CLEVELAND – Zach LaVine tried to handle the moment as best he could.
It started with the booing from the live audience when then-“First Take” co-host Max Kellerman even mentioned John Paxson’s name in a question to the Bulls guard.
“[These fans] might speak differently, but I’m with the team,” LaVine said uncomfortably, as boos quickly turned into a “Fire Gar/Pax … Fire Gar/Pax … ” chant.
“… I gotta put the team first… ” LaVine said, finally getting on the crowd and calling the chants “terrible.”
But the wildfire had spread across the set at the Navy Pier that morning, and there was nothing LaVine could do to contain it.
There was LaVine on Saturday, two years removed from that All-Star Weekend in Chicago, and no longer having to defend Paxson and former general manager Gar Forman. No fire to put out, not even smoke.
There were no questions about his front office nose-diving into another mountain of mediocrity, and not a single chant. If anything, it was quite the opposite.
LaVine sat at his podium in Cleveland not only discussing the idea of the new front office making the Bulls a destination place, but a real contending team in the Eastern Conference this season.
Very telling by the fact that it was LaVine’s second All-Star appearance, but unlike two years ago, a trip he didn’t make alone. DeMar DeRozan was named an All-Star starter, and rookie Ayo Dosunmu participated in the Rising Stars Tournament on Friday.
“I just think they’re always trying to improve the team,” LaVine said of the new duo of executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley. “Obviously we’re gonna go out there and try to compete and do the best we can and compete to championship-level aspirations. But I think they’re just gonna try and continue to improve the team and get us better so when we’re in those situations we’re ready for it.”
Maybe they will be come April.
But the fact that it happened so quickly from the weekend in Chicago is borderline mind-boggling.
Rewind to 2020 and that Sunday of the All-Star Game. The Sun-Times was the first to report that the Bulls were heading for a front-office shake-up, with multiple media outlets following suit before the game even started that night at the United Center.
A few months later, there was a name plate that had “Karnisovas” hung on the office door of the Advocate Center, and the rest has been a fluid draining of a swamp, from the front offices, to the coaching staff, and last off-season the roster.
These aren’t your dad’s Bulls. Heck, they’re not even your older brother’s.
And the rest of the league has taken notice.
“Chicago deserves to be that,” former Bull Jimmy Butler said, when asked if he was surprised that Chicago could start being a destination place for big-time players. “I think the Bulls are legendary. They’ve got some really, really good players [now]. … They deserve to win, they deserve a championship just like everybody else does. I’ve got so much love for that city, always will, and I’m glad they’re back at the top of things.”
For DeRozan, a place they would like to take residence.
Nikola Vucevic was the first major piece brought in, acquired at the 2021 trade deadline. And while Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso were brilliant moves, the DeRozan sign-and-trade turned nice offseason into a stellar one.
DeRozan has long been respected by his peers throughout the league, but what he’s done so far this season has really opened some eyes. It was also one of the hot topics throughout the weekend in Cleveland.
The Bulls have built something special, and now it’s about taking it to the next level and maintaining it.
“I think it’s just understood because you see it,” DeRozan said, when asked about other All-Stars players talking about the organization’s turnaround. “Especially my peers, they know, we all have respect for one another. Going to Chicago, I knew I wasn’t just going to wear the Chicago Bulls jersey and get some free Jordans. We were going there to make something happen. Even if it’s not said, it was understood.”
Which brings everything back to LaVine.
Besides Coby White, LaVine is really the only significant player left from the Gar/Pax Era. He’s had to endure numerous questions about their leadership, about the coaching of Jim Boylen, and about an organization that spent years spinning in mud since LaVine’s arrival.
Facing the national media over the last few days really for the first time since Chicago’s All-Star Weekend, those questions aimed at LaVine were gone.
“It just shows the progression of the franchise and that we’re trending in the right direction,” LaVine said, when asked about 2020 to now. “Sometimes you’ve just got to play the cards you’re dealt with.”
Then again, LaVine was due a good hand.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism