Zach LaVine knows what people think of the Chicago Bulls. Expectations are low after last year's 27-win season, some divisive summer signings -- including his own four-year, $78 million deal -- and a to promising big man Lauri Markkanen.
"We hear the outside predictions," LaVine told CBS Sports. "But we haven't won anything yet, either, so we have to learn how to win first to try and build something good here. We're in here working hard every day."
The Bulls lost 116-82 in their second preseason game in Milwaukee, inspiring as much ridicule for their defense as it did . Jabari Parker, the hometown hero who joined the team on a two-year, $40 million deal, is already entangled in something of a controversy after being moved to the bench in their fourth preseason game. LaVine, however, called Chicago a young and exciting team, preaching patience when it comes to defensive improvement.
"I can see because we're in the trenches," LaVine said. "We're the ones working on it, so we can see the work and the focus we're putting on it. Obviously, offensively we have a lot, a lot of weapons. We're really explosive. If we can get that side of the ball down, we can be good."
Entering the season, LaVine is just as optimistic on a personal level -- he has fully recovered from his February 2017 ACL tear and sees stardom in his future. On the phone, he reflected on his road back and said that he can still pull off the stupefying dunks we saw at All-Star weekend in 2015 and 2016. Even though he's just 23, LaVine believes he can offer the younger Bulls wisdom based on the ups and downs he has experienced in his first four seasons. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: What would make this a successful season?
Zach LaVine: For me, man, I've never been in the playoffs. I was on the Timberwolves when we were rebuilding and then we got to the brink and obviously I got traded. You know, we really haven't won anything yet, so we're trying to learn how to win. Obviously we want to be in the playoffs. We think we have enough talent and as long as we get our chemistry down, we think we can be competitive enough in the East. But we gotta learn how to win first. I think if we just do little improvements every day and take every day as a game -- you have to take it serious, every shootaround, everything like that. As long as you get little gains, by the end of the season, you've piled enough of those to where you've improved. And if you can say every day that you got better and you improved and you continued to get better, I think that's a win for us.
CBS: After the first couple of preseason games, a lot was said about the defense. It was not very nice. How do you respond to the people who have said this team isn't going to be able to get stops?
ZL: I mean, everybody's going to have their own opinions. That's what media is -- just people with opinions. So, we have our own as well. Obviously we have to work on things and we're going to improve on 'em, but you can't just judge people on preseason games. I think that's what preseason is for. I don't understand why when people have great games in preseason or have bad games in preseason and they take quick judgment on it like it's not the first exhibition games of the season. You go back and watch film and see what you did wrong and did better, and we're trying different schemes and different strategies to see what's going on. That doesn't come in one day. That doesn't come in one game, either.
CBS: What have you seen from Wendell Carter?
ZL: Wendell's great, man: extremely competitive, listens and does anything he can for the team. He loves to win. Above everything, he'd rather have a terrible game and win, and that's something you don't see from a lot of people, realistically. They might say it, but he actually means it. He's extremely athletic. He goes up and tries to block everything. He can literally change the game on that end, just from his energy. He has a lot more to his game on the offensive game as well. Very unselfish, can pass the ball and is working on his finishing around the rim and everything like that. He has a lot of tools to be really good.
CBS: What was your initial reaction when the Bulls signed Jabari?
ZL: I was excited. I was talking to him a little bit right after the season. I know he's from Chicago and had a situation in Milwaukee, and I was trying to put my recruiting hat on a little bit. I was really happy that he came and we got the deal done. Jabari is a special talent in the NBA. He went through a couple of ACLs; for a dude to come back and still have the same explosiveness -- I think we were both averaging 20 points per game when we hurt ourselves right around the All-Star break. We both have some of those same frustrations and we could talk about it. Just to see we both came back from it, and to be the same athletically and try to get to the same stage in our careers is good. He looks good; we've just gotta get the chemistry down.
CBS: Anyone else on the team who really impressed you in training camp?
ZL: Bobby Portis is a monster. He had a role last year where he was coming off the bench and he had the incident last year with Niko [Mirotic] and everything -- that was shaky, the media got ahold of some things that they shouldn't have, they didn't get the full story. Bobby's a monster, man. He's playing a sixth-man role, but right now he's playing like a really high-level starter. He's in contract negotiations as well. He's playing for not just us but for a lot of teams as well. In training camp, he's been one of the toughest dudes out here. Bobby's been extremely impressive.
