The Chicago Bulls, Zach LaVine And The Mother Of All Conundrums
The Chicago Bulls are enjoying their first season of semi-relevance in quite some time, hovering around the .500 mark, and flirting with perhaps the franchise's second playoff berth in six seasons.
While ‘league average’ basketball and ‘fringe’ playoff contention don’t ordinarily qualify for sexy status, they do when your team has gone 71-158 (31%) over its past three seasons. And they do when you have a player putting together a truly masterful season, yet whose possible departure could hold the keys to getting your franchise back on track.
The Bulls know that the first and last answer to everything happening in Chicago right now, and into the future, revolves around Zach LaVine.
In fact, what LaVine is doing this season from an offensive perspective is utterly ridiculous, posting numbers that are indistinguishable from Steph Curry, while so far weaving together a campaign that'd rank as the tenth-best offensive season in Bulls history, with a certain Michael Jordan in possession of the first nine.
This insane, All-Star season by LaVine has been aided by Chicago’s intense, franchise-wide spring clean that commenced with the dismissal of the deeply unpopular John Paxson-Gar Forman front office, replaced by the the more progressive Arturas Karnisovas-Marc Eversley tandem.
The re-designed front office swiftly put Bulls fans out of their misery by firing Jim Boylen, quickly securing the services of Billy Donovan, whose admirable, under-appreciated tenure in Oklahoma City had come to an end.
In short time, the Donovan effect in Chicago is already being felt, implementing a game-plan more compatible with the squad at his disposal, rather than imposing an antiquated, draconian system that characterised Boylen's two-season reign.
Under Donovan, the Bull's back-court has been unleashed, with the talents of LaVine and sophomore point guard Coby White maximised rather than stifled. Currently, the Bulls are employing the league's fourth-fastest offence, while operating the most efficient Chicago offence in 24 years.
While the speed and scoring has awakened Chicago and bought them within striking distance of the playoffs, the grim reality is that the Bulls, as presently constituted, remain miles away from genuine championship contention.
For all Chicago's gains, they’re 2-10 against .500 or better opposition this season, their 16.1 turnovers per game is the league's second-worst number while they're getting pulverised defensively. In fact, if the season were to stop today, the Bulls 113.2 points conceded per-100 possessions would qualify as the second worst in franchise history.
And while Chicago fans would be massively relieved that their on-court product is finally at a level that doesn’t make their fans want to hurl things at the TV, they'd also be well aware that their ticket to legitimate competitiveness might actually reside in saying goodbye to one of their very best post-Jordan players.
The reality is that few players in NBA are doing so much, on such a relative pittance than LaVine, with the $19.5m he's owed this year and next constituting one of the biggest contractual steals, and golden opportunities, in the league.
Like Bradley Beal in Washington, the combination of LaVine's production and market value might make it irresistible, bordering upon irresponsible, for his long-suffering franchise to keep him in their building.
While a generation of Bulls and NBA fans grew up intoxicated by Michael Jordan and the championships that poured fourth from the franchise, Chicago's been a wasteland since, while a possible LaVine trade could net them a truckload of draft stock, the likes of which could surround Coby White, Patrick Williams and Wendall Carter, and perhaps usher in a deeper, more sustainable roster in the Windy City.
Just how the new Bulls regime negotiates their LaVine conundrum could define the next ten years of basketball in Chicago, while it'll be one of the stories to watch as the March 25 trade deadline approaches.
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