PHILADELPHIA — Zach LaVine took a detour from his walk to the team bus to head over to a vending machine a few feet away this week after a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. LaVine needed a snack and those Cheez-Its were calling for him. But when he swiped his card and pressed the button, nothing happened. He patiently swiped again and again, until eventually an arena staffer came over to assist him. One more swipe of the card later, two bags of cheese-flavored crackers plopped down and LaVine could leave the building, relieved that while the Chicago Bulls didn’t win the game, at least he got something he wanted in this arena.
Pressing the reset button on a franchise can be just as tricky as dealing with a faulty vending machine. Sometimes, the items get stuck in the dispenser, the machine doesn’t respond or the wrong button gets pressed and an unwanted item lands in the bin. When the Bulls decided last summer that it was time to move Jimmy Butler and begin their rebuild in earnest by acquiring LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn in a draft-night deal, they understood the risks and accepted a pending struggle. But they didn’t want to be down for long and bank on a string of lottery picks to elevate them back to relevance. They wanted to stockpile some talent to make the losing more tolerable and the rebuild more manageable — but they might’ve stumbled upon a core.
“I think the thing for us now is, we’re not starting from rock bottom,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “We’ve got these three young talents and you can throw Bobby Portis in, he fits the direction that we’re headed in. We feel we’re headed in the right direction. But we don’t want to oversell anything. We know to win at the highest level in this league you need the great players, and, hopefully, we’ve got one or two of them, somewhere on our roster, that we can grow with and hopefully make the decisions going forward to add to that.”
The beginning of this rebuild wasn’t pretty. Dunn broke his finger, Portis broke Nikola Mirotic’s face during a fight in practice, and the Bulls were so dreadful that they almost made fans nostalgic for those initial seasons under Tim Floyd after the Jordan dynasty ended. Then, miraculously, the Bulls caught fire after Mirotic returned, and true haters panned the relative success because the team couldn’t even tank properly. “It’s not our decision to go out there and tank. This is our livelihood. You step between those lines, you’re not going to give in to anybody, regardless of who it is or what people are going to tell you,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports. “We go out there to win.”
Chicago has since settled into being a highly competitive and exciting team with an encouraging future. Somewhere between when Portis’ punch connected on Oct. 17 and when Dunn had an unfortunate face plant following a dunk on Jan. 17 that resulted in him entering concussion protocol, the Bulls learned that the three pieces they acquired from Minnesota to help “jump-start” the rebuild process might actually form the foundation.
Could’ve been that film session at the University of Charlotte, where Dunn recognized the errors of his ways during a fourth-quarter meltdown in Indiana and vowed to never make those mistakes again. Could’ve been when Markkanen stepped in Madison Square Garden for the first time and outplayed Kristaps Porzingis by hitting eight 3-pointers. Could’ve been when LaVine made his long-anticipated season debut Jan. 13 and flashed that enviable athleticism and underrated skill that made him worth the risk of acquiring while he was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“Jimmy provided so much for our team, but to get three young pieces, all of them with very bright futures, is exciting and I think those guys have exceeded expectations to this point,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.
The Butler trade wasn’t universally praised when it went down, with some suggesting the Bulls got minimal return for an elite talent. But as deals last summer involving Paul George and Carmelo Anthony would also later prove, none of the teams that dealt All-Star forwards last summer got swindled. Paxson and general manager Gar Forman gave Butler the chance to play for something of substance in Minnesota while the Bulls decided to dwell in the shadows as their young talent incubated. “To make a quality deal, it’s almost like the two teams, their personal situations have to align,” Paxson told Yahoo Sports. “You can talk to both sides, and I think both of us are really happy the way it’s worked out.”
Since Hoiberg handed him the offense upon his return from that open dislocation of his left ring finger, Dunn has reminded folks why so many teams — including the Bulls — thought so highly of him before going fifth in the 2016 draft, before a miserable rookie season left his confidence in tatters. Dunn has been a relentless defender and fearless rim attacker, a closer who can put the finishing touches on wins. The Bulls will need Dunn to maintain that aggressiveness when he returns, though a little hesitancy could be understandable after a fast-break dunk against the Warriors ended with pieces of his teeth getting caught in the hardwood.
The highest possible lottery odds appeared to be the primary goal for this season and that plan was coming to fruition when the Bulls started the season 3-20, with a gruesome 10-game losing streak that included a 49-point beatdown at Golden State. But if there was one positive that could be taken from the Portis-Mirotic incident, it forced Markkanen into a starting role much earlier than anticipated, and he could establish himself as the franchise prize before all is said and done. “I think the kid’s got a chance to be special,” Hoiberg told Yahoo Sports.
Markkanen, a 7-foot native of Finland who played one year at Arizona, was a player the Bulls had targeted during draft preparation, with Hoiberg enamored by a skill set and athleticism that were perfect for a modern-era big man. He recently reached 100 career 3-pointers faster than any player in history, breaking the record previously held by Damian Lillard, and his ability to slash and finish (or is that Finnish?) with authority has also earned Markkanen the approval of Dirk Nowitzki.
“I don’t think anyone realized the poise he has as a young player. If you watch him consistently, he does not get flustered in any way shape or form,” Paxson told Yahoo Sports. “He doesn’t back down. Even in games when the ball isn’t coming to him, he’s got the same expression. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t get flustered. ‘I’m not getting my touches.’ He seems to just get it. There are going to be times where we’ll want him to be more assertive, but we’ll take where he is right now. He’s been terrific. He’s got tremendous upside.”
LaVine, a two-time slam dunk champion, worked his way into being included as part of a trio of promising talents in Minnesota, along with two No. 1 overall picks, before his knee injury. He has played just six games in his return and half of those were with Markkanen and Dunn. Eventually, the trio will have to develop some chemistry and camaraderie, but Hoiberg is already encouraged by what he’s seen from LaVine. “He makes hard things look easy and there just aren’t a lot of guys like that in the league,” Hoiberg told Yahoo Sports.
A minute restriction has done little to slow his production, which isn’t a surprise from a player who refused to be pigeonholed as a high flyer. “From the dunk contest, from fans and media, they just put that label on you. Everybody in the NBA knows you can’t play just for being athletic. I’ve always been that type of dude, when you get the opportunity to show it to everybody, you do that,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports. “I can’t control what everybody else says. I know I’m going to bring my talent and I’m going to prove that we got just enough. I’m going to prove that I’m holding up my end of the bargain. Jimmy Butler is an incredible All-Star player, top all-league-type guy. I have some time to get to that point and I want to get to that point as well.”
The Bulls have provided LaVine with an opportunity that wasn’t necessarily available in Minnesota, or even in college at UCLA, which is why his short time in Chicago has already convinced him that he’d like to be a part of the Bulls’ long-term plans. “I don’t want to go anywhere else,” LaVine, who is a restricted free agent this summer, told Yahoo Sports. “The biggest thing is being wanted and people trusting in you. I feel the love and I definitely want to continue to grow and get better with this organization and help bring it back to the plateau it was at, being one of the best franchises in history. We got spoiled back in the ’90s with The Dude. But Chicago deserves that, so that’s where we have to be at.”
And like those Cheez-Its at the vending machine, the Bulls just have to hope the reset button has already left at least two building blocks in the bin.
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