As All-Star Weekend descends upon Chicago in a few weeks, the hometown team is still searching for an identity and respect. The Bulls haven’t been close to an NBA title since Michael Jordan’s stepback against Bryon Russell 22 years ago, and save for a few years with Derrick Rose as the leader, they have remained mired in mediocrity.
Zach LaVine is the face of the current Bulls franchise. A high flyer and prolific scorer, LaVine is on the verge of All-Star status but what has prevented him from becoming a superstar is the Bulls’ lack of success. They are four games back of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, despite a collection of lottery picks over the past several years.
The Bulls aren’t the most talented team in the NBA but they may be the most underachieving. LaVine pushes forward, trying to gain what many of his peers already have: respect as a winner.
“Once you’re part of a winning team, it seems like it comes easier,” he said. “I’m not here just doing it for the respect, I work my [butt] off and go out and compete to win, not play for myself.
“Every time you come out here, you’ve got to prove something.”
The Bulls are a franchise that appears resistant to change. General manager Gar Forman and president John Paxson have failed in attracting major free agents and then hired the hard-charging Jim Boylen to replace laid-back Fred Hoiberg as coach last season. The results have been mixed at best. Boylen has clashed with his players because of an abrasive style and LaVine has been relegated to keeping his mouth shut and playing ball.
“We’re playing with teams, we’re competing, we’re in a lot of our games,” LaVine said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to win, that final part of being consistent with it is the hardest. I feel like we’re close, I feel like we’ve been close, but we’ve been close for a while now.
“If I knew [how to get out of it] we wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s growing pains, a lot of different things that can account for it. But I think the hardest thing in professional sports is learning how to win.”
LaVine is 14th in league scoring and is capable of dropping 40 on any given night. But he’s taken the brunt of criticism for the Bulls not winning and being more consumed with stats than team success. He’s frustrated. He’s never played in the postseason in his six years. And the Bulls are trying to find a way with a coach who is perhaps over his head and players who have never learned how to win.
“I think I’m my toughest critic and when I don’t do my job, I think it’s a lot harder for the team to be successful,” LaVine said. “So I look at myself first and try to keep spirits high when I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, to encourage. We can’t get down on each other. We have to still stick together.”
The White Sox, Blackhawks, and even the Cubs have won championships since Jordan’s clinching shot. There is pressure in the Second City for the Bulls to break through. LaVine realizes that, but it’s also difficult to play in the shadow of perhaps the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
“We have a new system, a new coaching staff, new players. It takes time. You just want to hurry and speed that process up,” he said. “Top-three franchise ever. They’re obviously used to winning and they want to get back to that. I don’t think we’re going to be the ’90s Bulls. Maybe they think we will be, but I’m sorry — ain’t nobody going to be that anymore. We’re trying to be the best version of us.”
All LaVine can do is improve on being a playmaker and leader. He has proven he can score effortlessly, but the next step is making his teammates better. Until that occurs and the Bulls start to win more than lose, he’ll be known mostly as a high flyer and former dunk contest champion.
“I still have my mistakes I’m working on, but I think I’ve picked that up more than I have in the past,” he said. “You want to be at that level to where you could be criticized on different levels. That’s a respect thing. That’s something you want to work for.
“I don’t think you got out there and get 20-plus points a game from just dunks, but I think the average fan sees you in the dunk contest for the first two years and that’s what they see you for, and that’s fine. I think I’ve expanded on that.”
Book it: Pelicans will make playoffs
Here are my final 10 predictions for 2020.
■ The New Orleans Pelicans will make the playoffs. With Zion Williamson coming back and Brandon Ingram playing at an All-Star level, the Pelicans will reach the playoffs and save Alvin Gentry’s job.
■ The Philadelphia 76ers will lose in the first round of the playoffs. It hasn’t been a pleasant season for the 76ers with chemistry issues, and now the injury to Joel Embiid makes them susceptible for a first-round upset.
■ Jim Boylen will be fired in Chicago unless the Bulls reach the playoffs. Boylen has been on the hot seat almost since he took over the coaching helm, and now with the Bulls underachieving, he could lose his job.
