trade was far more about the second-round picks the Bulls acquired than the players. MarShon Brooks never even came to Chicago, and Wayne Selden was expected to get some run on the wing as an end-of-the-bench rotation player. His expectations shifted slightly when Chandler Hutchison suffered a broken toe and ultimately missed the remainder of the season. Selden was expected to log minutes, keep the ball moving and hit a few shots here and there. Again, whatever he provided was simply house money after acquiring a pair of second-round picks from Memphis.

What went right: Well, he was just about as subpar as Justin Holiday was? Seriously, the Bulls were buyers at the trade deadline and Selden was essentially a throw-in to match up salaries, and Selden’s 8.1 PER in Chicago was slightly worse than Holiday’s 8.8 in Memphis. Selden had a terrific January and with the Bulls prior to the All-Star break, he averaged 7.1 points on 44 percent shooting. Nothing to write home about, but solid (and hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers). Also, while Selden only averaged 1.7 assists he did a nice job on the second unit pushing pace by himself, driving and kicking and finding open shooters. He wasn’t necessarily a positive defensively but wasn’t poor on that end, either.

What went wrong: He showed very little consistency. As always, it was difficult for any of these young players to put together good stretches of play given the injuries and roster turnover, but Selden was up and down once the All-Star break rolled around. His shooting dipped down to 39 percent and he hit just 24 percent of his triples in his last 21 games. He popped up now and again with a 20-point outing or a double-double, but it was few and far between a simply average season.

The Stat: 20-8-4

Alright, so we cherry-picked it. But work with us. Selden had an outstanding night in the final game of January, scoring 20 points on 6 of 10 shooting along with four 3-pointers and eight assists. That statline of 20 points, 8 assists and 4 3-pointers was accomplished only one other time by a Bulls player in 2018-19, when Zach LaVine had 47 points, 9 assists and 6 3-pointers in the quadruple-overtime game. LaVine accomplished his feat in 56 minutes; Selden needed just 36.

2019-20 Expectations: Will he be back next season. He’d be a cheap option and the Bulls are going to have to fill out their roster. It might depend on what happens with Ryan Arcidiacono in restricted free agency and what the Bulls do in the draft. For the sake of this story we’ll assume he’s back on a small, one-year deal.

Selden’s goal will be consistency from beyond the arc and pushing in transition. The return of Denzel Valentine could give the Bulls two nice options on the wing behind Arcidiacono (or even Kris Dunn) to provide some offense. Even if Selden can work his way up from 31.6 percent to 34 or 35 percent it’ll make a world of difference for his NBA future. Past that, he’s simply going to be a practice body behind the Bulls’ starting wings and Hutchison.