Bulls mailbag: What's Zach LaVine's future? Coby White's ceiling?

Bulls mailbag: What's Zach LaVine's future? Coby White's ceiling? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

It’s one week until the NBA trade deadline. So, naturally, you have questions.

Do you think the Bulls will trade Zach LaVine by the deadline? --- Justin E.

The obvious answer, of course, is I don’t know. Because things can change in a week. And the Bulls are motivated to find the right deal and, obviously, LaVine and his representative made clear his openness to being moved.

But as of late Wednesday, news on the Lavine trade front was quiet. In fact, coach Billy Donovan indicated an update on LaVine’s injury situation may be forthcoming later this week and, while LaVine’s sprained right ankle has healed, the right foot issues that cost LaVine 17 games have persisted. LaVine addressed that delicate situation on the same Dec. 7 day he received a platelet-rich plasma therapy injection in the troublesome foot.

“It bugs you, a boney, prominent area,” LaVine said then. “You really don’t want to start messing around with that, that fifth metatarsal area and it gets more and more irritated. It’s just smart to calm it down now to where I can get back to 100% and hopefully finish the season strong and help everybody out.”

LaVine did, obviously, play seven games before rolling his right ankle. But that injury and his rehab following it have caused the foot issues to flare anew.

Back to the trade front: Obviously, it’s any management regime’s job to talk to all 29 other teams in the league to get a handle on trade possibilities. It’s my understanding that the only time preliminary discussions advanced at all with any of the multiple teams the Bulls have talked to regarding LaVine came with the recently reported Pistons situation. And it’s been reported in multiple outlets, including NBC Sports Chicago, that the Pistons aren’t even 100 percent sure they’d trade for LaVine.

Again, things can change. The Pistons could get motivated. Another team could enter the fray. Stay tuned.

Why aren’t the Bulls actively shopping Alex Caruso and other players before the trade deadline? All we hear about is the talk about LaVine. But the Bulls are stuck in mediocrity, and I don’t see a way out unless they make major changes. What do you think? --- Bruce P.

I reported back in December that management’s focus---and hope---was to find the right LaVine deal and see how it impacted the rest of the roster before deciding on other moves. Let’s remember that management opened this season fully invested in this group. The belief centered on a new offensive approach maximizing the impact of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, while young players like Coby White and Patrick Williams took a step forward.

Well, one of those things---White’s ascension---has happened. As I type this early Thursday morning, the Bulls’ offensive rating of 113 ranks 23rd, a whopping one place better than last season’s 24th-ranked unit that produced an offensive rating of 112.8.

The most logical bigger moves the Bulls could make would be to trade either Caruso or DeRozan. I haven’t heard much of a market for Nikola Vucevic. Nor, after the Bulls re-signed him, have I heard of any indications of the Bulls wanting to part with him. (His backup, Andre Drummond, on the other hand could produce a return of perhaps a young player out of a team’s rotation or some minor draft capital by next Thursday, per league sources.)

Let’s start with Caruso. Not only is a first-team All-Defense honoree headed for a repeat (assuming he plays in 65 games; he’s on pace for 70), but he’s on an incredibly team-friendly contract. The talk of him fetching multiple first-round picks is exaggerated---or at least it is based on the conversations I’ve had with rival team executives. He would certainly be coveted at a lesser price tag. But trading him, to me, doesn’t make much sense. This team isn’t going into a full rebuild. You need players moving forward. And, again, with his contract status and impact on winning, not to mention him helping define whatever culture the Bulls have, he’s a valuable piece to keep.

DeRozan’s situation is trickier. He is valued internally at an extremely high level, not only for his on-court play but for his off-court leadership and consistent demeanor and work ethic. But extension talks never advanced. Obviously, you’d run the risk of losing him for nothing should he hit unrestricted free agency. But DeRozan has said on the record that he’d like to finish his career here. So perhaps---and I want to stress this is my informed speculation, not reporting---the Bulls could re-sign him at a lower figure than he’s making moving forward? Would another team use that much cap space to sign a 34-year-old DeRozan, who’s currently making $28.6 million? Again, stay tuned.

As for why the Bulls aren't entering a full rebuild, Artūras Karnišovas has said multiple times on the record he's trying to make the playoffs. He also inherited a rebuild and hit the eject button on it. He certainly could change his mind and blow it up, but that would be a surprise.

What’s been the biggest surprise to you this season? --- Sunjay P.

It’s White’s play, easily. Now that’s not to say I didn’t believe in White before. I never thought the Bulls should trade him. Check the receipts. (Every once in awhile, I get one right.) But I definitely didn’t see this jump. It’s not so much the scoring. White is the leading scorer in North Carolina high school history and showed that potential even in some up-and-down years with the Bulls. It’s his ability to impact games even if his shot isn’t falling and his growth into becoming a two-way player and capable point guard. To do all this while scoring at a high clip---and extending his range and improving his pick-and-roll play---is laudable. And all credit goes to White.

Some credit also should go to the Bulls’ player development program. The financial and personnel commitment to this program is one of this management regime’s success stories. Obviously, this is a players’ league and, ultimately, the player should get most of the credit. But White often mentions the belief that Donovan, the coaching staff---assistant coach Chris Fleming has been his main guy for awhile---his teammates and the player development staff have had in him.

I just don’t understand what management is thinking. They keep adding role-playing veterans to a core that has shown it has a ceiling and expecting the results to be different. Give me some hope, K.C.! --- Andy S.

How about I provide some statistics instead to support your stance? The Bulls are 23-26, the same record as last season after 49 games. In that time, their offensive rating of 113 this season ranks 23rd and their rating of 112.7 ranked 22nd after 49 games last season. Defensively, their rating of 114.7 this season is 14th, while last season after 49 games it stood at 112.8 for 13th place. (The defense ultimately finished top-five, fueling their play-in run.)

But, yes, adding Goran Dragic and Drummond in 2022 and Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter in 2023 hasn’t changed the core’s ceiling. Again, I supplied the preseason thinking above---the new offensive philosophy coupled with young players’ development would make an impact in the parity-filled Eastern Conference. And the Bulls are firmly in the play-in race.

But, yeah, I’m as curious as anyone as to where they go next from here. Friendly reminder that the 2024 NBA draft isn’t supposed to be very good. And of course, the Bulls have conveyed picks to Orlando in 2021 and 2023 and owe a top-10 protected pick to San Antonio in 2025.

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