■ This will be Gregg Popovich’s final season as Spurs coach. San Antonio has played well of late, but Popovich is 70 years old and standouts LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could both be headed out of town after the season. Does Pop want to go through another rebuild?
■ Billy Donovan will be named Coach of the Year. After being maligned for most of his tenure in Oklahoma City, Donovan will finally receive kudos if the Thunder reach the playoffs. They are the seventh seed.
■ Blake Griffin has played his last game in a Pistons uniform. The former All-Star and slam dunk champ has been felled by knee issues over the past few years and the rebuilding Pistons will find a trade partner and send him to a contender.
■ Kevin Love won’t be traded by the deadline. Because of his salary ($30 million per season) and with three more years left on the deal, it will be impossible for the Cavaliers to find a trade partner for Love before Feb. 6. They’ll wait for the summer.
■ This will be Isaiah Thomas’s lone season in Washington. With the Wizards rebuilding and Thomas still slowly trying to regain form, their marriage will end with Thomas looking for another deal this summer.
■ The Knicks will finally win the draft lottery. They have been waiting for years for the No. 1 pick, and in a draft that’s considered solid but not spectacular, the Knicks will have the first overall pick.
■ Vince Carter will retire but could be on an NBA coaching staff next season. Carter will have his choice of a TV job or as an attractive candidate for a top assistant coaching position.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
New agreement propels WNBA
Some predicted contentious talks between the WNBA and its players’ union over a new collective bargaining agreement. The players walked into those meetings with many demands, seeking to improve what they believed to be substandard treatment.
After negotiations that included several players, legal representatives, and first-time commissioner Cathy Engelbert, the players came away with a landmark deal that features improvements across the board with salaries, amenities, conditions, and even a maternity plan.
The new deal includes:
■ 50-50 revenue-sharing beginning in 2021.
■ An improved compensation plan for the league’s elite players and additional money for players winning other league awards.
■ Improved travel conditions for players.
■ A new childcare stipend of $5,000.
■ Players with children receive two-bedroom apartments.
■ Reimbursement of $60,000 for players seeking adoption, surrogacy, or other means of having children.
■ Free agency a year earlier than the previous agreement.
■ A program to help players who want to eventually become coaches and front office executives.
■ An enhanced mental health program.
All parties came away satisfied, hoping the new plan fosters increased player happiness and can perhaps prevent players from having to play overseas in the offseason for financial need if they would rather stay in the states.
Engelbert said it was a victory for women’s sports. “Particularly as I came in, the US women’s national team was coming off their World Cup win, there were surveys that 85 percent of people love to watch women’s sports. Where are they?” she said. “Then there’s this movement — no doubt that I think we’re all going to benefit from this women’s empowerment movement where women are getting more roles on corporate boards in corporate America. There’s a lot of issues that still companies are dealing with around their diversity-inclusion platforms that are transforming some of these organizations who want to be leaders.
“We at the WNBA want to be leaders and role models around that. I came into this role saying this is one of the reasons I took the role, because it has a huge women’s empowerment platform. Little did I know the amazing quality of play I would find, the amazing athletes, their amazing stories. Playing off that, collaborating around marketing, driving the league, is all things that I’m thrilled to have inherited — the team, the rebrand being so important to elevate the women as well, then continuing that journey into the season.
“All of that I think has been key to take advantage of the commitments we can make in the CBA as owners, our teams and as a league, to really take advantage of all that. But we are betting on women, as our players have said, in a big way here, betting on the WNBA. I couldn’t be more optimistic from what I hear and feel, and even just announcing this with the boldness in which we both came together and collaborated is pretty neat to watch.”
Connecticut Sun guard Layshia Clarendon said the diversity of the negotiating committee and the collective effort to improve women’s sport fostered the progressive discussions.
“I think particularly the fact that we’re going to be more directed and targeted in our marketing with a league full of women and league of color and queer women is a big hit,” she said. “I think for women who have often been underpaid, we know black women are underpaid, queer people, adds a layer on top of that — fight this fight and take our power back, have this moment.
