SACRAMENTO — You can make all the lineup changes you want. At the end of the day, the Chicago Bulls’ fortunes will rise and fall with the play of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević.
This isn’t some hot take. It’s the way of the NBA, which always has been a star-driven league.
Billy Donovan even said as much before the crushing Nov. 18 home loss to the Orlando Magic when he didn’t replace Ayo Dosunmu with Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams with Javonte Green in the starting lineup. Instead, he called on his “Big Three” to be better.
And LaVine seconded that opinion following Friday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors after Donovan finally did make those lineup changes.
That may be the only thing on which LaVine and Donovan currently agree.
“Coach got to make his decisions, but you know the best players on the team, we got to be the ones that make the plays,” LaVine said. “On bad days, take the criticism. Good days, make sure to help us win. Play defense. Make the shot. That’s what you do. That’s why you’re in position to do this. It’s a player-driven league. I think it always starts from top to bottom.”
That Nov. 18 night on which Donovan first publicly challenged his veterans is the same night that he benched LaVine in favor of Dosunmu for the closing minutes. Even on a night he shot 1-for-14, the decision didn’t sit well with LaVine, who first voiced his frustration postgame and then doubled down at practice two days later.
LaVine has been open about how much that benching bothered him, feeling that a two-time All-Star and one of the faces of the franchise has earned the right to play through bad games. Perhaps that’s why he so tersely responded to a question about whether or not he agreed that the locker room felt a lineup change was necessary following Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Suns in Phoenix.
“Nah, nah, I think that was his (Donovan's) opinion,” LaVine said.
To be clear, it’s not like LaVine is clamoring for Dosunmu and Williams to start. In fact, he praised Green at length, saying “he’s been quintessential to what we do” and that “anybody in the NBA would be lucky to have a guy like that on their team.”
It’s more that LaVine didn’t fully agree with Donovan’s read of the locker room following the loss in Phoenix. Just like LaVine didn’t agree with Donovan’s decision to pull him from that home loss to the Magic.
That disconnect is one part of the broader precarious position in which the Bulls' Big Three finds themselves.
LaVine is shooting 40.9 percent, the second-lowest mark of his career, and, whether through role or lack of rhythm following offseason knee surgery, not consistently flashing the form he used to make two straight All-Star games.
Vučević didn’t even receive an extension offer last offseason and entered the season professionally yet emphatically talking about needing to play less on the perimeter and getting more paint touches.
And DeRozan is suddenly landing in preliminary trade rumors in the unlikely case management pivots off its dramatic overhaul and cashes in its most tradeable asset. By the way, DeRozan is extension-eligible this offseason as well on a deal that runs through 2023-24.
In 375 shared minutes, LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic own a net rating of minus-6.9. Worse, their offensive rating sits at just 107.4.
For comparison, the Warriors’ Big Three of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green owns a net rating of plus-14.5 with an offensive rating of 123.9.
Caruso and Green almost certainly will remain in the starting lineup for Sunday’s game against the Kings, which concludes six straight away games. They likely will remain there for the foreseeable future.
But the Bulls’ fortunes will rest on LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic playing better together. LaVine said he’s ready for the challenge.
“We have a great group of guys and we’re playing for each other,” he said.