The smiles were around as the newcomers of the Bulls put on their best faces as the new era of Bulls basketball was officially presented to the public.
The men who brought them to Chicago, John Paxson and Gar Forman, began the painstaking task of introducing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to a skeptical public that believes the Bulls were robbed without a ski mask for Jimmy Butler.
Sitting next to them was coach Fred Hoiberg, who’s entering his third season with a third different roster and a chance to change a narrative that’s largely nondescript to this point.
“Thursday night we made a decision to move a great player (Butler),” Paxson said. “But over these last four or five days, we sat and talked and are really happy about the direction we’re about to head down.”
It’s a direction they’ve chosen where they know everything has to be done right for it to be fruitful. High draft choices are to be expected, and Paxson has said publicly and privately that they must hit on every single one, starting with Markkanen.
But for the sake of narrative and performance certainty and erasing errors of the past, LaVine has to be the one who leads the rebuild on the floor. It could be awhile before Markkanen develops, and in Dunn it’s uncertain if he had a bump in the road as a rookie or if the Bulls see something in him the Timberwolves failed to focus on.
Dunn could merely be a long unrequited love the Bulls have held onto without actually looking at the evidence he presented in an underwhelming rookie season.
But it’s LaVine who has the most pressure and is as close to a household name as anyone, winner of two straight dunk contests in 2014 and 2015 at All-Star Weekend.
A high flyer with a higher ceiling than anyone on the Bulls roster, LaVine must show he’s not damaged goods as he’s returning from a left ACL tear he suffered in February.
Bumping knees with Detroit’s Andre Drummond on an athletic drive to the basket, LaVine shook off the pain to play another six minutes in that third quarter in Detroit, completely unaware of the severity.
“I just thought it was a sprain,” LaVine told CSNChicago.com. “It wasn’t until I went to the locker room at the end of the quarter and more doctors were called in that I started thinking something was wrong.”
The bad news arrived and surgery wasn’t far behind, turning a promising campaign into one of uncertainty, the same kind that mirrors this franchise. Doctors have told LaVine, his family and representatives his knee doesn’t have the typical wear and tear of average athletes, probably buoyed by the fact his recovery is ahead of the nine-to-12-month usual schedule that accompanies these injuries.
Considering the last torn ACL in Chicago still haunts the franchise, considering LaVine plays the same position as the man he’s replacing and the fact he’s relishing being the man in charge in a similar way Butler did, LaVine’s recovery and development is the one most critical to this franchise’s credibility.
“We talked about it. Hey, look, you wanted to be an All-Star guy,” Paul LaVine, Zach’s father who was in attendance at the Advocate Center, said to CSNChicago.com. “You’re in a bigger market, go out here and get it done. I’m not concerned because my son, each situation, he’s surprised me.”
He averaged 18.9 points in 47 games as a third option behind Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, but when he steps on the floor, yes he’ll have more opportunities but also more defensive attention and a spotlight he hasn’t had to deal with as a pro.
“High school, I didn’t know,” Paul LaVine said. “His first 15 games at UCLA, that’s what got him drafted, he exploded. When he got here, I knew if he got an opportunity on the NBA stage, it doesn’t surprise me.”
But the newest Bull knows he must fight the urge to come back in a superhuman manner, especially playing for the franchise Michael Jordan built. Jordan, through highlight videos and the movie “Space Jam,” became one of LaVine’s idols. More directly, Kobe Bryant became the player LaVine has modeled himself after, as LaVine chose the number eight and wore Bryant’s signature Nikes during his photo shoot after his introductory news conference.
“I'm only 22. I'm ready for it. I'm very humble,” LaVine said with a smile of confidence. “When it's time for me to get going, I'm going to come in here and work my butt off like I always do, going in with full confidence. I'm just extremely excited to get this ball rolling and see what we can do.”
LaVine is often pulled back when he passes through certain benchmarks of his rehab and has to continue to play the long game. Coming back too soon or being pressed to come back got others in trouble.
Headed into restricted free agency after next season, LaVine certainly wants to prove his worth so contract negotiations will be smooth in the offseason. But since the Bulls have clearly chosen their path of a rebuild, one wonders how the two ideals will compete against one another this season.
“Regardless, I’m going to be safe. That’s the main thing, always being safe,” LaVine said. “I always have to take care of myself and this franchise, as well. I’m going to be safe, I’m going to do everything I can physically to get back. Then when I’m at that point, I’m going to be ready. I’m the type of person that’s going to work my butt off to get there as fast as possible. I’m going to be ready when I am there.”
For the Bulls’ sake, LaVine has to be the face of this first step as it might be the closest thing the front office has to inspiring any level of confidence to a weary fan base.