Zach LaVine has established himself as one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers over the last few years. Now he finally has the opportunity to show what he can do for a winning team.
LaVine has never played a playoff game through his first seven years in the league with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls, but that’s set to change this year. The Bulls reloaded their roster with veterans over the summer, and have been near the top of the Eastern Conference standings all season. LaVine is putting up huge scoring numbers on efficient shooting once again, only this time he’s not expected to carry the team by himself.
SB Nation caught up with LaVine for an interview after he was named an All-Star for the second time in his career. LaVine’s appearance is on behalf of Klarna, which is allowing fans to vote on LaVine’s tunnel look in the All-Star Game through their app. “The Klarna All-Star Vault” is a pop-up that will be open in Cleveland Public Square from Feb. 18-20 celebrating the connection between fashion and professional basketball.
SB Nation: Tell me about this sponsorship with Klarna and why you’re involved in it?
Zach LaVine: Hey, Klarna is great. I was able to get the opportunity with them to really start getting back into fashion, which I got more into the last couple years. I love how they’re able to go into All-Star Weekend with the Vault and make it easily accessible for fans. Then for me personally, them being connected with the Bulls and having a little bit of a fan interaction where they get to actually pick out my game outfit, my tunnel look for the All-Star Game, and we’ll be able to go do that through the Klarna App or Instagram. So it’s going to be really fun. I really appreciate them. They let me be who I am and even learn about the world of fashion a little more.
SBN: I want to start by going back to the offseason and being asked to play for Team USA at the Olympics. Beyond just being recognized at that level, what did you take away from being around guys like Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and so many of today’s greats? Historically that’s always been a place where guys seem to forge really tight relationships with each other.
LaVine: It was great for me, being able to play with guys on that level where I want to reach at one point in my career. So to go out there and compete and play a role where each of us had to give something up of ourselves that we’re used to playing for, something bigger than just ourselves, we wanted to compete for our country. That was really something cool for me because I haven’t got to experience that. And to your point, building relationships, all those guys and us were really cool, especially for this experience. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to go out and do much. We were literally such a tight group and tight knit bond of being together each and every day. So I still text those guys a lot.
SBN: Zach LaVine, wing stopper on Team USA. That was a cool role to see you play.
LaVine: Look, not a lot of people knew I could do it, man. So I’m able to bring some stuff back to the Bulls with it.
SBN: We love to see it. When the Bulls signed DeMar, many people said you two weren’t going to mesh. DeMar was called the worst signing of the offseason by some. Why do you think your pairing works? What’s made it successful?
LaVine: I mean, to be honest, I think a lot of the driven narratives aren’t giving people a fair shake. You’re able to just write people off with opinions that I think are empty, but that’s the world that we live in. DeMar is a guy that I think, in my opinion, is a future Hall of Famer and has been somebody that’s been one of the most respected guys in the league. And even in his years in San Antonio, he developed his game into more of a playmaking and leadership role. He’s still in the prime of his career. Then coming here, we allowed him to be who he is and who he always has been. Him being able to complement me and play off of me while I complement him. I don’t think either one of us has never been on the team with somebody that’s as good a scorer as each of us is. There’s little opportunity to double us on the court. And then you add Vuc (Nikola Vucevic) in there as well. So DeMar has been great. Me and him’s bond, our friendship, has been really good.
SBN: And then obviously, you guys added so many other pieces over the offseason. So I would think from the outside that it might be difficult to develop chemistry. But you could tell you guys already had it in the preseason. So I’m curious, how did that develop so quickly? Were you guys playing pickup before the season started? Did it come together in training camp right away? What goes into it that the fans don’t realize?
LaVine: We talked to the phone even before his signing, and then we both live in LA. I was able to go out to him, work out a couple of times. Obviously, me and Zo know each other, Caruso, so we all got together, got in a group text, and we actually sacrificed a little bit of our summer, came Chicago early and was able to get some of that chemistry down. Now we’re still pretty brand new team. There’s only two guys last year that was on the team, so it can only get better from here.
SBN: At what point did you realize that this team was going to be really good? For me, it was the Boston game where you guys had the big second half comeback. I think that pushed you to 6-1 was there like a moment where you’re like, oh, damn, this team legitimately could be near the top of the East?
LaVine: For me, it was a different feeling. Obviously, I didn’t know record wise what we were going to be. But just through my career and going to the training camp and seeing how it felt always, from the jump it was different. People were talking with a different energy. Guys were really locked in. Just starting to preseason, being able to see where obviously preseason game, people are just trying to find their footing, but we were really locked in from the get go.
