Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine's future to dominate Bulls' second half

NBA trade deadline is Feb. 8 as franchise, on pace for 38 victories, chases playoff berth

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

SAN ANTONIO --- The Chicago Bulls hit their midway point of the NBA’s 82-game schedule with Saturday’s victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

Following a dreadful 5-14 start, they are 19-22 and on pace for 38 victories. While that total may keep the Bulls in the play-in picture, the preseason goal centered on making the playoffs.

The Bulls currently sit five games out of the guaranteed playoff spot picture, currently shared by the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, whom they face on Monday.

“It’s unfortunate we dug ourselves a hole those first 15-20 games,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think we’re getting better. We’re playing stylistically how I’d like to see us play and how I think the game should be played. We’re sharing the ball. We’re trying to generate good shots. We’re scoring more points.

“There are times certainly we can rely on DeMar (DeRozan), Vooch (Nikola Vučević) and Zach (LaVine) late game, but I like what we’re doing offensively.”

The Bulls’ offense has ranked 18th over the previous 22 games in which they fashioned their 14-8 revival with a 115.6 rating. That’s compared to a 112.5 overall offensive rating, which ranks 22nd.

Defensively, the jump is even more pronounced. They are 15th overall with a rating of 114.7. But over their previous 22 games, they rank seventh with a defensive rating of 113.7.

“Hopefully now we understand what it takes to win games or give ourselves a chance,” Vučević said.

Added Alex Caruso: “When we play the way we should, we’re a really good team.”

The Bulls’ preseason goals centered on maintaining their top-five defense from last season and improving their 24th-ranked offense with more 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding, quicker decision-making and getting downhill into the lane for either rim shots, free-throw attempts or spray-out passes.

The Bulls have done an excellent job taking care of the ball, ranking second as of Sunday morning with just 12.2 turnovers per game. The rest is a mixed bag, although Torrey Craig’s extended absence with a right plantar fascia injury is impacting the early-season trend of improved offensive rebounding.

The Bulls rank 21st with 33 3-point attempts per game, 18th in offensive rebounding percentage, last in PACE with 96.7 possessions per 48 minutes and 29th with 24.1 assists per game.

Still, the previous 22 games have created a different vibe and confidence within the locker room.

“Big difference on both ends of the floor,” Vučević said. “The energy we play with, helping each other on the defensive end, being there for each other, supporting each other, that’s been really big for us. Same offensively with the way the ball has been moving. We’ve been finding guys. That gets everybody involved. It’s much nicer to play that way.

Added Caruso: “We’re being more consistent---defensive effort, finishing possessions with rebounds. We’re normally one of the smaller teams, so we’re helping each other. And we’re doing a good job of touching the paint and making the extra pass. Paint is key for us. When we get there, good things happen for us.”

Caruso is on track for a second straight first-team All-Defense nod. His performance on Saturday against the Spurs was transcendent.

“The play he made where he stole it and saved it was incredible. It was just an unbelievable play,” Donovan said, citing a play on which Caruso deflected a pass and tightroped the sideline to feed Ayo Dosunmu for a transition basket. “Never mind the deflection part of it being unbelievable but the fact that he kept he ball in play was amazing.

“Then I gave him a quick rest and he came back and hit a 3. I’m hopeful he can start getting some calls when he’s going on those drives. When you’re losing the ball like that, I get maybe the ball is being popped out. But I think sometimes he gets hit when he goes through traffic like that.

“He has played well on both sides. I never take him for granted. He’s a total team guy. He has a real strong conviction and understanding of what goes into winning. He’s great in games like (Saturday) because his messaging in timeouts is great. It’s a dirty game. It’s hard. There’s some fatigue. Shots aren’t going down at the rate you’d like to and you have to grind the game out. He’s great in those moments of doing the little stuff.”

The Bulls are tied for fourth with 21 clutch games played and first with 96 minutes of clutch time, defined as any game within five points with 5 minutes or less. They’re 12-9 in such games but have fared better in such situations of late, including Saturday’s victory.

“I’m happy with the guys we have here, and I think we can play even better than we have,” Vučević said.

Indeed, the Feb. 8 trade deadline looms large. NBC Sports Chicago has reported previously that the Bulls are focused on LaVine’s future first, hoping to see what the roster looks like following any potential trade for their two-time All-Star guard before making any other moves. In other words, a trade of Caruso or others would be a surprise at this point.

The Bulls are 4-1 since LaVine returned from his 17-game absence with right foot inflammation. The Bulls went 10-7 in LaVine’s absence.

It’s well documented that the Bulls and LaVine’s camp are open to finding him a new home. To this point, finding a trade partner has proved difficult. LaVine has averaged 16.8 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists since his return and twice has attempted a season-low eight shots in that span.

“I think he’s flowing really well,” Caruso said. “When he gets to the paint, he’s making really good reads and not forcing anything. When he does that, he plays better and it makes our offense easier. It simplifies stuff for us.”

That said, if LaVine is relegated to merely being a “3-and-D” player, his frustration could grow. Donovan has pointed to the need for LaVine to get more offense in transition, which would entail him sprinting the floor. The coach has pushed back on questioning that LaVine is being placed more in catch-and-shoot than pick-and-roll situations, where LaVIne’s inconsistent decision-making can come into play.

LaVine has pointed to the Bulls winning whenever asked about his individual play since his return. But his future will be the main storyline to the start of the Bulls’ second half of their season.

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