“I think it’s huge. It means everything. I think we’re still a little surreal that we’re announcing it today, like we set out a year ago with this goal that we’re going to bet on women, that we want more, that we’re demanding more, that we really deserve more.
“How amazing to fight for the collective world of social justice that is going to set up women of color and all women and girls have an opportunity to play in this league.”
The one thing that emanated from this agreement is that the WNBA is here to stay. It’s entering its 24th season and while Engelbert said the focus is not on expansion at this point, there is an increased emphasis to improve the health of the current 12 teams.
“It was important to have a progressive, aggressive, bold CBA to drive, again, the value that these athletes can provide, to drive that value from our revenue sources, and ultimately drive the revenue of our franchises up,” Engelbert said. “We’re the only professional women’s sports league to last over two decades. We have an enormous opportunity. I believe if we can’t do it, no one can. We’re making a big bet at a time where we have this opportunity because of the momentum and this movement around women’s empowerment.
“We just need to find ways to attract fans, to activate the marketing agreements with players, collaborate and be the pioneers in women and team sports. The health and viability of the league, the state of the league is strong. We’re going to continue to drive calls to action to support women because I think the moment is now.”
The league definitely has an identity issue. Jerseys for sale on the website feature the team’s sponsor logo that is larger than the team nickname. While NBA jerseys have smaller sponsorship logos on the right shoulder, the WNBA has been taken over by sponsorship on jerseys, which has diluted player and team identity. Engelbert promised to investigate that.
“The one thing I learned in my 12-city tour is how passionate our fans are about our merchandise and branding. They love the new branding, the new logos,” she said. “We need obviously to focus more on the team branding, so it’s definitely high on the list. We’re working on that. If you think about we’ll be tipping off our 25th season next year, we could do some interesting things around that. Certainly kind of focusing on team branding.
“We’ve actually welcomed the input of the players as we kind of forge into the future and really fully roll out the branding that we reset last season. We’re working on that. Team branding, elevating that, making that more distinctive is part of that. We’re working with our partners on that.”
The Hawks brought back Jeff Teague to serve as a backup to Trae Young this past week, moving oft-injured shooter Allen Crabbe to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Teague played his first seven NBA seasons in Atlanta before the rebuilding Hawks moved him to the Timberwolves, where he was supposed to serve as a reliable point guard on a rising team. It never quite worked out that way, and it wasn’t all Teague’s fault. Some of the blame goes to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Teague’s contract is expiring, and he’ll have a solid opportunity to serve as a mentor to Young and perhaps earn another multiyear contract in the summer. For the Timberwolves, they remain a team in transition. The Timberwolves are the most disappointing team in the NBA, losing 21 of their last 29 games with Wiggins yet to reach All-Star level. Should there be more pressure on coach Ryan Saunders, who was assigned with the task of pushing Minnesota to playoff level? That’s an interesting question . . . This past week will be the last one of NBA play without Zion Williamson in action. The prized rookie will make his debut Wednesday for the Pelicans against the Spurs. Williamson worked feverishly over the past month to return from his knee injury. He was in Boston with his teammates last Saturday and wowed a throng of fans pregame with his freakish athleticism. Williamson also took pictures and shook hands with a group of high school students who were taking a picture at midcourt. Just 19, Williamson could be the most highly anticipated player to enter the league since LeBron James, and fans have had to wait a few months more than expected because of his knee surgery. But he could help the playoff-pushing Pelicans. ESPN jumped on board by dropping Wednesday’s Nuggets-Rockets matchup to add Pelicans-Spurs. The Pelicans already have been on national television multiple times without Williamson, and now will be a more entertaining club with him in the lineup . . . Williamson’s teammate, Brandon Ingram, is making a late bid for an All-Star spot with his stellar play, including 49 points against the Jazz on Thursday.
The Warriors re-signed center Marquese Chriss to a two-way contract after waiving him last week. Chriss has bounced around the league since being drafted eighth overall by Sacramento in 2016. The Warriors want to give him a chance to develop. He’ll have the rest of the season to make an impression.