SBN: So I’m just curious what it’s been like for you to go from a team that was expected to lose every night to a team that’s expected to win every night. Last year, at the start of the season, everyone was like 22. A couple of years ago, you had a coach who I will say said and did some questionable things. Now this outfit just seems so professional. What’s that been like for you to finally play with a good team?
LaVine: You have to play the card you’re dealt. Sometimes you’re put in a situation where you have to go out there and still do your job. I think that’s what the NBA is all about. So for me, everybody has a different path, and I think all those years leading up to here has given me learning experiences and just the .. I don’t want to say the patience .. but just the right mental state to go out there now and go out here and try to compete for winning every single day and every night.
SBN: I’m curious about the pressure too, both like internally and externally. Once the team did overachieve preseason expectations so early, now does it feel different? Like at this point of the season, even with the roster so banged up, does it feel like there’s a different weight on your shoulders going into every game?
LaVine: I don’t think it was overachieving. Everybody was doubting us, so we only had our own expectations, almost like us versus the world. Obviously, everybody, once you start winning, wants to come on to the bandwagon and try to be with you, which is cool. Obviously you want to have that type of reputation that you’re a good team, but I don’t think there’s any pressure. We’re playing basketball. We’re going out here doing we love, we get paid a lot of money. It’s exciting to go out here and do what we do and then we’re back for it.
SBN: I feel like this might be the best the East has been since MJ retired. You guys got good and everyone else got good with you. It seems like the top eight or ten of the East is loaded, and now all these teams got better at the trade deadline. We got Harden going to the Sixers, LeVert going to the Cavs. Even Thad Young going to the Raptors, I feel like makes the Raptors better. So what has that been like competing in the East this year and seeing everyone else get better at the trade deadline. It’s got to be a change of what you’ve experienced last few years in the east for me.
LaVine: Like you said, going out there and competing, just fighting get any win that you can to where now it’s you’re looking at the standings every night. Obviously, if we do our job, I think we’re going to be perfectly fine where we’re going to be at the end of the year. But you understand that if you don’t go out there and play from the jump against some of these teams and do your work, you can end up being from first place to fourth place to sixth place within three games. And that’s how the East is right now. So it’s cool to see the competitiveness because, you know, you have to bring it everywhere.
SBN: The dunk contest versus Aaron Gordon was one of the big moments of your career. When’s the last time you watched it? And also did you save anything from those dunk contests that now you can reveal to us since you’ll never do it again?
LaVine: That was just such a fun, organic thing. It just turned out to be a straight up battle with us at the end, and I used a lot of my dunks that I had saved if I wanted to do it again. I still have a couple that I think went on Instagram or YouTube when I was messing around in Chicago one day, but it was just a really cool experience. Last time I watched it … they do the dunk contest, like from over the years of the NBA. When it gets close to All Star break every year. I think I watched it a couple of years ago, but I like watching some of the older dunk contests just because that was what I grew up watching.
SBN: So you Wiggins and KAT are all All-Stars. What’s that like? Because, man, if someone would have said that back in 2015, it would have seemed pretty crazy. And do you think teams should be more patient with their young players? I guess is the follow up to that.
LaVine: I mean, Flip Saunders would have said, you guys are crazy for not thinking it would happen because that was his plan all along. So I think for us to go out there and obviously take a picture and just continue to live on through his legacy because he had that plan from the jump street. We were kids. You’re 19 or 20 years old. I got traded at 20 years old with a torn ACL. So obviously you don’t get to see your full potential. People want things to happen so fast. But I also think everything happens for a reason and we’re able to become the best of ourselves later on in our career. And now we can look back and see what we’ve done.
SBN: While you and DeMar have gotten a lot of the credit, rightfully so, for carrying the team offensively, it does feel like the Bulls sort of need their full ensemble of players. At the same time, you haven’t been healthy all year. How important is it to get everyone back playing their best before the playoffs?
LaVine: We haven’t been healthy since the third game of the year, fully healthy. And that’s what we’ve been battling with guys like AC and Lonzo makes a world of difference. They’re the captains on the defensive end, and they just cause havoc. AC has such a high basketball IQ offensively and defensively, obviously, being with Rondo and LeBron and having a championship pedigree. Zo has always been one of the highest IQ guys in the NBA with his passing. But even past that we have guys like Javonte Green who has just been instrumental and being able to play different roles. Vooch a two-time All-Star being able to play in the pocket. Derrick Jones Jr. I can name everybody on our damn team. Ayo Dosunmu a second round draft pick who I think he’s going to be a star. He knows how to play just outright in any place he wants to. So we need our full team. I think everybody does. And we’re not going to be who we want to be until all those guys get healthy. We’re just trying to hold on and make sure that when they do we’re in a position to go out there and win.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.