Zach LaVine put together a last-second sizzle reel for his would-be suitors in the waning moments of the Chicago Bulls’ 96-94 home loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. Six points in nine seconds—a contested pull-up 3 over Franz Wagner, then a quick-fire 3 off a Nikola Vucevic handoff to tie the game that Chicago had trailed by as much as 19. It was a flash of shotmaking brilliance from the beleaguered star, uncharacteristically clutch. For years, LaVine had often bobbled those moments, seemingly weighed down by the obligation of it all. In this moment, perhaps one of his last in Chicago, he rose and fired with ease.
Did the Bulls end up losing the game? Of course they did. But that isn’t the point, now, is it? After a miserable start that just about everyone could have predicted, the Chicago Bulls are now reportedly open to trading Zach LaVine, who could be on the verge of a major change, and, if we’re lucky, a major breakthrough.
LaVine couldn’t be the player the Bulls needed him to be—hell, he could barely be the player he wanted to be with the nagging injuries over the years. The surest way to true stardom these days is the promise of undeniable two-way impact. LaVine has yet to come close. Otherwise, it isn’t enough to simply be a great scorer—you’d better be one of the greatest offensive engines the game of basketball has ever seen. LaVine, as picturesque as his highlights can be, is decidedly not that.
At 28 years old, with a few more years left to wring out of his prime, LaVine enters a pivotal juncture of his career, a liminal zone where he can gracefully shed certain masks imposed by a team and the expectations that come with them. A zone where he can accept his gifts for what they are and what they aren’t. (Bypass this step of self-acceptance, and you enter the dense, foggy wilderness that James Harden still can’t find his way out of.)
I’ve long had a term for this phase of a player’s career: post-aspirational. We remember the peaks of a star’s prime, but I’ve always been fascinated by that initial “decline.” Who do you become when that top layer is stripped away? It can be a window into who they really are, what they truly value within the confines of the sport. There are no right answers, only right fits and alignments.
LaVine may not have control over where he lands, but the teams that have interest likely see him the way he ought to be seen: a dangerous and efficient off-ball scorer with rare ability as both a driver and volume 3-point shooter. The Bulls have long asked him to initiate offense beyond his means; in his next chapter, odds are good that he’ll be asked only to finish plays off. After shedding that weight, LaVine’s post-aspirational years could very well be the most fruitful of his career. Because being an “alpha” sure as hell hasn’t yielded much.
But LaVine is unlikely to generate a booming market for the Bulls, who have picked arguably the worst time—the early season after the greatest prospect in NBA history gets drafted—to either retool or rebuild. If the recent Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and Harden trades are any indication, Bulls fans aren’t going to be happy with the haul. (Unless Detroit, desperate for reliable offense, includes oddly cast-aside sophomore Jaden Ivey in a package.) Every team in the league would gladly take what LaVine can offer on offense, but actual suitors begin to dry up once you factor in his max-level contract and defensive ambivalence. Marc Stein has already reported murmurs that neither Philadelphia nor Dallas is all that interested in making a deal. Still, the skills that LaVine possesses are among the rarest in the league—someone is going to take the plunge. Here are five teams that could clarify their vision of the season by embracing the next stage of Zach LaVine.
Los Angeles Lakers
As ever, the LeBron-era Lakers are off to a turbulent start and could use some extra firepower to make sure the King doesn’t grind himself into dust before competition truly ramps up. As ever, the Lakers miraculously have the right combination of contracts and depth pieces to be a looming player in trade talks. (Of course, that depends on whether the Bulls can wait into the new year to make a move—newly re-signed players like D’Angelo Russell [December 15] and Rui Hachimura [January 15] aren’t quite eligible to be dealt yet.)
LaVine, a Klutch client, practically spelled out his desire to play with LeBron and the Lakers back in 2020. As far as plug-and-play stars who can immediately step in and help the team’s woes from behind the arc, there aren’t many available who would fit as seamlessly as LaVine, who offers both catch-and-shoot accuracy (42.2 percent over the course of his career) and a star-level pull-up threat from 3. It’s an archetype that the team has tried to piecemeal together over the years from faded-glory types like Malik Monk, Lonnie Walker IV, and Malik Beasley. The Lakers feel like an obvious landing spot. It’s just a matter of whether LaVine will still be available when the Lakers’ full package becomes available.
Pairing Jimmy Butler and LaVine—once the two centerpieces of a 2017 trade between Minnesota and Chicago that kick-started this languishing era of Bulls futility—would be a fitting end to LaVine’s tenure. LaVine was jammed into Chicago’s “alpha” void that Butler’s departure created at the beginning of the post–Tom Thibodeau era, and while he blossomed into one of the best pure scorers in the game, his on-court sensibilities had become an anachronism. His athleticism and natural scoring feel gave him the air of the kind of star that you’d want to build a team around. The moment you realize you can’t, it’s far too late.
