As if losing six of the previous seven games wasn’t bad enough, the Chicago Bulls sprinkled some locker-room drama into the mix.
During Friday’s season-low loss to the rebuilding Orlando Magic – who were missing multiple players, including No. 1-overall pick Paolo Banchero – head coach Billy Donovan benched his max player.
Zach LaVine hit the bench with roughly four minutes to go after the Bulls fought their way back from a 19-point deficit. With a chance to win in the waning minutes, Donovan chose never to throw LaVine back on the court. The Bulls went on to lose in heartbreaking fashion 108-107.
Of course, adding LaVine back into the lineup may not have guaranteed a win. The two-time All-Star was in the thick of a 1-14 shooting performance and easily the worst-looking game of his career. If anything, LaVine was hurting the Bulls throughout the night, which justified Donovan’s initial decision to put him back on the bench.
Still, the absence of LaVine in the final seconds was shocking, and LaVine didn’t mince words when asked about it postgame. The Bulls’ franchise centerpiece blatantly told reporters that he disagreed with the decision and that “you play a guy like me down the stretch.” It wasn’t long before the ESPN notification popped up and the quote was all over social media. It was an ugly look for everyone involved.
Fortunately, however, it also wasn’t long before LaVine and Donovan cleared the air. LaVine said over the weekend that the two had a conversation about the incident, and he believes both parties came to an understanding:
“I don’t want to get this blown out of proportion to the point we’re talking about a loss,” said LaVine. “We’ve had multiple losses this year (but we’ve) got a lot of games left. We’re all good. I think he understands where I’m coming from. And I understand his decisions as a coach that he has to make are tough. Even if your players don’t agree with it. That’s just what it is,” LaVine told Bulls dot com’s Sam Smith.
While nobody is necessarily above a benching, it’s also not hard to see where LaVine is coming from. No matter how many shots the guy misses, this team paid him $215 million to take the next one. He’s proven to be one of the most electric scorers in the NBA, and he may have very well deserved to redeem himself with the game on the line.
“I’m a competitive guy, I want to play,” LaVine said. “I just told him I feel like I’ve earned the right to go out there and try to play through a bad game. Everybody has a career-low night. Mine happened to be that night. Do I think I could have played better? Of course. I also have the mentality of, if I was able to go out there, I think I could’ve helped the team win … I just wish I had an opportunity to go out there and try to make a couple more shots.”
The free-throw shooting situation, in particular, felt like the right moment to check him back into the game. As well as Vucevic has shot it from the line this season, LaVine simply has more experience at the charity stripe. Who is to say he doesn’t knock down those final two freebies to ice the game?
Billy Donovan mentioned just that moment in the game during his own conversation with reporters, implying that perhaps that’s a decision he would have thought to have back:
“The decisions I’m making, I’m going off my gut and off my eyes. I know that’s not 100 percent foolproof. There are going to be times I’m going to look back and say, ‘That wasn’t a very good decision. I probably needed to do something else.’ In that moment, could he have been out there for the two free throws (instead of Vučević)? Yeah, maybe. Maybe he gets the ball, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he makes both free throws and the game is over. Maybe Vooch makes both free throws. It didn’t work out.”
Regardless, as LaVine referenced, we’re talking too much about a loss. The fact of the matter is that it happened and the Bulls have to move on from it. The schedule isn’t getting any easier, and they will have their first chance to prove that the Orlando loss was the kick in the butt they needed on Monday night against the Celtics.