Bulls Mailbag

Bulls mailbag: Sit Zach LaVine until trade? Will Alex Caruso stay?

Zach LaVine's future is the subject of much speculation.

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The Bulls are on their first two-game win streak of the season and face a Charlotte Hornets team playing without LaMelo Ball. What could go wrong?

Oh, wait, you’re the ones asking the questions.

I would like to know if, in your opinion, the match against the Bucks is a sign that DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are breaking the offensive system. In the next game, when DeRozan didn't respect the system, the team struggled. How could the front office have not seen these actions since the team, in addition to respecting good strategy and the system, played with an energy that we did not see in the previous 19 games? ---Bulls Nation Brasil

I saw a lot of definitive statements made about the Bucks game and, to a lesser extent, the Pelicans game---where, it should be noted, DeRozan returned with a season-high 10 assists. And while it’s notable these two victories came without LaVine and the Bulls posted a season-high 32 assists in each, let’s slow the roll that this team is better without LaVine and DeRozan. Let’s cut to the chase: LaVine hasn’t played to his standards this season. But he’s not some gunner ballhog. Witness the games in which Miami blitzed him and he got criticized for not taking enough shots. The bigger issue is that LaVine has struggled to finish at the rim, is shooting below his career percentages and has stymied the coaching staff’s desire for quicker decisions too often with poor decisions. But as recently as last season, he was one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. Let’s see how the offense looks when he returns and if he starts playing to his standards.

I have always been Zach’s biggest fan. But if he doesn't want to be in Chicago anymore, is it time to tell Zach to stay home until he's traded? This situation has got to be a distraction to the team and maybe it's time to give the minutes to the players that want to be here. At this point, the league knows who Zach is and don't think him not playing will impact his worth. Also, do you see any scenario where Zach isn't traded by the deadline? --- Muly S.

There are two scenarios in which LaVine isn’t traded, one more realistic than the other. The Bulls go on an unexpected run with everybody playing well and management chooses to keep the team intact. This, to me, is less likely. But there’s a real scenario in which the Bulls can’t find the right LaVine trade. This isn’t an easy contract to move, particularly if it’s a team looking to add LaVine as a second or third option. While the Lakers never have blinked at paying the luxury tax, and while I expect them to show interest, LaVine would be the third option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He’d be lethal in this scenario. But will the Lakers be willing to add a player making more than $40 million over the next three seasons as a third option? Granted, James could retire in that window. So stay tuned. And I do think the Bulls will be motivated to find LaVine a new address. But it’s not a sure thing that he’s dealt this season. Perhaps it moves into the offseason? I do think he ultimately will be traded. And when he’s healthy, he can and will play.

Will they trade Alex Caruso? Lots of franchises make the mistake of trading a guy a year too late. Caruso is a plus/minus monster who is at absolute peak trade value now. He’s literally the only guy on the roster that could net a useful pick or more. And he's certain to start breaking down more and lose value in the next 12 months. If they don't trade him, that's malpractice. --- Alejandro Y.

All I can say is I’ve reported they’ve been hesitant to do so to this point. Now, that obviously can change between now and the Feb. 8 deadline. And there likely will be solid offers for Caruso, who is the perfect over-the-top piece for championship contending teams. There’s also a scenario in which, in order to trade LaVine, Caruso may have to be included. But Caruso is arguably this regime’s greatest success story and he is the perfect embodiment of the culture the franchise wants to project. Trading him would be painful for this management team; I can assure you that.

Do you get an overall sense if the team feels their collective shooting struggles require adjustments or that they'll return to form as the season goes on? It seems like almost everyone (except Alex Caruso maybe) is shooting a career-low percentage and my non-scientific view is that they mostly get good looks overall. --- Steve P.

