LaVine has not played in an NBA game since tearing the ACL in his left knee on Feb. 5, 2017. Saturday’s game will mark LaVine’s first appearance in a Bulls game since being traded from the Timberwolves on draft night in a deal that sent All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler to Minnesota.
“We got a date,” LaVine said prior to Tuesday’s practice. “I’m just happy to be able to go back. It just feels really good to have something to look forward to now. You get those butterflies and that anxious feeling, about to go out and do what I do again. So I’m extremely happy just to be back at this point.”
Bulls executive vice president John Paxson said LaVine would start by playing 20 minutes per game and would work his way up from there.
“We’re still going to take this conservatively,” Paxson said. “We’re going to look at this in kind of week installments. He’ll initially play 20 minutes per game. In talking with the coaches, we’re not going to put him in a situation where we’re saving minutes for end of games, anything like that.”
Paxson said LaVine would not play in the second game of the Bulls’ lone back-to-back before the All-Star break, a Feb. 10 home game against the Washington Wizards. The Bulls will re-evalute the plan with LaVine after the All-Star break.
Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said it remains to be determined whether LaVine will start or come off the bench in his initial return. LaVine said he knows he’s a starter in the league, but is comfortable with whatever the organization decides as he finds his rhythm on the floor again.
“All of us have been waiting for this moment,” Hoiberg said. “He’s shown a lot in practice, a lot of things that get you excited just about his versatility as a basketball player, as a guy that can handle it on the break. He can play some minutes at the 1, he can play some minutes at the 2, he gives you a playmaker and obviously a great athlete that can get out and run and a guy that has unlimited range.
“That being said, I think we all need to be patient with this process. He’s going to have rust. He hasn’t played a basketball game in almost a year, a full calendar year, so the patience has to be there. This is all part of the end of his rehab process, that final hurdle to get him back in uniform, but we’re excited.”
Paxson acknowledged that LaVine wanted to return in New York on Wednesday night against the Knicks, but the Bulls wanted to get him a few more practices before coming back.
“I was pushing to play two months ago,” LaVine said. “But the decision was made for it to be Saturday. I’m a ballplayer, man. I think we talked about this. I want to be out there and I want to be able to play. I want to thank all the training staff and coaches, the medical staff in Minnesota as well, getting me back to this point. It was a lot of hard work, lonely nights and long days. This thing is taking forever. Finally back to it, and I’m happy for that.”
As for how LaVine’s return impacts a Bulls team whom many expected to pile up losses in advance of the Draft Lottery later this spring, Paxson says he is pleased with the way younger players like Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn are coming along and reinforced that the front office never told players or coaches to lose games.
“The things I’ve said consistently since we made the [Butler] trade is that I do know that it’s hard to win at a high level in this league when you’re young,” Paxson said. “We’re a young basketball team. With Phoenix, we’re the youngest team in the league. Medically, Zach is ready to play. I know there’s been a lot of talk. But you haven’t heard me say anything about our goals changing. Zach is ready to play. So he’s going to get that opportunity to play.”