LAS VEGAS – Zach LaVine has had quite the year.
In March, the Chicago Bulls guard earned a trip to Atlanta for his first NBA All-Star Game.
In April, a bout with COVID-19 sidelined him for 11 games down the stretch of the team’s regular season.
In May, dreams of a first career playoff berth once again fell short despite the organization revamping its front office, coaching staff and roster over the course of the last calendar year.
And now, after a month-and-a-half long break to “exhale” after an unprecedented campaign, he sits comfortably in a cavernous hotel ballroom in Las Vegas, where he and the rest of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team is training for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
With that as background, and a critical season for both he and the Bulls looming ahead, LaVine sat down for an extended conversation with NBC Sports Chicago that addressed his experience with the USA Basketball Men's National Team so far, the development of Patrick Williams, his extension eligibility and other Bulls offseason topics:
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Full audio can be found in the Bulls Talk Podcast feed:
NBC Sports Chicago: How has Vegas, and Team USA training camp, treated you so far?
LaVine: Everything has been good. We're working. Came together, got some practices in, got some film work. Getting to know the guys, us getting to know each other and the system that we're trying to play with. Dropped a couple of games. But that's preseason essentially for us. We're trying to get better. We got a win yesterday (against Argentina) and hopefully we can start carrying that over to become the team that we want to be.
You said when we were talking earlier that you had your family out here with you. What’s it been like to share these types of experiences with them over the last year?
It's been great. I'm the biggest family guy in the world, so having them around — my family, my fiancée, a couple of my best friends — that's my close circle, I have that regardless. But for them to be enjoying these moments with me, especially during these tough times during COVID and things like that, especially this last year, I think it’s been great. And it gives us, or at least my family, something to look forward to. More and more in the future, hopefully.
I assume they won’t be able to go to Tokyo.
In terms of restrictions, do you guys have a sense of what to expect when you get over there?
Well, we know that there's not going to be fans there now, which I was a little disappointed (by). I understand that there’s new variants and strains and things out there. So we obviously have to be safe, not just for us, but for our families as well. But, for those games, you want that type of atmosphere — at least I do, especially my first [Olympics].
For restrictions, I don't think we're going to be able to do anything except for play basketball. I think it might be like the bubble, essentially. At least that's what we've been hearing. I guess we'll see when I get over to see how it is. But we're over there to do a job and we understand that. So hopefully we'll go over there and take care of work.
You guys snapped a two-game losing streak on Tuesday (against Argentina). And you got the start, had 15-5-3, a steal, a couple of big dunks. How good was it to get in the win column and contribute as much as you did?
Yeah, I mean, we're getting getting to know each other. Obviously we're not going out here trying to lose. But we're a little bit behind the eight ball compared to some of these other teams. We’ve only practiced for two days with this, a new group, a new coaching staff. Now, the media and other people might take it a different way. And it's like, 'Oh, the USA team lost' — like, look, at the end of the day it's exhibition, these don't count. As long as we get to where we need to be at before we play France, that's all that matters.
And for me, I'm out here just getting my rhythm. I feel like I've been playing well, first couple of exhibition games. First game I think I played well in limited minutes. (Third game) got the start. Obviously, I think you guys know me, I try to take advantage of my opportunities. And yeah, see where we go from here.
How challenging has it been for you to pick your spots and find your niche on such a star-studded team?
For me, it's not hard because I understand, or at least for me right now, I understand my place on the team. We can all score. There's guys on the team that's averaged 30. I'm close to 28, 30 points per game myself. So if we all get the ball, we obviously all know how to put the ball in the hoop. But we each need to have a role on this team. It needs to be a team instead of just a group of All-Stars and All-NBA players. Or we're not going to win.
So, I'm out here just trying to do whatever is necessary. If the ball gets in my hand and I need to create, I'm gonna do that. If I need to go out and play defense, I'm gonna do that. If I need to just bring energy, pick up the pace of play. That's what I figured out my role is, and hopefully we can all find out what we do well in this team and still be ourselves.
Defense has always been a point of emphasis for you. Can’t imagine there’s a better environment than this to hone that.
And it gives me a chance to go out here and work on things that are a little bit deficiencies and also things that I can continue to enhance on. Always been a really good on-ball defender. When I'm out there, I feel like I'm one of the most athletic guys regardless, so I can bring that type of energy to the game. And this is going to help me be — obviously, one, conditioned. There's no other better conditioning than playing basketball at the highest level, in the Olympics. And then bringing some of these things back to the team with the Bulls so I can try to translate my game there as well.
Wanted to ask you about that dunk you had in the Argentina game too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as much as you are an all-time dunker, I feel like you don’t have many bodies caught in that way…
Probably, like, maybe in my NBA career, probably like eight or nine. Not a lot. I had a lot in Minnesota. I have a couple here and there in Chicago. But not a lot of people, you know, a lot of people don't jump with you. You get these highlight dunks and you get the fast break dunks or people half jump in the picture. You don't get a lot of people to, like, really full-out, go and try to, you know, block you. So it feels good, man. Every once in a while. I can still I can still go and put people on posters.
