He can do things with a basketball that very few people on the planet can do. And yet the answer to the question is that it’s hard to know if he’s what ails the team.
Most of us are pretty good at suppressing our natural tendency toward greed. We might covet our neighbor’s five-bedroom, five-bathroom house, the one with the indoor basketball court and the bowling alley, which are a nice touch, but not as nice as the state-of-the-art kitchen and the 20-seat theater, both of them great places to be if you’re not outside at the private lake. But we realize we’re better than that. Much, much better than that. We look around at what we have and know it’s enough.
Except when it comes to sports. We always want more. And by that I mean, really, Bulls? This is all there is?
Heading into their game against Orlando on Wednesday night, the Bulls had gone 3-7 since the blockbuster trade that brought them All-Star center Nikola Vučević. I’m not here to argue that they were dumb to give up Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two draft picks for Vučević and Al-Farouq Aminu. Or that they were silly to move Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison to the Wizards for Troy Brown Jr. and Moe Wagner, whom they immediately shipped to the Celtics for Daniel Theis.
It was clear that the previous version of the Bulls wasn’t going to work.
But this is the version we get? Really?
This is a franchise that makes you come back for more of the same. You keep pounding your hand on the bottom of the ketchup bottle and nothing comes out. You stick a dinner knife in its mouth to loosen things up. Still nothing. That’s how this feels.
If the Bulls were really serious about dramatic change to their roster and their so-called culture, they should have traded Zach LaVine. Former vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman couldn’t build around LaVine, and the small sample size of the past 10 games sends a shiver up the spine that current VP Arturas Karnišovas — or anyone — might not be able to build around him, either.
Is LaVine the problem? It’s hard to ask that about someone so talented. He can do things with a basketball that very few people on the planet can do. And yet the answer to the question is that I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s what ails the Bulls. That’s where the selfish part of me kicks in, the part that would love to know if another team can win with him as a major player. He’s a wonderful one-on-one player, so mesmerizing at times that people have been known to stop and stare. The problem is that some of those people are his supporting cast.
He’s more than a little like James Harden in that regard, another supremely talented player whose game might not be suited to winning basketball. If Harden can’t win a championship with fellow Nets superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this season, he can’t win a championship.
LaVine hasn’t played on teams as talented as Brooklyn is, not even close, and it feels a little unfair to make him the center of our discussion. But you watch him play and something doesn’t feel right. That’s not analytics. That’s not even the eye test. It’s the feel test, and it’s admittedly vague.
And with Lauri Markkanen still in the throes of a two-year floundering, it might seem like we’re taking aim at the wrong person. I’d argue that we’ve simply given up on Markkanen, to the point that while trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the team, he doesn’t even register.
So maybe Karnišovas should have started over and gotten some big-time draft picks or big-time players or both in exchange for LaVine. It would have been asking a lot from a fan base that already has been through a rebuild. But do these pieces fit? And what’s the hope for the future?
There’s still a lot of time for the latest model of the Bulls to blossom, but remember those heady days – all of three weeks ago – when Karnišovas’ bold moves were going to make the team an instant postseason contender? The Bulls are 11th in the conference playoff picture, three teams behind for the final spot.
Vučević will get his 25 points and 10 rebounds a night, and LaVine will get his 25, 5 and 5. But can they play together? And can everybody else on the roster play with them?
We spent an inordinate amount of time this season fretting over whether LaVine would take his rightful place on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He eventually did, but the navel-gazing summed up the state of the Bulls. Still does. All eyes are on their star and, meanwhile, try not to pay attention to a team that can lose to any team on any given night.
LaVine scored 50 points in a recent loss, 39 in the first half, a reminder of just how gifted he is. And, yet, we want something else. We want more. More, as in victories. We’re greedy that way.