The Chicago Bulls are in the phase of their rebuilding where things either start to pay off or they start to fall apart. They’ve won just 49 games in the last two seasons as they rebuild.
To take that next step, they’ll need Zach LaVine to go from “player on the rise” to “franchise player.”
He took a big step forward last season, averaging 23.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists while gunning a 57.4 true shooting percentage. While those numbers were easily career bests, it didn’t get him much respect from the media.
He received just one third-place vote for Most Improved Player.
That’s in large part because his individual improvement didn’t lead to team success. But if the Bulls can take the next step led by LaVine, he could get some recognition.
When you compare LaVine’s numbers with the top five players in MIP voting last year, as well as the man he was traded for, Jimmy Butler, it’s startlingly favorable.
That’s just to say LaVine closer to that All-Star level than some people might think, but he’ll still need to improve to get consideration. There’s still that “empty stats guy” moniker hanging around, even if it isn’t entirely fair.
While last year was the most efficient of his career, LaVine can still improve there. His 57.4 true shooting percentage isn’t bad, but it needs context. It was only 19th of the 30 players who notched at least 20 points per game and qualified for the scoring title last year, according to Basketball Reference.
With the league gearing towards more efficient shots, 57 percent isn’t what it used to be. In 2009-10, LaVine would have had the seventh most efficient 20-point season, trailing league leader Dwight Howard by just 2.6 percentage points.
Yet, the 60 percent Howard led the league with is the more of the benchmark of efficiency now.
There are reasons to believe LaVine can make that step. He was 59.1 percent in the 40 games he played after Boylen took over as head coach on Dec. 3, suggesting the gap isn’t that big.
He’ll also be surrounded by better and improving teammates, too—most notably Otto Porter Jr., who Chicago acquired at the trade deadline last year. With Porter on the court, LaVine averaged 30.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists per 36 minutes and had a 65.2 true shooting percentage, per NBA.com.
Having shooters on the court is a big asset for LaVine, as he’s at his best when attacking barely-set or thinned-out defenses off the dribble. It’s hard for help-defense to arrive on time. His quick, ground-gulping steps and decisive moves don’t waste much time as he goes to the rim.
Once in the air, it’s over.
LaVine scored 9.5 points per game on drives last year, with a points percentage of 70.2. The only player who was better on both counts was James Harden.
The Bulls also should have improved point guard play this season. Tomas Satoransky was signed in free agency (Washington Wizards) and should be able to find LaVine for open 3-point shots. He was 39.1 percent on catch-and-shoots in Boylen’s offense.
It stands to reason that the improved personnel is going to get LaVine more of the looks he’s more efficient at, which means there’s a good chance both his scoring and true shooting percentage go up. It’s not unrealistic to project 25 points per game and a 60 percent true shooting percentage, which would certainly put him in All-NBA conversations.
Of course, additional wins would go an even longer way toward sealing the deal, though LaVine can only control so much of that aspect.
One thing LaVine absolutely needs to improve on, though, is his turnover propensity, especially in the halfcourt offense. He turns it over on 14.8 percent of plays where he’s executing the offense, according to Synergy Sports.
Most of those come from not seeing the court well and trying to force passes that have no chance of working. Case in point:
This is even slightly more troubling when considering that LaVine’s first team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, used him at point guard a lot during his first couple seasons while trying to broaden his skill set. They eventually gave up on that idea, but it’s an area of concern LaVine acknowledges, telling Fansided’s Gerald Bourguet:
I gotta work on my turnovers, I try to make some risky passes where you get a little bit of tunnel vision and can make some turnovers, but I feel like those aggressive plays sometimes help your team out. Always, the league leader in assists have a lot of turnovers. As long as they’re aggressive, those are okay, but with my playmaking, I feel like I can take another jump this year. I have the ball in my hand a lot.
I want to be able to play off the ball and get some easy points as well, but I’ve definitely been focused on my playmaking and being able to draw that double-team or create a line where I can get to the hole when I need to and then kick it out or drop it off to get easier looks for my teammates.
The first part of solving the problem is acknowledging it, so he at least has that much going in his favor. If LaVine can improve his court awareness and not be so myopic once deciding on a course of action, he can cut his turnovers considerably. Maybe all that point guard practice can pay off then.
We may be at the point of LaVine’s career where we can stop hoping that he is going to turn the page on his defense and become a good—or even average—defender. The question now is more like: “Can he even exist in a good defense?”
There is a difference. Schematics and effort can help a below-average defender exist in a good system without breaking it. Think James Harden if you want an example.
Having help will help. LaVine will be surrounded by his best defensive unit since being traded to Chicago. Sandwiched between Satoransky and Porter Jr. will also give him a bit more freedom defensively, and newly arrived Thaddeus Young (Indiana Pacers) is usually very solid as an individual and help defender. Maybe this is the year Kris Dunn puts it all together as a defense-first point guard as well.
Wendell Carter Jr., last year’s first-round pick, is healthy again and should provide a safety net for if (and when) LaVine gets beat.
The Bulls won’t need to use LaVine to defend the point of attack, which is good because he’s not very good at it. But he is one of the quicker players in the league, and last year’s career-high 1.0 steals per game is much lower than you’d expect.
When he does get steals, they tend to translate into points, as Chicago’s offensive rating off LaVine’s steals is 129.3, based on stats from PBP Stats.
The Bulls could take a page from the Warriors’ playbook and use LaVine in a similar fashion to how the Dubs do Stephen Curry: Switch when he’s attacked and use him to attack passing lanes or come over in help defense and bother the ballhandler.
Trust the rest of the defense to help when he’s beaten. It’s going to happen anyway, so why not take the reward that comes with the risk?
If LaVine can improve his scoring and efficiency while cutting down on the turnovers and at least countering some of the defensive liability, not only will he be in contention for some national recognition, the Bulls should be in the hunt for the postseason and all the deserved recognition that will come with it.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.