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My thoughts on The Athletic's Zach LaVine-Bulls article, point by point

Will Gottlieb Avatar
December 21, 2022

A week ago, I wrote that the Chicago Bulls had 10 games to get their shit together. They had a winnable stretch of games to get themselves back into the play-in mix and prove things weren’t as dire as they seemed. 

It took only five of those games to prove the opposite. 

Forget the Bulls win over the Heat on Tuesday night. At this point, the damage is done. The Bulls are now 12-18 and Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic detailed the frustration and dysfunction between Zach LaVine and the organization. Though there aren’t any bombshell nuggets in the report, the article being elevated to a national level signals the gravity of the situation. 

The Bulls aren’t just a Lonzo Ball return away from getting right back into things. They’re not just an experiment gone wrong. They aren’t even just a bad basketball team anymore. They have again become a league-wide embarrassment. 

Let’s get into this piece by piece. 

Zach LaVine expressing frustration

“The Bulls have held multiple team meetings to try to work out their issues, and that has included one-on-one, face-to-face sitdowns between DeRozan and LaVine…DeRozan and LaVine have always had a strong mutual respect for each other….They maintain a good personal relationship.”

Having internal meetings to try to work through problems is not bad or even atypical. It’s good to hear that there is no fracture between DeRozan and LaVine.

“Multiple league sources and sources close to the organization say LaVine and the Bulls are not seeing eye-to-eye. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a palpable feeling across various parts of the franchise of a disconnect over LaVine’s situation in Chicago”

This is where things get a little off. Situation in Chicago? The situation in Chicago is that he is playing poorly for a bad team.

We know there is now an issue about which the player and team are not on the same page. But what is this in regards to? If it’s as simple as disagreeing on how to right the ship, that’s one thing. But there is room to read into things here and that should sound some alarm bells. 

Those bells get even louder when, following the Athletic article, the Chicago Sun Times’ Joe Cowley reported that there was a “blowup” between players at halftime of the team’s loss to Minnesota. NBC Sports Chicago’s KC Johnson confirmed, and followed that “multiple teammates directed frustration at Zach LaVine.”

Reading between the lines, it seems like LaVine is trying to shape the narrative before this thing goes completely off the rails. Given his Klutch connection to Charania (both LaVine and Charania are Rich Paul clients), the fact that he was the only one quoted in the story, and that he is painted as a hero for playing through injury, it seems there would be motive. The locker room blowout reports certainly add to that point as well.  

LaVine has played significantly below his level so far under his new contract. He is not the only problem with this team. But he is now at the center of several issues in the public including this report, those from Cowley and Johnson and the debacle after being benched in the fourth quarter on November 18th’s loss to the Orlando Magic.

Billy Donovan and the locker room

“In the third season of Billy Donovan’s tenure, there’s also been increased skepticism within the locker room about the head coach and the coaching staff”

Given my argument that The Athletic article seems to be a mouthpiece of sorts for LaVine to express his frustration, I wonder who the “increased skepticism” towards Billy Donovan is coming from …

Reading into it: it feels like LaVine is all but telling us that it’s him or Donovan. 

This after the report that Donovan got an extension during the off-season.

“Donovan’s job is currently safe, however, as The Athletic reported that he signed a multiyear contract extension prior to the start of this season.”

If LaVine’s frustration was deliberately planted, I’d venture to guess that Donovan’s secret extension, on the heels of fans starting to turn on the Bulls head coach, was as well. 

Donovan isn’t an elite coach in the NBA and he may not even be average. But I can’t blame him for turning lemons to watered down lemon juice rather than lemonade.

It was unbearably obvious that this roster construction wouldn’t work heading into the season. 

It’s challenging to build a system and get buy-in from players in the NBA. At a certain point, you need to take the best shot you can get. And that shot was a DeRozan mid-range jumper every time down. Donovan did what he did to try to get the best results for the team.

Whatever he did or didn’t do, losing the locker room is on the coach, to be clear. Donovan doesn’t specialize in being a tactician or player development. If there’s something he is known for, it’s being a player’s coach and a team manager and he’s failing at that now. Clearly.

