CHICAGO — Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins used to sit in the Timberwolves' locker room and discuss the future, fully recognizing the reality of the business.
All three were young, talented players who were eventually going to earn max-level contracts, or close to it. With salary cap restrictions, the odds of them all signing lucrative contracts with Minnesota were slim to none.
"We all talked about it in the locker room, messing around, that one day one of us was going to be on a different team," LaVine said. "It was me."
LaVine was the coveted piece Minnesota had to part with to bring Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. Trading away the guard wasn't an easy decision, but one the Wolves had to make to acquire an All-NBA talent that could help get the Wolves to where they wanted to go.
No one understands that more than LaVine.
"You can't be mad," he said. "You've got to understand the decisions that have to be made for the organization. Sometimes it's bigger than you or whatever feelings you have towards the team. Like I said, we're friends regardless and I feel like even at the end of the day, it would have been hard for all three of us to stay on the same team."
The trade provided the spring board Minnesota needed to jump into contention in the Western Conference. The addition of Butler gave Minnesota instant credibility, and is a major reason the Wolves were able to sign Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford in free agency. Now the Wolves appear to be a lock for the playoffs, somewhere LaVine was hoping to help Minnesota go.
LaVine has nothing but good things to say about Minnesota. He's still close with Towns, Wiggins, Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad. He said he and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau got along well.
"I'm happy for them. All of them dudes put in hard work," LaVine said. "The trade made it possible for them to be at that point. No hard feelings from me. We're going to get to that point, as well, with the Chicago Bulls."
If that does happen in Chicago, LaVine will have been at the forefront of the rebuild. In the 11 games he's played since returning to action following the torn knee ligament he suffered last February with the Wolves, the 22-year-old guard is averaging 15.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a game.
His minutes load continues to increase, and he's getting his legs back and finding a rhythm. A highlight reel dunk against Sacramento on Monday provided further indication that LaVine is indeed "back." The recovery process, he said, makes you "mentally tough" and further appreciate what you hold most dear.
"Which, for me, was basketball," LaVine said. "I got to spend a lot of time with my family and do a lot of things you're not usually able to do in a basketball season or an offseason, but you miss basketball the most. It makes you cherish that."
Maybe that's why you won't see LaVine do any sulking. It's not ideal to be taken out of a rebuild near completion and plopped into another. LaVine said this season in Chicago reminds him of his rookie year with the Wolves. There are stretches where the team plays well, and others when it does not.
"It's tough, but going through it, I'm trying to help — and I understand there's a process to it," LaVine said.
With the Bulls, LaVine has an opportunity to take center stage, no longer third behind Towns and Wiggins. He and rookie forward Lauri Markkanen look to be the two blue chip pieces the Bulls can build around for years to come. It's entirely possible LaVine can do what Butler did for Chicago the last few years, carrying the Bulls to the playoffs and beyond.
But LaVine is adamant he isn't trying to be Butler, but rather the best version of himself.
"I'm not here to replace anybody," he said. "I'm here to become the next young guy coming in for the Chicago Bulls, work my butt off and take this back to where it should be."
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