The Chicago Bulls aren’t in a five-alarm fire kind of situation but it might be at a two-alarm at roughly the quarter-mark of the season. They are 9-12 and coming off a dismantling at the hands of Devin Booker who had 51 points in the Phoenix Suns’ 132-113 win.
Things aren’t going to get any easier with Stephen Curry and the defending-champion Golden State Warriors on deck.
In that loss to Phoenix, two-time All-Star Zach LaVine struggled early going 1-for-6 in the first half before getting going with the game well out of hand after the break to finish with 21 points, though he did add seven assists and four rebounds. But the efficiency continued a troubling trend for LaVine that is part of what is weighing the Bulls down.
One NBA executive believes those struggles could have a lasting effect.
“Fact is, Zach is not having a good year,” the exec told Heavy Sports NBA insider Sean Deveney, “and when a player is frustrated, he might point his frustration at the coach. Every coach worries about that with a star player who’s struggling.”
The exec pointed to Bulls head coach Billy Donovan benching LaVine for the final five minutes of the 108-107 loss to the Orlando Magic in which LaVine was 1-for-14 from the floor.
LaVine reacted negatively in the immediate aftermath but both sides said it was behind them.
“I’m one of the best players on the court regardless of who’s playing,” a visibly frustrated LaVine told reporters after the game, “and I think that I should be on the court in crunch time, and that’s just the mentality I have.”
The Bulls swingman came out three nights after the benching and dropped 22 points while going 5-for-10 from beyond the arc in a 121-107 win against the Boston Celtics.
Both coach and player have said they have already moved on but it may not be the only issue.
It’s a good thing the two men can brush off this potential flashpoint moment. LaVine is signed through 2027 to a $215 million max deal while it was just announced that Donovan received an extension in advance of the season.
The exact terms of Donovan’s extension have not been made public but Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that it added multiple years to a contract set to expire after next season.
That could create other issues, according to the exec.
“LaVine is not the kind of guy who is going to create a problem within the team. But it is obvious he has had some issues with how things are being run. In the offseason, there was the talk about him not being happy being second fiddle to [DeMar] DeRozan. And that was not LaVine saying that directly, it was coming from his camp, his agent, people around him. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true, that it does bother him.”
Navigating this particular issue could be a little more difficult. But the executive’s assertion that LaVine won’t make a big fuss in the locker room is a poignant one. Especially as he continues to work his way back into top form while DeRozan has continued to play well late in his career.
Scene of the Crime
The Bulls’ tilt against the Warriors is not an insignificant one. The last time these two teams face off, the Bulls had invariably their worst game of the season. Not just because of performance, though they did get obliterated, losing 138-96 in front of 21,000-strong at the United Center.
That game saw LaVine aggravate a knee injury he had been managing ultimately leading to his surgery this past summer.
It also saw Lonzo Ball aggravate his knee soreness which later turned into a torn meniscus that left loose cartilage which caused nerve damage in his knee. Ball has not been able to so much as run or jump and even walk up a flight of stairs before undergoing a second surgery in a nine-month span to clean out the loose bodies.
His absence spelled disaster for the Bulls last season.
This year, they have expectedly dealt with that better this season having had an entire summer and preseason to adjust. But this game will still be significant in many ways, not the least of which being that the last meeting can be viewed as the turning point for the year.
Surely, the Bulls want to avoid a repeat on all levels.