By Dan Bernstein —
670TheScore.com senior columnist
(670 The Score) This unexpectedly interesting Bulls season has already had more than its share of notable subject matter just 50 games in, proving more worth our attention than once thought. What was arranged as a clear shot at a top-four draft pick might still end up becoming just that when all is said and done, but it will have been on a path evincing both some legitimate optimism and reasonable concern.
The trade of Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves in June catalyzed this phase of the Bulls’ new direction, and we’re now learning that the player believed to be the best part of the return package might take the most time to figure out.
First the Bobby Portis punch that felled Nikola Mirotic and cost the assailant games in suspension allowed rookie Lauri Markkanen to attack his opportunity with the poise and steadiness of a veteran and a more NBA-ready all-around game than some scouts projected. Markkanen’s trajectory was altered positively in what seemed like an instant, and he’s a clear part of any foundation for sustained competitiveness, to the point of his production already seemingly taken for granted at age 20.
Then point guard Kris Dunn started playing with more self assurance after coach Fred Hoiberg made a clear investment in his leadership. Dunn began to play more freely without looking over his shoulder after every mistake, to the point of handling late-game situations, often defending an opponent’s most dynamic player and keying an offense predicated on spacing and pushing the ball up the floor. After a dispiriting rookie campaign, he looked like what many envisioned before his scary fall and concussion knocked him out of action.
And then there’s Zach LaVine, who was understood at the time of the trade to be the jewel of the Bulls’ return for Butler, the burgeoning star coming back with a reconstructed knee. There’s nothing that tells us this won’t end up being true, of course, but his initial re-introduction to the game is also raising questions about how exactly he’s going to fit best in whatever this becomes.
In fairness to him, there have been some complicating factors as LaVine works back in. He has been playing limited minutes to build his stamina and clearly is pushing himself physically whenever he’s on the floor, to the point of going too fast or trying to do too much, playing at a pace disconnected from everyone else. And not having Dunn on the floor as a governor for the overall engine makes that issue more glaring at times when LaVine seems to be playing his own game of “my turn, again” with contested long two-pointers and forays to somewhere above and near the rim that go unfinished.
LaVine shot just 2-of-11 in a moribund loss at home to Milwaukee on Sunday and has made just 36 of his 100 shots in eight games so far. He has also disrupted the Bulls’ system for now, turning what was once free-flowing and seemingly self-sustaining into something that stops and starts as he goes about whatever he’s doing.
But this is an expected part of the development process, and Hoiberg seems to understand it. He knows he has to balance LaVine’s boundless confidence with better defining his responsibility within the larger picture, getting the most out of his explosive physical talent as part of something cohesive.
“Zach’s offense will come,” Hoiberg told reporters Sunday. “He’s a proven scorer. He’s too good of a shooter and athletic enough to finish at the basket, which he’s not doing a great job of right now. But he will as he continues to get his conditioning and rhythm and timing.”
Making sure he indeed does so — and in concert with his other material teammates — might be the most important remaining aspect of the Bulls’ season outside of securing that coveted high pick.