The real work for Bulls guard Zach LaVine awaits him Sunday
LaVine has spent countless hours working on his game to reach All-Star status, but now comes the game inside the game. If he truly has championship aspirations, he needs to recruit some serious help.
Tom Thibodeau was worried about Zach LaVine.
The then-Timberwolves coach had seen his shooting guard undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in 2017 and had some serious concerns.
Thibodeau wasn’t worried that the knee wouldn’t heal or that LaVine wouldn’t be able to get past the mental obstacles of such an injury. He was worried that LaVine was attacking his rehab too aggressively.
‘‘There were a lot of days he had to be backed off,’’ Thibodeau said at the time.
That always has been LaVine. See the rim, attack it. Hear the talk that he’s only a dunker, become an elite outside shooter. Notice the critics harping on him being a one-dimensional player, work on his defense.
Maybe that’s what gets lost in watching LaVine play. Because of the smoothness of his game and the ease with which he can rise and shoot, the sweat and hard work he has put in to raise his game to an All-Star level too often has been overlooked.
One thing LaVine always has been is a worker. That vital trait has served him well to this point, as he now sits at the table with the best the NBA has to offer.
But sitting at the table and staying there are two very different things. And now LaVine has to move to the next phase if he truly is committed to being a champion.
When Jimmy Butler came back from his first All-Star Game in 2015, he had more than a few phone numbers from fellow All-Stars. By the time he left Team USA and the Summer Olympics in 2016 with a gold medal around his neck, he had a handful of elite players he wanted to try to team up with.
Butler quickly understood the game within the game. All-Star Weekend and Team USA are great for a player individually, but they’re even more important in terms of recruiting.
Butler twice thought he would be teaming up with point guard Kyrie Irving, first with the Bulls and then with the Timberwolves. Neither worked out, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Now it’s LaVine’s turn to sell the Bulls as a destination for the elite players in the game, to attract someone equal or greater in talent than he is. Because as great as LaVine has been through the first 34 games this season — 28.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 52.5% shooting from the field and 43.5% shooting from three-point range — the Bulls are still only 16-18 in the Eastern Conference.
‘‘We’ve had some ups and downs, but we’ve been in pretty much every game after the first couple,’’ LaVine said when assessing the first half of the season. ‘‘I think we’ve just got to stay consistent and look forward to maintaining our goal for the end of the year.’’
Fair enough. But hopefully LaVine has loftier goals than merely reaching the playoffs for the first time in his seven NBA seasons. Even with All-Star Weekend reduced to one day because of coronavirus restrictions, it’s a day in which LaVine could lay some serious groundwork for the future.
Fortunately, work seldom has been an issue for him.