The chaos of restricted free agency never truly reached Zach LaVine’s feet, as the guard was too busy working in the Seattle area, strengthening his body and hitting the court to continue the evolution of his game.
To the surprise of some, the Bulls matched the Sacramento Kings’ $78 million offer sheet within minutes of the news breaking on a Friday night, and although LaVine was disappointed he couldn’t reach an initial deal with the Bulls, his reaction was simple: “Cool, let’s get to work.”
“I never wanted to leave, that’s the main thing. But business is business,” LaVine said. “The offer sheet happened and thank God the Bulls matched it. That’s exactly what we wanted to happen. I never wanted it to get to that point.”
LaVine sat down with NBCSportsChicago for an exclusive interview days after his deal was finalized—and one day after he welcomed to Chicago a new teammate, fellow 2014 draftmate Jabari Parker.
Although Parker signed later than LaVine, he has a leg up on the city. The Chicago native knows this place inside and out. Last year, LaVine barely had more than a couch in his condo not far from the United Center.
Now settled with a long-term deal, LaVine’s family was in town helping him look for a house—a resolution he wasn’t sure would happen so quickly.
“It’s tough. Especially the first (free agency experience),” he said. “You go in not understanding a lot. But the good thing (was) I had good agents and I sat back and I did a lot of stuff at the house, I was working out, keeping my mind off it.”
Having an up-and-down 24-game stretch in his first season with the Bulls was the reason many felt LaVine would have an protracted experience in restricted free agency. Coming off ACL surgery, he didn’t make his debut until mid-January and averaged 16.7 points in 27.3 minutes, albeit on 38 percent shooting.
He didn’t look fully comfortable in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, and was trying to adjust to a new team while getting back to playing basketball for the first time in over 11 months.
“I think a lot of last year was me getting into the groove,” LaVine said. “I had a lot of really good games. I had some bad games. You should expect that coming from injury. I proved a lot of people wrong, being able to be explosive and score, affecting the game in ways I don’t think a lot of people can do.”
He was never going to look like a finished product in 2017-18, which gave the Bulls leverage in contract talks. It didn’t get ugly, but if there are lingering feelings LaVine will have those conversations with management then move onto basketball.
“I’ll let you know if there’s something wrong,” LaVine said. “Obviously there’s ups and downs with everything, emotions with everything. But right now I’m getting down to business, excited and ecstatic to be back here.”
Fully healthy and still set on being in the best condition of his career, LaVine is excited for the season. The Bulls have one of the youngest teams in the league, tabbed with that dangerous label—“upside.”
Since starting their rebuild, the Bulls have added LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and now, Parker.
“I’m excited because we have so much offensive versatility, I feel like the floor can be really spaced,” LaVine said. “Regardless if somebody has a bad game, we’ll be able to pick up the slack at different positions. I think we’ll be able to get after it. I’m excited to get to work.”
LaVine, Markkanen and Parker each can make the case to be the lead dog next season, and many feel some uncomfortable friction can develop while that process is taking place.
“If everybody understands the hard work and the sacrifice,” LaVine said. “Everything’s not gonna be fair and feelings hurt here and there or emotions thrown in. But at the end of the day if it’s done right you can speed that up.”
He’s seen what he calls the “politics” of basketball at different stages of his young career, and after being shuffled through different positions and then the ACL injury, he jokingly calls himself a “really experienced rookie.”
“You battle with certain politics, right or wrong,” LaVine said. “If you’re a higher draft pick, or if you’re younger or a veteran in front of you, you have to battle through those things. There’s politics but right now everything’s level. I’m going into my fifth year, I understand the league, what I’m good at, what I need to work on.”
A lot of responsibility will fall on Hoiberg to manage the personalities, but LaVine looks forward to the internal competition—a believer in the adage “iron sharpens iron.”
“That’s something good for the team. I think it brings the best of everyone,” LaVine said. “Media will put their own thing either way. It’s for us to figure out and the best is gonna come from who rises from that.”
He certainly wants to blend in with his teammates and sees a mutual respect growing within that competition. Still, though, he relishes the chance at being a leader—for this franchise, in this city, with this basketball history.
Sacramento has some advantages, but the Kings don’t have a statue of the greatest player of all-time in their atrium.
“Obviously that’s what you work for. I put all this hard work in not to be second fiddle,” LaVine said. “Not saying there’s something wrong with that. There’s a lot of successful Hall of Famers that were second fiddle. Second options, third options. You come here, you put all this work in, that’s what you want.”
A self-described “gym rat,” LaVine wanted to establish himself as a leader for the first time in his career—not too dissimilar from Jimmy Butler, a player he was traded for on draft night a year ago—who believed the best way to lead was through hard work more than anything.
“You can’t come in halfway through the season, be the straight-up leader of the team,” LaVine said. “You ain’t played half the year. You got to get to know everybody. I feel like now I have my feet in the water.
“It’s a tough situation but you can still be a leader off the court: be at practices, at film, showing the people how hard you’re working. That’s the main thing, I showed how I worked. I’m around the same age as everybody, so we all get along.”
LaVine is a man who hears everything, a 23-year old who admittedly monitors social media and other platforms, seeing what’s been said about him. So he’s seen the criticisms about his defense and admits it’s been a point of emphasis in his offseason workouts.
“I have to step it up a lot,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been somebody that can keep somebody in front of me. I’ve had mishaps off the ball, with awareness and things like that. That’s always something you can improve on.”
The goal, LaVine said, is to be great on both ends of the floor. He’s watched clips of his best and worst defensive moments this season, calling himself “my harshest critic” and said he’ll do what’s necessary to get better.
At his position, the guys who can score 20 a night are plentiful. James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson can get that in their sleep.
Being able to give it back while also slowing them down some is what separates the tiers of shooting guards in today’s NBA.
“I’m not gonna slack off from that,” LaVine said. “I hear people talk: ‘You can’t do this.’ it helps me pay more attention to it and get better. I could care less. It’s something I want to be better at, and I want to be great on both ends.”
If that happens, it makes the talk of playoffs seem a lot more realistic than it feels at the moment.
“We have a young and exciting team. I feel like Chicago needs to get that stamp of approval back to where we were in the 90’s,” LaVine said before correcting himself.
“I’m not saying we’re going to be there next. We need to trend toward that way. Trending that way.”
He’s smiling, pointing upward. He saw his former mates in Minnesota get a taste of the postseason a few months ago and now, he’s feeling a little parched, not quite satisfied with expected baby steps.
“We should be walking now,” he said. “Almost jogging. Not quite running. We’re working, though.”
Before the playoffs or even training camp convenes, LaVine is off house-hunting and presumably furniture shopping, looking for another couch.
“What color should it be? All white,” he joked.
If the Bulls are playing beyond April 16 next season, there’s sure to be more than a few fans willing to foot the bill for an all-white couch.