CBS: The dunk you did against the Pacers -- 99 percent of people could never, ever do anything that. Especially having come back from a serious injury, do you still get excited when you pull off something like that?
ZL: It's part of my game. I don't think I'm going to lose my athleticism. From injury, you can get as explosive and more just from the training and the time off you can have. It's a tough injury, but I feel 100 percent back now. I had a full season. Last year I was about 70 percent. You're able to play, but you're not going to be the same, obviously, right after. I feel really good. I had a really good offseason, training, and I feel back to myself. I've always felt I was one of the fastest and most athletic players.
CBS: Players say injuries can be really lonely and challenging mentally. They also say it can put things in perspective. Do you relate?
ZL: Yeah, for sure. You don't get to play basketball, a thing you love, for so long. You get to appreciate little things, just missing the game. You get to work on different parts of your game while you're out. Like, I was able to get stronger and build up some parts of my body up. But it's tough because, when you get back on the court, you're not 100 percent yet. But I tried to take all the negative energy and push that away. I was able to get over the mental part pretty quickly because, you know, obviously, I want to come back and I have goals for myself as a basketball player. I don't work out as hard as I do and stay in the gym for hours to be just a good basketball player in the NBA. I want to be great. I think that what fuels me.
CBS: You've said you're your own harshest critic. So, where do you want to get better?
ZL: First and foremost, I gotta stay healthy. I feel like when I'm healthy on the court, I'm as good as anybody out there. Then, obviously, I gotta be better on the other end. I've always been really good on the ball defensively, just athletically, but I have to be better off the ball. And that's why I try to take a lot of pride in it. I still have some gaps and some areas I need to improve on, but I'm trying to take that step forward to become more of that complete player. And then just becoming more of a leader, more vocal. It's my fifth year, I've got some games under my belt, I've been through some things. I know what type of player I can be in this league and I want to get there. You just can't take shortcuts.
CBS: You signed a big contract and immediately there was a wave of criticism. What's it like when you have this landmark moment for your career and then people are saying, "I don't know if he's worth that?"
ZL: It's everybody's opinion, man. I really could give a damn. I bet everybody wishes they were in my position. I know I've worked for everything I've gotten in my life, man, so I was excited. I'm happy to take care of my family. I work extremely hard at this game. I think that's a little bit of what fuels you, too. There's always going to be people that are critics and they can share their own opinion and that's fine. That's their opinion. But I'm going to have my own opinion, and there's a saying I always say: It's either going to be I told you so or they told you so.
CBS: Did you celebrate? What do you do when you sign a contract like that?
ZL: I'm not a big party guy. I'm a really big family guy, so I was extremely happy I was able to tell my mom and dad thank you. It's a really good feeling to know that you've had a lot of hard work and all those nights in the backyard, me and my dad, and going through things with life, and my mom working two jobs -- it's big. People don't understand that, but that's not for them to understand. I could give a damn what they say. I know how much it means to me and my family. So we had a little bit of a dinner and a celebration. But, other than that, it was back to work.
CBS: You know as well as anyone what people said when you were traded. Seeing the crazy stuff that's happening in Minnesota, do you think the narrative is starting to shift to where people think Chicago got a pretty good deal?
ZL: Oh, yeah. There were some people that said that from the get-go, but there's always going to be initial reactions. It's almost like the same as contracts: there's going to be initial reactions because people have strong opinions. Fans live and die with their team. If you're playing good one day, they're on you. If you're playing bad one day, they hate you. You have to understand that and deal with that as a professional; you can't take it too personal.
I definitely think it was a good trade for the Bulls. I strongly support that. I bet a lot of Timberwolves fans … right now, it would have been Kris Dunn, me, Andrew [Wiggins], [Karl-Anthony Towns] and Lauri 'cause that was their pick. That's a pretty good young lineup right there. But choice is everything, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with their choice. They went to the playoffs for the first time and Jimmy [Butler] led them to winning. Jimmy's an outstanding player and he's one of the top players in the NBA. You can see it both ways, but that's their team now. I have mine over here in Chicago and we're trying to build something good.