Zach LaVine refutes players-only meeting concern after Game 1, but Bulls still at an inflection point

Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said his players were having a team meeting in the wake of an opening-night loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder — a 20-point beatdown, it should be said.

But All-Star guard Zach LaVine says it wasn’t some team meeting, not in the sense of how he defines it.

“A team meeting is when guys collectively call themselves in and talk about things,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports recently. “We didn’t have a team meeting, I think it’s a basketball conversation.”

However it’s viewed, it certainly feels like the Bulls are on some level of fragile ground to start the season. It took a near-miracle to get the Bulls their first win of the season, an overtime thriller over the Toronto Raptors.

Then, LaVine having a 50-ball couldn’t prevent them from suffering at the hands of the Detroit Pistons for their home opener on Saturday — he essentially stopped it from being an embarrassment, which would’ve made it two in the first five days of the season.

“You get your ass kicked on the first day and we’re having conversations from top to bottom,” LaVine said. “If we don’t want the coaches in there while we are talking, that’s not a team meeting, it’s players talking amongst ourselves. I don’t know if coach got that misunderstood or not.”

It was clear the players didn’t want Donovan or anyone else to hear what was discussed, and the concerns have to be heightened in the first handful of games.

Being without point guard Lonzo Ball is an easy culprit, as he didn’t play at all last season and is expected to miss this entire season recovering from his latest left knee surgery. The grand vision of Ball with LaVine and DeMar DeRozan on the wings hasn’t come to fruition outside of a promising stretch in the 2021-22 season, when Ball played 35 games.

The Bulls are 26th in net rating (-7.5), in the bottom third offensively and defensively and dropped to 2-3 after a 114-105 loss to Dallas on Wednesday night. For a team that’s had more continuity than most in the East, they don’t look like a cohesive unit.

They’re still waiting on Patrick Williams, the fourth pick in the 2020 draft, to come alive. If he figures things out, it changes the floor for them. If he stays as inconsistent as he’s been so far, that’s a rough miss on a top pick for Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley, who serve as VP of basketball operations and general manager, respectively.

They were in the play-in tournament last season and held a late lead against the Miami Heat before Miami turned it around, eventually advancing to the Finals.

“You know, we’re on our third year now, and I’ve been saying since training camp: It’s time to put pen to paper,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports. “If it don’t work, we understand the business of basketball. We have three All-Star players. We gotta make this work, from top to bottom. It’s not just the players. We gotta make this click.”

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine plays during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine said the team has to 'make this work' after a disappointing start to the season. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

That’s as strong a statement as LaVine would make, preferring not to seriously wade into the waters of controversy.

With reporters moments later, LaVine said: “We understand that. I’ve been traded. [Nikola Vučević] has been traded. DeMar has been traded. We care for each other, but we know what’s on the other side of that.”

The Bulls could be at an inflection point of sorts, as the gamble the front-office regime made in bringing in DeRozan and Vučević hasn’t paid off. DeRozan has been stellar in his time in Chicago, but he and the Bulls couldn’t come to terms on an extension. Vučević was complaining about touches in the season opener and had a visible exchange with Donovan during the game.

LaVine’s name has naturally come up in trade speculation, particularly as the Philadelphia 76ers are looking for a high-level wing to replace James Harden, but there hasn’t been any indication thus far about the Bulls looking to move LaVine.

They’re not imploding or fracturing, but it seems they’re approaching a critical point if things don’t improve.

“I don’t think we’re at a crossroads, you never want to put something out there too early,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports. “But you don’t want to put yourself in a hole where you’re fighting back and behind the eight ball. One game isn’t gonna kill your season, but you don’t want that to snowball. Let’s try to nip this in the bud before it gets bad.”

It’s evident LaVine is attempting to put a strong face on matters. He can be vocal, but he’s also reading the room.

“I’m a husband and father so that teaches you patience, a lot of patience,” LaVine said, laughing. “You’re supposed to be frustrated, you’re supposed to have emotion. That shows you care, but don’t let those carry over and affect the team. As a leader you have to have positivity.”

Where do things stand now?

Donovan signed an extension before last season began, which doesn’t kick in until after this season. And longtime team owner Jerry Reinsdorf has never been one to eat long-term coaching contracts.

DeRozan and LaVine had played off each other well, but neither look comfortable in the offense so far. LaVine, who had offseason knee surgery in 2022, had a slow start last season but averaged 27 points and 4.7 assists after the All-Star break. He's generally been a playmaker despite his scoring mentality, always ending above the four-assist mark the last five years.

This season? He’s at 1.2 assists, which feels less about a change in attitude but one in role as the Bulls are trying to manage the season without Ball and with Coby White starting at point guard. LaVine and DeRozan find themselves in the corner a lot as opposed to initiating the offense in the last couple of seasons. As a result in the seeming change of philosophy, the Bulls are 29th in assists.

The Bulls, again, are figuring things out on the fly, but they bear watching over the next few weeks.

“We have guys who can score. We have to figure out something that’s sustainable to win,” LaVine said.

Maybe another basketball conversation will be had, sooner rather than later.