Bulls’ Zach LaVine finding out max deal comes with max expectations

After a late-game benching in the Friday loss to Orlando, LaVine expressed his disappointment in his coach’s decision. But there’s a bigger picture here, and if the Bulls want to get out of mediocrity in the life of this LaVine contract, someone needs to start answering some hard questions.

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Zach LaVine talks with Bulls coach Billy Donovan.

Zach LaVine talks with Bulls coach Billy Donovan.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Zach LaVine is familiar with bad nights at the office.

But being benched in crunch time is a rare occurrence.

“You play a guy like me down the stretch,’’ LaVine said in the wake of the Magic’s 108-107 victory Friday against the Bulls, their first road win of the season. “Do I like the decision? No. Do I have to live with it? Yeah. Be ready to put my shoes on and play the next game.’’

With the 13-3 Celtics coming to town Monday, he’d better be ready.

Welcome to life as a max-contract player, Mr. LaVine.

The lights are brighter, the expectations are higher and the scrutiny is intense.

First, it’s important to point out that coach Billy Donovan’s decision to sit LaVine, who went 1-for-14 from the field, was the right one.

Trailing by four with 3:43 left, Donovan went with second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu, and for the next 3:38, the move looked brilliant.

The Bulls took a four-point lead after Dosunmu blocked a shot. Then he prevented Jalen Suggs from driving to the hoop with the clock ticking down, but Suggs made a ridiculous step-back three-pointer with five seconds left.

That gut punch of a shot handed the Bulls their fourth consecutive loss and left them having to answer why the most expensive player in the Midwest was sitting on the bench with the game on the line against Orlando.

“I was trying to do what was best for our team in that moment,’’ Donovan said. “That’s my job and my responsibility. To me, I don’t look at it as anything else other than a one-off game.’’

It needs to be.

In all likelihood, LaVine will have a good showing against the Celtics. That’s how he’s wired. But the Bulls need greatness from LaVine, not goodness.

And they need it on both ends of the floor.

Considering LaVine is coming off an offseason cleanup surgery on his left knee, that’s all but asking for the impossible.

And that leads to the real question the front office has refused to answer — or simply might not want to answer: Did it actually know LaVine’s knee was still an issue when it signed him to a five-year, $215 million deal last summer?

LaVine told the media right after he signed that the knee “was great,’’ and executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas never expressed concern.

But hours before the regular season tipped off against the Heat in Miami, it was announced that LaVine would miss that game and start the year on a knee-management schedule.

Donovan said the management schedule was “expected.’’

Sixteen games into the season, LaVine has been playing and practicing more regularly, but he obviously isn’t right.

“[LaVine] doesn’t have any issues, but you could still see — and I think everybody can see — there are times he’s going to the rim, and he’s not finishing like he normally has,’’ Donovan said.

“I really believe that will come back as he gets more and more playing time, more and more games underneath his belt.’’

The Bulls had better hope so. 

It has been easy for the team’s fan base to criticize Nikola Vucevic for his inconsistency or pile on Patrick Williams for too many lackluster performances, but if the Bulls are ever going to rise above mediocrity, the responsibility falls on Karnisovas and LaVine.

Being a max guy is life-changing, and it comes with a lease of expectations.

LaVine is finding out that this month’s rent is past due.

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