Guard Zach LaVine realizes how important these next few months will be for his career.
It’s not because of impending contract negotiations. Locked up for the next two seasons, LaVine, 25, is all good in that department. And it’s not because of an expected coaching change. LaVine, however, will have to learn his sixth system in seven NBA seasons.
It’s about his legacy.
This is about LaVine never making the playoffs, which is almost unfathomable for a player with uncanny athleticism who can fall out of bed and score 20 points in an NBA game. Bad luck has played a significant role in his postseason exclusion, but it’s also an indictment of his shortcomings.
So he enters an offseason in which 22 teams still will be playing, while LaVine has to figure out how to stay in shape individually, improve his skills and maintain a leadership voice that can attempt to get the roster together and build chemistry.
Good luck with that.
“I mean, it sucks,’’ LaVine said of being left out of the restart bubble. “You’ve got to understand that it’s a weird time, especially with everything that’s going on right now, but it’s upsetting, too. We weren’t even good enough to get into the play-in game, so it’s upsetting, and it just shows that we’ve got to do a lot of things differently to get ourselves that recognition to get to that spot.’’
A lot of the responsibility will fall on LaVine. That’s how it goes when you’re the best player on the team.
The Bulls voted for Otto Porter Jr. and Thaddeus Young to be team captains last fall, but LaVine was, and remains, the face of the organization. With or without the “C’’ on his jersey, he knows that. That’s why turning this around is mostly his responsibility.
“For me personally, I can’t speak for other people, I’m just ready to become a winning team and a winning player,’’ LaVine said.
“It’s my sixth year, and I still haven’t gotten to the playoffs. If you want to put it in real terms, I haven’t played a really meaningful basketball game.
“Every game in the NBA is meaningful, but once the playoffs come, that’s when you compete for championships, so we haven’t had an opportunity to do that. I haven’t. So I’m just continuing, ready to progress my career and get better and try to reach that next step.’’
So what needs to happen to take that next step?
First and foremost, the Lauri Markkanen conundrum has to be solved.
LaVine and Markkanen came to the Bulls in the summer of 2017, but they’ve rarely combined to dominate games.
That has been a huge issue. Markkanen’s best games have come with LaVine in street clothes or just coming back from an injury and not fully engaged.
On paper, their skills should be peanut butter and jelly. LaVine has the ability to attack a switch off of pick-and-roll or simply shoot long range over a defender slow to hedge on a Markkanen screen. And Markkanen can take a smaller player on the switch in the post or simply pick-and-pop for a three-pointer.
It should be a lethal combination.
Instead, it’s a broken squirt gun.
Ideally, LaVine will get together with Markkanen for a few weeks this summer — whether it’s in Chicago, LaVine’s home state of Washington or even Los Angeles — and they’ll continue to bond on and off the court.
Something has to change, and it’s up to the best player on the Bulls to initiate that.
After all, there is a legacy at stake here.