‘Bigger Than Basketball’: Zach LaVine Is Eager For Chicago Bulls’ Season, But Covid Looms
Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine will be bringing a lot into the new NBA season, with training camp set to begin in a little more than two weeks.
He will bring a gold medal—“the right color medal,” he told me— from the Tokyo Olympics, where he averaged 10.6 points and 4.0 assists, to go with 59.0% shooting, off the bench for Team USA. He will bring a batch of new teammates, including last spring’s midseason addition Nikola Vucevic and free-agent pickups Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. He’ll bring a higher profile, too, coming off his first All-Star appearance and a role in NBA2K22’s special Dew Zone feature, along with a new Mountain Dew ad spot filmed with Zion Williamson.
There’s a lot going LaVine’s way.
But he will also bring some special familiarity with one of the big issues the league already is facing now as it wrestles with the opening of the season, in 40 days: Covid. Months after it appeared that pandemic was behind us, the virus is raging across the country again. LaVine knows well what it can do, having seen his Bulls’ 2020-21 season torpedoed by Covid and being forced to miss 11 games when he contracted it in April.
LaVine was frustrated by the length of his absence.
“It is tough because it is bigger than basketball, obviously,” LaVine said recently. “It has been affecting not only the basketball community but the entire world. You just want to be safe at the end of the day. I want my parents, my family to be safe. I think last year gave us a shock because it was unlike any season any of us had ever played. But I think now we do know how to handle it going forward with certain situations—protecting yourself, guys going out of the lineup, main players on your team being out because of Covid. I had it at the end of the season and missed 20-something games and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Losing several players—Lauri Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison—to Covid protocols early in the year sapped the Bulls of depth and played a big role in the team getting off to just a 4-8 start. They never seemed to fully recover, even after a March deadline trade that brought in star Magic center Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic and LaVine seemed to have trouble getting on the same page, with neither wanting to dominate the ball over the other. LaVine was too eager to get Vucevic the ball. Vucevic was too eager to show that it was still LaVine’s team. Just 10 games into the Vucevic-LaVine combo, LaVine’s Covid issue struck.
“The familiarity part is hard, it is something to get used to,” LaVine said. “It’s something that, for two players like ourselves that want to make it work and aren’t selfish by any means at all, I think there was a little bit of us not each letting loose a little bit. I think now with training camp, being able to build up in a complete preseason instead of just having, you know, 18-20 games to try to go play with somebody and go after something, I think it will help out a lot more.”
Of all the new benefits LaVine has acquired in this offseason, probably the most important one for him is the simplest: time.
I spoke to LaVine from his trailer as he was filming the Mountain Dew commercial with Williamson in Southern California. After a hectic season followed by a grind through the Team USA training camp and the Olympics, LaVine had a bit of a break to allow his body to rest. But, he said, “I am already a little anxious to get back to basketball.”
There is good reason for that. Few teams have had the same overhaul in the last six months that the Bulls have had. Not only is Vucevic on board, but the Bulls brought in point guard Lonzo Ball from New Orleans and pulled off a surprise by adding wing DeMar DeRozan, a 12-year veteran and four-time All-Star who averaged 21.6 points last season.
The Bulls made less splashy acquisitions that should beef up the team’s defense, too: center Tony Bradley, wings Derrick Jones Jr., Troy Brown Jr. and Stanley Johnson, power forward Alize Johnson.
Checking his excitement level, LaVine said, “Extremely.”
“I think we have a great group of guys and talent going in there,” LaVine said. “Especially when you have high expectations—you want to live up to those. I want to start early from the ground, get everybody on the same page, obviously we have a lot of new players, a lot of new personalities. We have expectations this year, but we have to go out there and show people why we want to go out there and win.”
Of course, he and the rest of the NBA—the world in general, in fact—could do with some taming of the global pandemic that has come roaring back in recent weeks. LaVine and the Bulls were battered by the virus last season. But he’s hoping everyone is better prepared to handle it this time around.
“Hopefully, everything gets under control and we can continue to get better with awareness and our safety,” LaVine said. “But at the end of the day, we’re basketball players and we have to be able to adjust. It is what we do.”