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Can Zach LaVine and the Bulls Make the Leap Together?

For Chicago to make it back to the playoffs, and maybe even win a series for the first time since the Thibs era, it’ll need the former dunk champ to become an All-NBA player

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Chicago Bulls haven’t reached the playoffs in half a decade, but they’ve spent the past year making additions with the goal of winning now. They brought in DeMar DeRozan, who has seemingly reentered his prime at age 32. They signed Alex Caruso, who’s liable to turn any defensive possession into a highlight. They traded for Lonzo Ball, who’s racing into transition buckets and open 3s.

Yet during pregame festivities at the United Center, the Alan Parsons Project thumping in the background as it has since the days of Michael Jordan, the player honored with the all-important final spot during introductions is Zach LaVine.

LaVine isn’t just the longest-tenured Bull or the team’s best pure scorer. He is the centerpiece of this new Bulls era. In the wake of Jim Boylen’s punch-clock regime, new front-office boss Arturas Karnisovas has built a team in LaVine’s image. The new-look Bulls get out in transition. They’re athletic and versatile. And they can score in bunches.

It’s worked so far. The Bulls are 14-8, tied for second place in the East, with top-10 ratings on both offense and defense. They’ve already beaten the Jazz, Nets, and Celtics, as well as both L.A. teams. And the revamped roster is clicking to the point that Chicago can dream about not just avoiding the play-in morass, but challenging for home-court advantage in the first round.

“I’m always confident. I put the work in. But having [DeRozan] next to me, having Vooch next to me, Lonzo, that just makes me more confident and more ready to play,” LaVine said at the start of the season. He added, “We got a bunch of no. 1 options.”

But for the Bulls to return to the playoffs for the first time in five years, and maybe even win a series or two for the first time since Tom Thibodeau was in charge, they need LaVine to not only be their no. 1 option, but one of the league’s best options. The NBA remains star-driven: The last team to reach the Finals without a player making an All-NBA team in the same season was the 2009-10 Celtics, who admittedly had several previous All-NBA players just past their primes, while the last team to win a title without one was the 1988-89 Pistons.

Though he was named to his first All-Star roster last season, LaVine has yet to crack an All-NBA team. If he can make the leap, the Bulls have a chance to fulfill their potential as a surprise contender in a suddenly crowded East. But if he can’t, all of the Bulls’ shrewd transactions might go for naught—and complicate LaVine’s own decision when he hits unrestricted free agency next summer.

Last season, Trae Young and Devin Booker both made the jump to stardom from the ranks of “good stats, bad team” players. LaVine is the best candidate to follow their path in 2021-22. Like the Hawks and Suns guards, LaVine contributes mainly by scoring: He already ranks second in Bulls history—you can probably guess the identity of the leader—in 40-point games (14) and 25-points-per-game seasons (three in a row). This season, he isn’t shooting with the outrageous efficiency he enjoyed in 2020-21, but he hasn’t fallen far either, relative to a league that’s shooting worse as a whole. Last season, LaVine’s true shooting percentage was 11 percent better than average; this season, he’s 9 percent better despite playing with a torn ligament in his thumb.

“Zach carries us shooting the ball,” coach Billy Donovan said. “For me, it’s remarkable to watch him. I am very fortunate and blessed to watch a guy who shoots the ball the way he does and the degree of difficulty. He’s one of the best tough-shot-makers in this league.”

Since the start of last season, LaVine is one of just seven players with at least a 30 percent usage rate and 60 percent true shooting. The others are All-NBA mainstays. (LeBron James has a 59.9 percent true shooting mark, or else he’d qualify as well; ditto Nikola Jokic and his 29.9 percent usage rate.)

Players With 30% Usage and 60% True Shooting Since Last Season

Player Usage True Shooting
Player Usage True Shooting
Kevin Durant 31.2% 65.7%
Steph Curry 34.1% 64.9%
Zach LaVine 30.8% 62.5%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 32.9% 62.4%
Joel Embiid 34.8% 62.4%
Kyrie Irving 30.4% 61.4%
Damian Lillard 30.6% 60.3%

Unlike the other players on that list, LaVine doesn’t stand out from the pack in any other area of his game; he needs to score with such volume and efficiency to impact any given game. LaVine has improved on defense but is still a minus on that end of the floor, ceding the toughest matchups to his more active teammates. And he’s not the most inventive passer—though he more regularly makes the smart play to create for others now. He’s particularly crafty when driving into the lane and patiently spraying the ball back out to an open shooter for 3 …

… or when finding cutters in transition.

LaVine and the Bulls excel with pace and space, scoring more transition points per game than any other team, according to Cleaning the Glass. However, they have struggled when forced to grind out baskets against set defenses. “We’re elite in transition,” Caruso said. “I don’t think we’re elite in half-court offense just yet, and that’s something we’ve got to improve on.”

Chicago ranks just 11th in half-court efficiency, and a paltry 28th on possessions that start after an opponent makes a basket, per, ahead of only the lowly Rockets and Magic. Donovan and players alike often talk about “getting downhill” on offense, or penetrating the paint to create better shots—especially against zone defenses, which have stymied the Bulls attack in numerous recent games. “We can’t rely on jump shot after jump shot,” DeRozan said.

LaVine epitomizes this unfortunate habit, as he has settled for midrange jumpers more than at any point since joining the Bulls. The former two-time dunk champion is taking a career-low percentage of his shots at the rim.

