1-on-1 with Zach Lavine: 'I've Always Viewed Myself as a Top-Tier Player'February 25, 2022
The clock on Zach LaVine's contract has quietly been ticking in Chicago, and Bulls management has operated with a sense of urgency amid that time crunch.
Since Arturas Karnisovas arrived as president of basketball operations in April 2020, the Bulls have arguably been the most aggressive NBA front office. Chicago's 2021 midseason splurge for Nikola Vucevic stole headlines at last year's trade deadline, and last summer's sign-and-trades for DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball—plus the steal of Alex Caruso from Los Angeles—helped propel LaVine and Chicago to the top of the Eastern Conference with six weeks remaining before the postseason.
The Bulls falling short of creating a playoff threat before LaVine reached the open market would have been nothing short of a failure. And the early results have been more than promising. LaVine and others in the organization believe their 39-21 record was a direct result from the majority of Chicago's roster reporting to the team facility over a month before the mandatory start of training camp.
While LaVine has so far been coy in interviews on the subject, all signs are pointing toward a lucrative contract extension this summer.
DeRozan has garnered MVP consideration, but LaVine has always remained the Bulls' central focus ahead of his unrestricted free agency. If LaVine plays his way into an All-NBA bid this season, averaging 24.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting nearly 40 percent from three, he'll be eligible for a supermax contract around $245 million over five years. And he'll be worth it. There are only a few two-time All-Stars in the NBA who are 26 years old or younger: Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker to name a few.
For now, this is Chicago's unit, and LaVine told B/R he relished management's aggressive activity thus far.
What the Bulls can do beyond this season is another question. There's limited flexibility to make further improvements at this juncture, having dispensed a hoard of draft capital. The Bulls have Portland's 2022 first-rounder, thanks to a creative and stubborn stance on Lauri Markkanan's restricted free agency, but that pick is lottery-protected through 2028. Rival teams surely have interest in acquiring injured second-year forward Patrick Williams, but Chicago brass hardly entertained including Williams in any negotiation for Jerami Grant, sources told B/R.
Amid the All-Star weekend festivities, Bleacher Report sat down with LaVine to discuss Chicago's ongoing makeover, his recruiting efforts to land DeRozan and the Bulls' immediate future.
DeMar was talking with the Lakers guys pretty thoroughly. You were recruiting him behind the scenes as well. I was told DeMar partly wanted to head back East with an eye towards returning to the All-Star Game. What were your conversations like with him this summer, and when did they begin?
During the Olympics it did, and then obviously everything came to fruition after that. Obviously I knew he was definitely in talks with the Lakers and probably a couple of other teams. I'm just happy that we got him.
While you were in Japan?
While I was overseas, yes. There were some nights, I called him one night at like 3 a.m. because of the time change, just to talk to him about how everything was going on with free agency and how we could make it work. And when I came back, we got together. Obviously the signing happened, we started working out together in the offseason, and we both came to Chicago early because it's a pretty new team. Pretty much everyone's new on the team. We started off really early on in the process. I think that's why we have such good chemistry.
Did Lonzo's situation come together the same way?
Zo's situation was a little bit different, because his was a sign-and-trade, but the same thing. Obviously after he signed, we contacted each other about getting in the gym. We've known each other since UCLA already and just got together and got started working on building this team back to where it should be.
Where in there did you film the Mountain Dew commercial with Zion?
So me and Zion did the commercial after I got back from the Olympics. Definitely afterwards, like August, I think? It was fun. It was a really cool set playing 2K a little bit and having the Mountain Dew guys come in and create the set. They keep it light and allow us to be ourselves. Even this new one that I just did with Charlie Day, I got to use a little bit of my acting skills. I think he's a little bit better at it than me, but we'll see how it goes in the future.
Are you and Zion still in contact?
Me and Zion? In contact? No, I mean I see him when we play him.
Alright, well obviously Chicago has taken a big shift to the top of the Eastern Conference. That was the goal of the front office when they got there. How clear was that to you from the beginning. They've been very aggressive in what they've done, trading for Vuc, making kind of a clean sweep with DeMar, Lonzo and Alex Caruso. How and when did they communicate that vision to you? They seem kind of willing to cut corners, in a good way, to put talent around you.
I just think from when they got the job with the Chicago Bulls, they wanted to improve the team. I think they will take every opportunity to improve the team. You respect that as a player because they're competitive as well and they want their organization to always be at the top. I appreciate that about them. They've always been very clear and transparent to me on some of the things that's been going on with the Bulls and the moves that they've made. And that means a lot to me as a player and a guy that they trust to build around.
How important is getting into that postseason environment with this group and making a deep run with these guys before your upcoming contract negotiations?
For me, it's not even about my contract. I'm a competitor. I want to go to the playoffs and play on the big stage. Contract, everything, that all comes. But I look at it day by day. You can't get to April in a day. You're gonna have to play and compete each and every day to get there, and then once the playoffs come, we gotta go do our thing. You know I'm really excited. I'm really excited to be on that stage, because I haven't been there yet.
The coaching staff and the front office were really talking about how you were really talking about wanting to commit defensively this season. Was that just a mindset switch? Was that watching tape with somebody on staff? What steps did you tangibly make to improve in that regard?
I'm just trying to improve my game. The Olympics this year helped me because we each had to play a role essentially. Everybody on that team scores 25, 26 points per game. We're not all gonna be able to do that on that team. So I really locked in and tried to be the wing defensive guy, pick up guys full court, get steals, take charges, get blocks. Whatever it was just to help the team win and obviously just implement that into the next year. Because you're gonna have to sacrifice a bit of yourself to gain success as a team.
People always talk about their "Welcome to the NBA Moment," right? Well, you're an Olympian now. You're making these calls to recruit DeMar. What was your moment you realized, "I'm in this superstar realm" and these guys are your peers?
I mean, I would never say that I'm in that realm. I would just say that I've always viewed myself as a top tier player. I put the work in on the court. I've showed it over the last three, four years. And I just attribute that to my hard work. If you expect yourself to be here, it's something that you have to go out there and show each and every day. I feel like I've done that. I've thought I could be one of the players in the game since I got into the league.
Was there a moment when you believed you could be that guy to shoulder a team through the playoffs?
Yeah, that's what you work for. Obviously we haven't made the playoffs and we're on track to do that now. But I go into the offseason each and every year trying to put my team in those positions and I'm glad that we're on track to do that now.
Guys like Caruso and DeMar who have made deep runs, what's been their message about how to continue to move this thing forward?
You just gotta be consistent everyday and have championship habits. Each and every day you have to have a goal in mind and get to that mindset of we're building for something. It's not just, "Oh, we won or lost this game." You have to have championship habits each and every day. I think everybody's a lot more locked in, a lot more vocal. Through shootarounds, scripts, after games, guys talk about what we could've done better or what we did well and could still do adjustments on. That's definitely a little bit different.
From the outside, people around the league were really skeptical of this roster's fit. DeMar and Vuc both like to work out the high post. You and DeMar both like to create with the ball in your hands. Was there kind of a mind-melding effort, a collaboration on what your offense was going to look like, how all the pieces could come together, and sort of defy the doubters?
I think we came into camp early and we're allowing everybody to do what they do best. We're not getting in each other's way. There's no one on the team that has a selfish bone in their body. We've all sacrificed a little bit of something for the greater good, and I think everybody's eating from it.