Five seasons. Two teams. One major ACL injury. Zero playoff appearances. Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine’s ascent to stardom has been delayed by bad injury luck and even worse teammates, but in spite of it all, he might still be on time.
The stars seem to be aligning for LaVine’s breakout campaign, or at least, they’re moving out of the way. With Kawhi Leonard out of Toronto and the East still lacking the same starpower as the West, there’s an opening for LaVine to make his first All-Star Game appearance (Chicago hosting next year’s event doesn’t hurt, either). LaVine’s high-flying act has never had any trouble generating fan support, but getting support from his front office has been more difficult. The Bulls, to their credit, abstained from splashier signings this summer to ink two unselfish, low-usage veterans in Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky while drafting a playmaking point guard in Coby White. That haul is a far cry from landing a running mate like Leonard or Kevin Durant, but it does signal that LaVine will be asked to carry the water for Chicago’s offense.
Despite his reputation of being cut from the same cloth as unconscionable chuckers with hops like Gerald Green and J.R. Smith, LaVine’s efficiency as a scorer to end this past season places him in a different type of company. In his last 40 games of 2018-19, LaVine hit scoring benchmarks (22.9 points per game, 48.5 percent from the field, and 41.7 percent from 3) that only three players in NBA history have attained over a full season: Stephen Curry (three times), Dale Ellis, and Kevin Durant.
All 40 of those games came after Jim Boylen took over as head coach, which may be the one possible bright spot from the fever dream that included line changes and Robin Lopez’s posting up multiple times a game. In spite of LaVine’s efforts, the Bulls were still a mess offensively under Boylen, ranking 28th in offensive rating, 23rd in pace, 29th in assist percentage, and last in 3-point attempts per game.
There were no real signs of a healthy offense to be found in Chicago, except for with LaVine, who regularly turned late-shot-clock flaming bags from his teammates into high percentage shots. Even in the most suboptimal of circumstances with inexperienced and/or inept teammates, LaVine still scored a career-high 23.7 points per game. The addition of former Brooklyn Nets assistant Chris Fleming may or may not address the schematic issues of Chicago’s offense, but simply having personnel more capable of reading defensive rotations (Wendell Carter Jr. can pass!) and more willing to move the ball should improve the quality and quantity of LaVine’s scoring chances, to the point where LaVine could realistically contend for the scoring title.
That may sound absurd, but LaVine’s reputation hasn’t been recalibrated since fully recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in early 2017. LaVine might not be getting respect from every corner of the basketball world, but he’s starting to get it from one of the most important groups: the officials. LaVine set a new career high in free throw attempts per game last season (6.0), and that’s an important number if you’re projecting another uptick in scoring. Over the last 30 years, only Curry has averaged more than 28 points per game on fewer than 6.5 free throw attempts. LaVine’s trips to the line should continue to increase, as he’s driving to the hoop less like a reckless teenager careening off defenders and more like a crafty finisher who uses the rim to shield the ball from would-be shot blockers better than anyone. LaVine doesn’t let those same sagging big men off the hook nearly as often, using his incredible athleticism in controlled bursts that are nearly impossible for backpedaling defenders to handle. He’s just beginning to play with his speeds, slowing down the game in a way that might surprise those who regard him as “just a dunker.”
The recent history of first-time scoring champions bodes well for LaVine. Since the 2000-01 season, first-time scoring title winners have been, on average, 25.3 years old with an experience level of 6.6 seasons in the league. LaVine turns 25 in March and is entering his sixth season.
Those 10 first-time scoring title winners (Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden) all saw their points per game rise an average of 5.2 points from the previous year. A similar jump for LaVine this upcoming season would put him at 28.9 PPG—that would have ranked second in the league in 2018-19.
Of course, toppling Harden won’t be easy after the 2018 MVP blew out the competition with 36.1 points per game last season. But with Russell Westbrook now in Houston, the Rockets will employ the only two players in NBA history with single-season usage percentages over 40 percent. Given the fallout with Chris Paul and the fatigue that occasionally dogs him when the postseason rolls around, Harden has every reason to pull back a bit and defer more than usual. When you account for Harden’s 17-game stretch without Paul in the lineup last season, where he averaged an absurd 43.6 PPG to keep Houston’s playoff chances alive, it’s easier to see how last season’s gaudy number probably isn’t realistic moving forward.
LaVine would undoubtedly need more touches than he had last season to see such a sizable bump in scoring, but a faster pace (and fewer blowouts) would go a long way toward that. Even if Chicago ends up out of the playoff hunt early, LaVine could have the benefit of a team united behind him, helping him put up big numbers to aid his All-Star campaign and move him closer to a huge payday. Because he’s eligible for a contract extension next summer, LaVine may have a little extra financial motivation to push for an All-NBA team spot and earn a bigger contract, much in the same way minutes-per-game leader Bradley Beal attempted to do last season, despite the Wizards having little else to play for down the stretch.
LaVine took a big step forward last season, even if it happened in the muck of meaningless late-season affairs. With his team on the rise, the pecking order intact, and his mind and body cooperating again, the timing looks right for LaVine to make the leap.