Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Artūras Karnišovas could’ve answered the open-ended question any number of ways.
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Speaking late last month after the NBA Draft, a night whose lead-up had featured Zach LaVine landing in multiple trade rumors, the Chicago Bulls’ executive vice president was asked to articulate LaVine’s standing within the organization.
“I think we all were disappointed the way the season ended. Zach was one of the guys who was very disappointed with the way it ended in Miami. He went into the offseason to get better,” Karnišovas said. “He’s already working out with Ty Abbott, (our) player development (coach) in Los Angeles. He’s trying to get better.”
Given that Karnišovas' response, while positive, didn’t register as a long-term endorsement or commitment, the question is: Will LaVine get better in Chicago?
The LaVine trade chatter isn’t going away. In fact, league sources said that LaVine has landed in preliminary conversations with both the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers, who are working with James Harden and Damian Lillard, respectively, to find them new homes.
While neither of those conversations gained traction for now, the fact that LaVine continues to be discussed only underscores the speculation that multiple rival executives voiced to NBC Sports Chicago during the NBA Draft Combine in May: Will LaVine finish his five-year maximum contract with the Bulls?
Back then, speculation centered on Portland perhaps trying to trade for LaVine in an effort to appease Lillard, rather than keeping and using the No. 3 overall pick. Instead, the Trail Blazers selected Scoot Henderson, committing to a youth movement that has led to Lillard’s trade request.
The Bulls recognize LaVine represents their biggest trade asset. And league sources said the Bulls’ asking price in any conversation about LaVine has consistently been extremely high.
So perhaps this is shoot-for-the-moon stuff and nothing happens. Perhaps this all is just the business of basketball, LaVine comes to training camp in the Fall and the Bulls, who have upgraded their margins thus far in free agency, mesh and a winning season leads to all this speculation being forgotten.
But it’s also fair to wonder how all this speculation will register with LaVine, who seemingly has always faced an uphill climb to full acceptance from the Bulls and some of the fan base. From needing to secure an offer sheet in 2018 restricted free agency to ceding last-shot responsibility to DeMar DeRozan to seemingly daily debates on talk radio and social media whether he can be the lead player on a championship team, LaVine has been a polarizing player.
LaVine typically has taken the high road through the highs and lows of his six-season tenure with the Bulls, which began with him rehabilitating a torn ACL. He also played through torn ligaments in his thumb and through a knee injury that eventually required surgery during a contract year because he wanted to experience playoff basketball for the first time and help the franchise experience it for the first time in five seasons.
The most significant times when LaVine has expressed his displeasure came following high-profile benchings by former and current coaches in Jim Boylen and Billy Donovan. While LaVine respects Donovan, he has had multiple meetings over the past two seasons about his role and usage, team sources said.
Those same sources said that the franchise has fluctuated in its belief in LaVine’s consistency as a lead option, questions that only intensified following LaVine’s up-and-down performances in the play-in games. After almost single-handedly willing the Bulls to a victory in Toronto with 39 points, LaVine shot 6-for-21 with five turnovers in the season-ending loss to the Miami Heat.
Publicly, Donovan and Karnišovas have consistently praised LaVine’s work ethic and care factor.
The Athletic reported last December that LaVine and the Bulls weren’t seeing eye-to-eye and that there’s a “palpable feeling of a disconnect over LaVine’s situation in Chicago.” LaVine downplayed the report at the time.
“If I had something to say about the team, it would come from my mouth. That didn’t come from me. I feel good about the team,” LaVine said in December 2022 following a road victory over the Heat. “Obviously, we’re frustrated because we’ve lost some games.’’
LaVine, along with Coby White, represent the last two players whom Karnišovas inherited who remain on the roster. Whatever skepticism Karnišovas might’ve had about LaVine initially when he took over for John Paxson seemed to be washed away.
LaVine impressed with his work ethic and team-first approach as he earned his first All-Star berth in 2021 and won an Olympic gold medal that summer with USA Basketball. A second straight All-Star berth followed in 2022. And that offseason, the Bulls signed LaVine to a five-year, $215 million maximum contract.
That’s a significant financial commitment, to be sure, and a statement of belief in LaVine at that time. But will LaVine finish that contract in Chicago? It’s a question that keeps resurfacing.