Zach LaVine isn’t a stranger to pressure on the court.
The Bulls guard has delivered in late-game, hero-ball moments in the regular season. He went mano a mano with Aaron Gordon in one of the greatest slam-dunk contests in All-Star history.
LaVine and Team USA even had to deal with a certain amount of pressure in their run for Olympic gold last month, looking sloppy in a few friendlies and early pool play, only to rally and prove to be the best team on the planet.
But the pressure LaVine has on his shoulders with training camp a month away is unprecedented for him in his basketball career.
Not only have executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley given LaVine the best NBA team he has ever played with since being drafted out of UCLA in 2014, but they’ve built it specifically to fit his strengths and weaknesses.
The message is clear for LaVine, who often talks about winning now being his top priority: sink or swim.
“Making the All-Star Game [last season for the first time], that was great, but I want to be a winner and I think everything will come with winning,” LaVine said recently. “And the better I get, the better I make my team, the more accolades you get individually. So all that stuff will come.
“I know how good I am, and I know where I want to be at.”
LaVine wants to be considered one of the elite players in the league on a contending team — and be compensated for that status.
That’s why all eyes will be on LaVine this year. Can his season-after-season improvement translate to him being the face of a Bulls franchise that not only makes the playoffs for the first time since 2017, but makes a run that warrants LaVine becoming a max player after the season?
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the Bulls creep into a No. 7 or 8 seed and are one-and-done in the playoffs? Would LaVine be worth about a third of the payroll, or would Karnisovas & Co. have to figure out an escape plan from that trap?
That’s why there’s no Bulls player with more pressure on him than LaVine. There arguably are very few players across the league who will carry that weight.
But LaVine isn’t the only member of the organization to be under the microscope this season:
Billy Donovan — The Bulls’ coach showed in one season that he can aid in player development, as well as give the team an offense that can move the ball at a high level.
Donovan wasn’t afraid to call out his players publicly, especially for their toughness and defense. But he did so in a way that the message was heard, not with pushups or other embarrassing tactics.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t pressure on Donovan to have better results in the final standings.
It’s fair to put Donovan in that second tier of the NBA coaching hierarchy with a chance to join elite status if the Bulls can do some serious damage come late April and into May.
But if he can’t get the best out of this roster, could the honeymoon start ending early? Stay tuned.
Lonzo Ball — The hype machine that was once the Big Baller Brand has long been silent. What’s left for the point guard is to show that playing for his third team in his fifth season is more about circumstance than a reflection of his talent.
What’s nice for Ball with the Bulls is he’ll be allowed to play to his strengths. The coaching staff wants Ball to control the tempo, make plays, run the team and play defense. It’s not necessarily a make-or-break opportunity for the 23-year-old, but it’s as close as it gets to one.