But while the new roster construction fits LaVine’s style of play, it hasn’t given him much space to operate. None of the other starters are knockdown shooters, and the bench offers a fleet of high-energy contributors—Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Derrick Jones Jr., Coby White—without a long-range threat among them. As a team, the Bulls rank 29th in 3-point attempts and 28th in makes, rendering LaVine’s production even more important.

LaVine still has range, making at least 38 percent of his 3s at good volume for the third straight season. Defenses guard him differently than all of his teammates: Only 28 percent of LaVine’s 3-point attempts have been wide open this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats, easily the lowest on the Bulls—and, incidentally, the same proportion of wide-open 3s that Steph Curry’s had.

How Defenses Guard Bulls 3-Point Shooters

Player Open 3PA Total 3PA Open Proportion
Player Open 3PA Total 3PA Open Proportion
Javonte Green 25 26 96%
Derrick Jones Jr. 13 15 87%
Nikola Vucevic 54 63 86%
Ayo Dosunmu 30 38 79%
Alex Caruso 36 63 57%
Coby White 17 31 55%
Troy Brown Jr. 9 20 45%
Lonzo Ball 65 151 43%
DeMar DeRozan 22 58 38%
Zach LaVine 46 164 28%

That’s where the “tough-shot-maker” role comes in. Since the start of last season, LaVine’s 3-point accuracy is 8 percentage points higher than expected, based on factors like shot angle and defender distance. That’s the fifth-best mark out of 77 players with at least 400 3-point attempts in that span, per Second Spectrum, behind only Joe Harris, Curry, Joe Ingles, and Michael Porter Jr.

“I’ve never played with a player like Zach before,” DeRozan said. “The things he’s capable of doing offensively is intimidating at times, how easy he can do the things he can do. It’s fun; it heightens my level to go out there and want to be neck and neck with him.”

That partnership has already paid tremendous dividends. LaVine and DeRozan, the latter now playing a full-time point forward role, both rank in the top 10 in the NBA in points per game this season, and they rank second and third, respectively, in fourth-quarter scoring, behind only LeBron. “They just go back and forth,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said before a recent game in Chicago. “They hunt matchups. Both those guys are among the best one-on-one players in the game.”

Not many teams have two perimeter defenders capable of sticking in front of both high-volume scorers. “They’ve got to pick either me or him,” LaVine said of DeRozan recently. “One of us is going to get a good look or create a play.”

Coaches take different approaches to deploying two stars, but the Bulls’ duo operates with strict stagger rules. Over their first 22 games, the Bulls haven’t played a single minute outside garbage time with both LaVine and DeRozan on the bench. Donovan is adamant in ensuring he has at least one of his top two scorers available at all times. And they seem to have adapted to the variable demands of one-star versus two-star lineups with ease: Both LaVine and DeRozan are shooting the ball a lot more, albeit with a little less efficiency, when the other one rests.

Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, Together and Apart

Metric With the Other Without the Other Difference
Metric With the Other Without the Other Difference
LaVine USG% 27.2% 33.2% +6.0%
DeRozan USG% 26.0% 35.1% +9.1%
... ... ... ...
LaVine TS% 60.5% 59.0% -1.5%
DeRozan TS% 59.4% 57.8% -1.6%

DeRozan-only lineups have steamrolled opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions, per, while LaVine-only lineups are minus-7.4 points per 100. But much of the difference stems from random luck with opponents’ shots—they’re hitting 41 percent of their 3s versus LaVine-only lineups, versus just 32 percent against DeRozan-only units—and a return to form from Nikola Vucevic, who missed seven games due to a COVID-19 diagnosis and has suffered a career-worst shooting slump while on the court, would certainly bolster lineups with DeRozan on the bench.

A quarter of the way through the season, Donovan is still working to figure out his optimal rotation patterns—and not only because of player absences. Eight of the top nine Bulls in total minutes have been with the team for less than a year; only the overhauled Lakers have less roster continuity, according to Basketball-Reference.

The roster has turned over so quickly that White, a 2019 draftee, is the only holdover from the Boylen era besides LaVine—and both players notice a real difference in the team’s vibes. “This is my third year here, but this is the most fun the [United Center] has been since I’ve been here,” White said after a recent home win over the Knicks.

LaVine has now been a part of three distinct eras of Bulls basketball: first, the initial rebuild after the Jimmy Butler trade that brought LaVine to Chicago; then the floundering Boylen years, characterized mainly by internal drama; and now, the emergence of a potential contender with no other remaining pieces from the trade that set the franchise back half a decade.

Yet that half decade has also meant near-continuous improvement from LaVine, who’s gone from a promising but raw youngster with a torn ACL to perhaps the most attractive player available next summer. While the Bulls can offer LaVine more than any other team, he will hold all the cards in unrestricted free agency—a rarity in a league where players are increasingly opting to sign an extension and figure the rest out later.

LaVine has come a long way since his last free agency, when the Bulls matched an offer sheet from the Kings to keep him—a move that was widely panned. He is now the go-to scorer on a team with legitimate playoff upside, and the player for whom Bulls fans cheer the loudest during player introductions. The rest of this season will show whether he can push his own ceiling higher, and just how far a team built in his image can go.

All leaguewide stats through Tuesday’s games.