Nikola Vucevic’s free agency

“Vucevic is eligible for an extension worth up to four years and $118.2 million but is currently expected to enter free agency in the offseason”

Let’s put aside for a moment the haul the Bulls shipped out for Nikola Vucevic and how that has gone from “risky with potential and at least we’re trying” to “full-blown, unmitigated disaster.” More on that later. 

Instead, let’s just focus on Vucevic the player and his contract situation moving forward. 

Vucevic is a fine player. An above-average starting center. But his contributions are not carrying the Bulls nor is he helping them compete at a high level — see their 12-18 record. His game hasn’t synthesized with the other players on the roster and he doesn’t seem to be getting better at the things he needs to improve upon. 

Vucevic is not an asset. Teams do not value his archetype of player enough to overpay for him the way the Bulls did. That means he likely won’t net the Bulls anything in return, unless packaged with another player. 

With those things being true, the Bulls cannot fall into the “protect the asset trap” because Vucevic is not an asset. He will not again become one unless he signs a value deal.

That’s why the fact that this article suggests he is expected to enter free agency is a good thing. It appears the Bulls are not willing to overpay to make the first move. They are willing to let the rest of the market value Vucevic.

Takeaways, direction and fall out 

“The Bulls’ direction moving forward is clouded over the fact that they still owe the Orlando Magic a top-four protected first-round pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. By potentially pivoting from competing for a playoff and Play-In Tournament spot into a full rebuild, the Bulls’ front office would risk still being out of the top four and thus giving Orlando its pick.

And yet should these Bulls continue down this path anyway even with all of this talent, it could leave the organization no choice.”

Ok so back to the whole Vucevic unmitigated disaster…

Arturas Karnisovas signing Alex Caruso on the mid-level exception was a steal. DeRozan has outperformed the (unnecessarily high) cost to acquire him. Lonzo Ball was looking like a home run before his injury, which Karnisovas could not have foreseen. Ayo Dosunmu has been at least a base hit. The jury is still out on Patrick Williams (though, the clock has been ticking) and Dalen Terry. 

Zach LaVine’s max contract is what it is. The options were let him go for nothing or pay him. They couldn’t just let him go. Sign him and trade him down the line if you need to. Even on his deal, he will likely be tradeable for at least neutral value when he becomes eligible on January 15. 

All of this to say, Karnisovas has made some good moves. He has also had some misses. But most notably, he has one really bad fuck up that happens to have the most severe ramifications of them all. 

In an incredible turn of events, that move specifically has put the Bulls in a worse position now than when they traded Jimmy Butler for pennies on the dollar. They’re not good as is. They’re not worth investing in further. Yet they’re also out valuable picks so they don’t have the flexibility to be bad themselves to shoot for the draft.

Sports are a zero sum game. Wins or losses. Process matters but at some point, the process must yield results.

The results of this product are rotten to the core. This Bulls team is broken beyond repair. The waiting and hoping period is over. It’s done. It’s time to move on.

The Bulls cut corners and it’s time to pay the piper. It may take a few seasons to fully recover, but they cannot let that outgoing pick paralyze them.  

Getting out of the current situation by accumulating a few extra picks and giving your young players a chance is a better outcome than keeping the life support on because the Magic probably get a good player. You don’t act to prevent other teams from finding success — you do what you need to to be successful. 

If the Bulls can pick up a few decent draft picks and/or young players, they can get themselves closer to being on track, but they have to act. Trade DeRozan at close to peak value. Get off LaVine for as much as you can. Cash in on Caruso. Get Javonte Green and Goran Dragic to a contender. Let Vucevic walk in the summer if you have to. But it’s over with this group. Give Williams, Dosunmu and Terry the ball and see if they can do anything with it. 

Every day the Bulls don’t make a move to recoup some of their outgoing assets and give themselves a puncher’s chance of keeping their pick, they’re digging deeper and deeper into the hole they find themselves in. 

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