How much do you buy into you being here being significant for Bulls’ pursuit of getting back to relevance as a franchise? Is that important to you?
It's important to me personally, just because this is somewhere in a stage of your career where you want to be. I want to keep developing and getting better and keep putting myself among these guys — the top, top guys in the league. Because I work for it and I see myself as one.
For the team, obviously, I think it's great whenever you get representation for your team and for your city. So we can continue to build that name, that recognition. Obviously, we've had some down years with the Bulls and we're doing everything we can to get back to those days of where we think we should be.
What are you hoping to bring back to the Bulls next season having had this experience?
Just a winning culture. I haven't been around it. You’re around some of the top players in the league. This is a group of guys that are, pretty much everybody on the team — well, everybody on this team — is almost an All-Star from just last year. You have some all-time greats on the team, you have All-NBA players.
So there's no other better place to learn, pick up habits, ask questions, at least for me personally, be around winning and see what it takes to go win. And that's what I can try to bring back as well.
Have you picked up any of those little tricks or habits so far?
I'm out here obviously talking. We're learning to be a team together. And I'm looking at guys out here that I like and figuring out what I could take from their game or their mentality and bring back with me. And I'm not shy to say that — obviously I'm not the most competitive guys out here when I step on the court — but there's always something you could take from somebody or ask questions, because they've been in experiences that I haven't been in. And I want to reach those.
Having not been around winning much in the NBA, do you see this as an opportunity to continue establishing yourself as a “winning player?” Or are you past the point of caring about outside perception?
I never really have cared about what the outside perception is, as much as people say that. I just care about my own development and where I want to be at as a player. I don't work as hard as I do and try to do the things I do on the court to help my team win for outside people to judge me or tell me what I am about myself. I do it because I want to. So that's just me. And I care about the game that much.
How has Patrick Williams looked in practices and scrimmages with the Select Team?
Pat did extremely well. First day, there's a lot of guys for the Select Team, I think they had a little bit more players than we did. And he got in, got some run in. He got matched up with me a couple of times, unfortunately, but then after that…
How’d that go?
You know, I do what I do (laughs).
But the next day, Pat was incredible. (He) was scoring, defending, went and smacked one of my shots off the backboard out of nowhere. I didn't even know where he came from. I had like a wide-open, fast break and he came and blocked me. (He) was hitting some pull-ups, guarded everybody well, got some blocks. So he looked really, really good. And then the last two scrimmages as well, really strong play.
One thing (Select Team head coach) Erik Spoelstra said to us in his press conference was that he's already seen improvements in Pat's offensive game. Have you seen that at all?
He just looks a lot more comfortable. And this is just like anybody younger in the league when you start trying to develop your game and figure out who you are as a player. We all go through it. And I think, for him, experience is, number one, the biggest teacher. The more and more you get to play and understand and be out there. So I think he just looks a lot more comfortable now.
You did the Select Team in 2016. What did you take from that experience and what kind of advice did you give Pat to maximize his experience?
I was with him a lot. I just told him to take it, take the experience and go out here and just try to kill. Now, obviously don't play outside yourself, (don't) go just try to shoot every time, that's not you. But show them why you're here. He's an incredible athlete, an incredibly strong defender, can score when he wants to, but then can also facilitate. He's an all-around player.
And what I took from him my year in 2016. It just showed obviously where you are compared to your peers and then how much further you have to go to get to that next stage. Because you're with All-NBA players, All-Star level guys, future Hall-of-Famers. In my case, we're playing against the 2016 Olympic team. So, you're playing against the top guys in the league. So it just shows: I'm here now, which is good. How do I get to that next step?
You had a month or two break between the end of the season and here. How did you spend that time?
It went by fast, man. I went back home, we didn't really go anywhere on vacation or anything like that. I just went back home and chilled out a lot. I couldn't wait to get back home to Seattle, see my parents. Be around my boys, my friends, and just chill out.
You know, it was such a tough year, I think everybody just wanted to, like, exhale and just relax for a little bit. I didn't go anywhere for vacation. I was going to before I got the invite here, but obviously that all got canceled and pushed back. So I'm extremely happy, but I was just chilling, working out, getting my body right. I didn't pick up a ball for a little bit until I knew I was in the pool players that were obviously close to coming (to the Olympics). So I started working out and then ramped it up pretty quickly.
One thing people are going to be looking at moving forward is you being eligible for a contract extension. You’ve spoken about being open to one and looking forward to getting in the weeds, and it's an interesting situation because Bulls have the ability to renegotiate and extend you this year and immediately raise your salary, or both sides could wait until you're a free agent next summer.
With that in mind, do you have a preference whether that gets done this offseason or next offseason?
With me, I try to let my agent handle everything. But as long as it gets done, I'll be happy. I mean, obviously, I want to be with the Bulls and you don't want to implicate, you know, free agency, and I understand, like the cap room that goes into it with a sizable extension with me. So, I want the team to be good, but then I also want to be taken care of as well. I feel like I've done really well by the Bulls, and obviously I want to be here long-term, and I feel like I deserve what I get. So, it is what it is. We'll figure (it) out when that comes. If it's this year, next year, we'll just see what happens.
