For my first story on thePeachBasket, I thought it would be only fitting to analyze one of Chicago’s two budding stars in Zach LaVine: One of the primary reasons for the Bulls’ recent success. While there have been plenty of factors contributing to Chicago’s 25-10 start to the season, LaVine’s transcendence from a slasher to an all-around threat should not go unnoticed.
LaVine’s growth as a player has been arguably the main spark to the Bulls’ rebuild following the Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler days. Coming into the league in 2014, the UCLA product was mainly known for his rare athleticism and high-flying dunks. This was well-showcased in his first few years on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite winning back-to-back slam dunk contests in 2015-16 and gaining league-wide recognition as one of the best dunkers in the game, he wasn’t regarded as much else.
He was seen as an exciting player with raw talent, but never as someone who could lead a contending team. Statistically, he was one of the worst defenders in the NBA based on defensive rating. He consistently finished above 110.0 each season in Minnesota (NBA.com). On the other side of the ball he was more gifted. But a healthy portion of his buckets came from open transition due to his freakish athletic ability to run out in space. He was inconsistent in scoring in half-court sets due to his limited offensive game at the time. Often relying on his quick first step to blow by defenders before arriving in the paint. His other young teammates in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were regarded as the franchise’s cornerstones. LaVine was merely an afterthought.
Tearing his ACL midway through the 2016-17 season created more doubt around LaVine. Many were questioning if his career trajectory had changed. Since his athleticism was his main crutch, some analysts believed he would lose some of his burst by the time he returned, which would ultimately hinder his productivity on the court. This led to the Wolves packaging the then-22 year old in a deal for superstar Jimmy Butler that summer. From there, LaVine’s career changed entirely.
Still recovering from injury, LaVine missed the first three months of the 2017-18 season. Many Bulls fans forgot he was even a part of the team. After all, he was considered a ‘throw-in’ in the Butler trade. 2017 seventh-overall pick Lauri Markkanen was the main centerpiece on the Bulls’ receiving end. However when LaVine made his Chicago debut in January 2018, he immediately changed that narrative. He finished the season averaging 16.7 points per game on limited minutes. That gave the Bulls enough confidence to re-sign him to a four-year deal.
The Contract Extension
After inking an $80 million extension in Chicago, LaVine’s game began to ascend. His raw numbers improved each season on the Bulls, averaging 23.9 points on 46% from the field and 38.7% from 3 over the last five seasons with the team. LaVine has completely reinvented his game, developing himself into one of the league’s most-lethal scorers. He’s blended his exceptional athleticism into his shot making arsenal. He is now heavily utilizing the step-back and turnaround jumper in his much improved – now elite – footwork. LaVine has also vastly improved as a 3-point shooter. He is averaging 8 attempts per game at 40.7% over the last three seasons. His combination of slashing ability and fundamentally-sound basketball has turned himself into one of the most dangerous offensive players in the world.
But how could we possibly forget his improved defense? This season, LaVine has changed the narrative of him being a liability on the other end of the floor, lowering his defensive rating to under 110.0 for the first time in his career (NBA.com). Granted he’s finally playing next to elite perimeter defenders in Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and rookie standout Ayo Dosunmu, LaVine deserves his credit. From an eye-test standpoint, he’s staying in front of his man and fighting through screens more consistently in 2021-22. This is a big reason why Chicago is top-half in the league in team defensive efficiency (TeamRankings).
The Running Mate
Perhaps LaVine’s biggest surprise of the first half of this season has been his ability to coexist with another star of his caliber. Prior to 2021-22, LaVine was the man doing everything for the Bulls. Often this meant putting up absurd statlines due to being the only offensive spark for his club. Critics questioned whether his numbers had value to winning basketball, due to LaVine’s teams never managing to win four-straight games from 2014-2021. Personally, I found these takes absurd.
Despite LaVine receiving nearly all of the opposing teams’ defensive attention and being the main victim of traps and double teams, he still managed to have good efficiency. He shot over 50% from the field and 42% from deep last season as the Bulls’ primary threat. Placing another elite perimeter player/wing next to LaVine would give him easier looks at the basket. Which would improve his efficiency even more. The Bulls would soon get this wish.
Chicago’s new front office pulled the trigger last summer, landing DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso to play alongside LaVine and running mate Nikola Vucevic. DeRozan has reestablished himself as a top 10-15 player since signing in August. He is averaging 27 points and 5 rebounds a game while being one of the top closers in basketball. LaVine and DeRozan are currently one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. Averaging over 50 points per game between the pair. LaVine has often been unselfish in deterring to DeMar late in games depending on who is hot, and vice versa. Both can bring the ball up the floor, play off the ball, are willing passers and can create shots for themselves as well as anyone in the NBA. The duo’s fit together is one of the main reasons why Chicago currently sits at first in the Eastern Conference.
With all of this being said, has LaVine finally arrived in superstar territory? It depends how superstars are defined. Commonly, most NBA fans label them as top 10 players in the league. Being a top 10 player usually means they can dominate the stat sheet, take over games, make teammates better, play defense, coexist with other great players and be the primary factor on a winning team. LaVine meets most of these requirements, however he still has yet to play in a postseason game.
Until he shows me what he can do on the biggest stages in basketball, I’m going to refrain from calling him a superstar for now. However, he is well on his way. Given his age (26) and culmination of skills coming together, LaVine is entering his playing prime right as his team is beginning to ascend. His play should only elevate from here. And it will be interesting to see where he helps take the Bulls going forward.
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