Your non-scientific view is bolstered by comments from players and coach Billy Donovan when we ask. I mean, the career percentages are career percentages for a reason. Just look at Coby White, for example. He started the season shooting extremely poorly and has dug himself out of his hole, now connecting at a career-high 40.3 percent from 3-point range on career-high volume of 7.1 attempts per game. DeRozan, at 45.6 percent, is .12 below his career percentage---and well below the 50.4 percent he shot in his first two seasons here. Nikola Vucevic is shooting just 45.3 percent and an unsightly 24.3 percent from 3-point range, both well below his career marks of 49.5 and 34.5 percent. And then there’s LaVine, who’s at 44.3 percent overall and struggling to finish at the rim and also connecting on just 33.6 percent from 3-point range. LaVine is a career 38.2 percent 3-point shooter and connected at 41.9 percent as recently as 2020-21. Donovan says he has liked the shots the Bulls have generated. The Bulls hired Peter Patton in the offseason, investing in player development with one of the more highly-regarded shooting coaches in the league.  Stay tuned.

There's a lot of talk about "the Big 3 didn't work/has never worked/will never work." But one thing I don't feel like I've seen is why. I need an expert to break this down in depth. --- Matt H.

I’m no expert, but I can play one in this mailbag. I’d start by saying the “Big 3” did work for an entire half-season in 2021-22 when Lonzo Ball was healthy. But I digress.

A big issue, and each of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic have alluded to this separately at times, is the lack of a true pecking order. Sometimes, each player seems as if they’re deferring to much to the others. Donovan’s true vision is for ball and player movement to create situations were two defenders are on the ball and then the ball is swung to the open player to address a closeout situation. In other words, the game dictates who gets the shot. But especially in the cases of LaVine and DeRozan, who have the ability to create their own shots, they’re in deferral mode until they feel the need to try to create a rhythm. And that’s when isolation habits come into play.

A team with this many offensive-minded players shouldn’t rank 24th in offense, as the Bulls did last season, or 26th, as they do this season as of this typing.

I can’t be smarter than Arturas Karnisovas. How can he not see before the season started this team wasn’t championship level? Did he think they could be the Heat of last year? With Coby playing great and Patrick Williams starting to hit his stride, doesn’t it make logical sense to trade our “Big 3” of LaVine, DeMar and Vooch? The worst thing a GM can do is be stubborn. The smart GMs see they made a mistake and move on. What are you hearing? --- Emir M.

I’m hearing what I’ve already reported: Rival teams, at least for now, are working under the assumption that management is focused on the LaVine situation. There’s little to no chance Vucevic gets traded since he just signed a three-year deal. DeRozan is the one to watch. If you know you’re going to lose him for nothing in unrestricted free agency next summer, it’s indeed best to get what you can for him before the Feb. 8 deadline. But Karnisovas has said publicly he’d like to re-sign DeRozan. As for championship level, management never stated that as this season’s goal. They said they wanted to return to the playoffs, which is a longshot at this point as well.

What’s your favourite Joakim Noah quote of all time? I'm from Australia, so we spell favourite differently, ha. --- Matt A.

He certainly presented plenty of options. But the following is my favorite, not only because of how fantastic it is and how perfectly it represents his personality, but also because of the context surrounding it.

Noah, who was very accessible and enjoyed the give-and-take with reporters, didn’t address the media for a week following the Luol Deng trade. He was too stung by it and upset and didn’t want to say the wrong thing. When he broke his silence following a home victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, Noah offered up a soliloquy for the ages.

“I know a lot of people say this is a business and all that, but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I've got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective. Everybody has a different job. I'm not mad at anybody. I'm not mad at the organization or anything like that. It's just that my brother isn't here, so I just need time to digest that.

We just want to represent,” Noah continued. “We know this is a city that even when I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. It’s cold outside. When he sees me driving by, he’s excited. He’s like, ‘All right, Let’s go Bulls! Get it done tonight!’ I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena and I see teams call timeout and I see the guy who looks this big (in the upper 300 level) and he’s cheering, jumping up and down; that’s the guy I play for. To me, that’s what this city represents. There’s a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city. And I feel like when I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team.”

I remember being aware of how great this quote was as he delivered it. I was standing right next to a seated Noah. And the passion with which he delivered these words was palpable. Great stuff.

What are you going to change your X profile picture to when Zach leaves? --- Maria M.

Guess we’ll all have to wait and see, right? I’ll just say my track record is to select pictures where either I look somewhat stupid (surprisingly, not that hard to find) or am not the focal point.

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