The contract that’s about to expire is the four-year, $78 million offer sheet you signed with the Kings in 2018 that the Bulls later matched. It’s safe to say you’ve outperformed that deal. Does that add to your sentiment of making sure you get what you "deserve” in this next deal?
I always add things that give fuel to the fire. When I signed the offer sheet, obviously, I was coming off a torn ACL, and you have to go out and get an offer sheet. That made me go out here and want to prove to everybody that — one, I'm gonna be better than what I was when I got traded here, and two, I'm better than the contract that I was given.
Now, I think I outplayed it. I think my numbers have said for the last four years that I outplayed that contract. I think I was one of the only guys that were in the top 20 in scoring for the last four years that was getting paid under $20 million. I think I might be the only player in the entire NBA like that, besides the guys in their rookie contract. So we'll see what happens. I think I understand where I'm at as a player and what I deserve. And I think the Bulls do as well. It just depends on when we want to do it.
Obviously, the playoff goal didn’t come to fruition this year. You’ve come off seasons of not making the playoffs before. Does this one feel different because of the changes the Bulls have made?
Yeah, and, you know, it was really upsetting this year because I really did think we had a playoff team and we were really close. It really sucked that I got COVID at the end of the year when we were in that playoff hunt. I think we're like one game or two games out of eighth. We were in ninth, like really, really high.
But with the changes that are being made, obviously, front office, coaches, with Vooch (Nikola Vučević) coming in, we have a really high-level team. We need to still add some players and get some things going. But I think we'll be right in the mix and there should be no excuse for us. But we have to be ready and understand what our goal is from day one.
For someone who’s seen so much upheaval in your career — having had six coaches in seven years, been traded on your rookie contract, etc. — does it feel unusual looking ahead to next year and having a sense of what you’re in for?
Everybody has to play the cards they're dealt. I've had a situation where I'm very happy with my situation. It's made me who I am, the person I am and the player I am. But it's hard. Like you said, I've had six coaches in seven years and then you don't know what's happening the next year. Some years you have 20 players in the locker room. You know, it's not a lot of consistency, and I think basketball is a lot about routine and consistency, and some of the good teams stick together.
So for me, going into this next year, knowing I'm gonna have Billy as a head coach, knowing who my running-mates are gonna be, with Vooch and Pat, Coby (White), things like that, it's exciting just knowing you'll have some some bit of relevancy and consistency in there. Because like I said, I haven't had that my career.
One guy whose future is a bit fuzzy is Thad Young because of his partial guarantee for 2021-22. Your guys’ relationship is well-documented. Are you hoping with his partial guarantee that the franchise finds a way to bring him back for next season?
You know, whatever happens, obviously me and Thad's relationship is bigger than just basketball. That's like my bigger brother. I want whatever's best for him and whatever's best for the team.
Now, me personally, I would love to have Thad on the team. That's my boy. He's an incredible player. He's a winning, team guy. I think he makes everybody better. Now, I'm not a front office guy. I'm not a coach. I don't speak on that. If it's not in Thad's best interest or the team's best interest, I just want Thad to be happy and I want the team to be good. So regardless of what happens there, I know Thad is going to be great for our team or somebody else's team, and our relationship is bigger than basketball.
You mentioned Billy earlier. How would you describe your relationship with him and how has he helped you since being here?
It's been big, man. Probably one of the only coaches I've really bonded with, and he really cares about his players. And I haven't been able to have that type of relationship with a coach — obviously, with inconsistencies and different things like that. But being able to talk to him on a daily basis, being able to call him, talk to him about game film or things I want to improve on, or the structure of the team, things like that, just day-to-day things that a player and their coach can talk about, I haven't had, and that relationship has been big for me. So I'm looking to continue to grow. Our relationship has been great so far, and Billy's a hell of a coach.
You’ve spoken in the past about your evolution as a leader. As someone who will be expected to set the tone and culture for this team next year, what are you focused on in that area?
Just age and experience. It's almost like you find yourself in the NBA. My first couple of years, I was just like a third option, I was behind two No. 1 (overall) picks, my friends Karl(-Anthony Towns) and Andrew (Wiggins). I had to fit a certain role. Could I go out there and score the ball with the best of me in the league still and be one of the top young players? 100 percent. But I had to fit my role in that system for the coaches, the team.
Coming to the Bulls, I understood that this was a big opportunity for me. I'm able to showcase who I am and who I want to be with hard work. And I stepped into that. When opportunity knocks, I try to open the door. That's what I do. So I think I just found who I am and who I want to be in this league.
And then being a leader, you have to just learn that. It just doesn't come in one day. It comes with experience. I think I've had some bumps and bruises throughout my career figuring out what's the right way to lead for me. And I want to be better in every aspect of my game. And I think a big part of that now for me is how to make everybody else better on the team and be a better leader.
Somebody like Thad I've looked to a lot. He was the leader of our team. He was the vocal guy. I don't have to be like Thad. I have to be the best version of me as a leader. And setting the tone obviously offensively, defensively, having the right mindset, being tough out there. So I'm trying to just continue to evolve as a player and a person.