Miami would present a haven for LaVine, allowing him to buy into a functional, never mind winning, NBA system for the first time in his career. Though it’s fair to wonder whether LaVine presents that much of an upgrade over Tyler Herro, LaVine’s athletic gifts, even as he enters the twilight of his 20s, grant him scoring access at all three levels of the half court. (LaVine’s lowest single-season free throw rate is still better than the highest Herro has ever managed.) On a team intent on conserving Butler’s minutes, LaVine would offer dual utility as a play-finishing hammer on most nights and a moonlit first option on off nights. Miami’s in the bottom third of the league in offense. It’ll need more juice at some point. The question is whether it’s LaVine that’ll provide it.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are sputtering amid one of Steph Curry’s best starts in his career. How they address their issues will tell us a whole lot about what the new front office regime under Mike Dunleavy Jr. values most. Golden State has no consistent source of offense behind a 35-year-old Curry—an absolutely terrifying reality for a team clinging to what remains of its dynastic image. Jordan Poole, the team’s leader in total points last season, is currently living out a stoner comedy montage in the nation’s capital. Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins are both having the worst seasons of their respective careers. None of the Warriors’ recent lottery selections are ready to step into the slipstream.
LaVine has never operated in a system remotely like what Golden State runs, and yet it’s hard to imagine a softer landing for one’s ego death than being able to play within the orbit of Steph. LaVine can offer just about everything lacking in the Warriors offense. Chris Paul no longer seems capable of reliably hitting shots—is this how the Warriors wash their hands clean of a potentially misguided oil-and-water experiment? At worst, acquiring a talent like LaVine could cost the team’s soul. Would Golden State trade Thompson, one of the pillars of its dynasty, along with draft capital to right the ship? Is that unconscionable? Of course it is. Still, if the goal is to win with Steph while they still can, LaVine presents an interesting, heartbreaking solution. LaVine’s no Kevin Durant, but he’d probably step in as the most potent pure scorer the team has put next to Curry since KD. Last year’s squad couldn’t shed the bad vibes entering the season; I can’t imagine how difficult moving on from Klay and Rocco would be in the middle of one.
On paper, LaVine fills just about every gap in the Raptors offense. That’s been the case for several years now. Toronto hasn’t had a wing creator who is both a volume 3-point shooter and driver who can get into the lane at will since … Kawhi Leonard? And before that … Vince Carter? The franchise has always seemed to have a hole where that type of star used to be. LaVine isn’t either of those players, but—assuming the team doesn’t have to give up any of its three best core pieces in Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby—he wouldn’t need to be.
In some ways, acquiring a player like LaVine—an extremely efficient scorer who has simply been poorly cast on a bad team—would be the ultimate pressure test for Masai Ujiri’s team-building philosophy. Would Toronto’s sea of limbs surround and protect LaVine from all the things he doesn’t want to do on the court? Would the imminent threat of LaVine’s multilayered offense help make sense of the overlap that Barnes and Siakam have struggled to iron out? Is the end result even a fringe contender? And if so, how long could it last? It’d be tough to imagine the Raptors tacking the final two-plus years of LaVine’s max contract onto their cap sheet when both Siakam and Anunoby (who has a player option) will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
Tyrese Haliburton has orchestrated the most efficient offense in the league, scoring at a higher rate than any offense the NBA has ever seen. Eight different Pacers are averaging at least 11 points per game. But these feel-good, egalitarian offenses typically hit regression-related roadblocks. With the team buzzing on a hot streak, is this a good time to consolidate for a more proven scoring option? They’re the seventh-youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 25; if the Pacers offer a package built around the salaries of Buddy Hield and T.J. McConnell, the core rotation would get younger by acquiring LaVine.
It’s fair to wonder whether making any major in-season deals would unnecessarily accelerate the timeline with a sub-elite star player. The Pacers have been blessed with a mulligan, the opportunity to play free of expectations once again. They had a promising 23-18 record at the halfway point last season, just before Haliburton’s elbow and ankle injuries had the team plummeting down the standings, winning only three of their next 20 games. Indiana’s supercharged start presents a complete vision of what a Haliburton-led offense can accomplish. LaVine, while pricey, could theoretically augment that vision without compromising structure.
The only season that LaVine has ever made the playoffs was in 2021-22, when he was able to maximize his off-ball scoring and downhill rim pressure playing alongside DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, two trustworthy pick-and-roll navigators. Haliburton would be able to push that dynamic even further, with as talented a scorer as he’s ever played with. There is a lot more that goes into trades than just fit, though. For a team that’s playing at one of the fastest paces in the league, the Pacers are in no rush. Still, it’s an idea worth considering, if only to imagine LaVine running alongside a truly modern maestro, optimized and unburdened.