When Zach Lavine entered the NBA out of UCLA we all had questions about how his game would translate. Pretty much the only thing that we weren’t questioning about him was his elite athleticism. It’s a little bit ironic that we’ve had to question if a former Slam Dunk Champion was capable of making any kind of a developmental leap. In 2018 Lavine has made the most important leap of his career.
Lavine signed a four year seventy-eight-million-dollar offer sheet over the summer and the NBA universe pretty much universally wrote him off as an albatross contract that should have been left to rot in Sacramento. But the Bulls matched. They had to, even if his play last year didn’t warrant it. Lavine was the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade and becoming a valuable player was of the utmost importance to the franchise (both for optics and on court impact). Coming off a bad twenty-four game season due to his recovery from ACL surgery; matching a contract worth nearly twenty million dollars a year was certainly a gamble. The Bulls gave Lavine that contract with the faith of what he could turn into, not what he currently was. Through eleven games Lavine has exceeded expectations.
Following his forty-one point smackdown on the Knicks, Lavine is now sixth in the league in scoring at 27.9 points per game; sandwiched between James Harden (seventh) and Kemba Walker (fifth). He isn’t just doing it with hot shooting nights either. Lavine is attacking the basket with a ferocity that he hasn’t ever played with. He is finishing nearly seventy percent of his shots at the rim and drawing over eight free throws a game. Combine the way he is attacking the rim to his already gifted shooting; where he can scorch you both off the dribble and on the catch; with his new found attacking ability and you have the makings of an elite scorer. It feels sustainable.
If the Bulls ever plan on having playoff success again, they’ll need him to be more than just an elite scorer. Lavine needs to get better defensively. Lavine’s struggles on defense aren’t due to a lack of effort (like say Jabari Parker), he can stick with his man one-on-one. Lavine gets lost off the ball and he finds himself out of position more often than not. Wendell Carter’s shot altering ability will help when Lavine is out of position, but it’s a problem that needs addressing. Perhaps a new coach who is more focused on that side of the ball will help when the Bulls eventually move on from Hoiberg.
While the Bulls are decimated by injuries, letting Lavine have the ball in his hands so often is fine. The alternative is putting the ball in Cam Payne’s hands. Not a difficult choice there. Lavine has a usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) of thirty-four, a career high that will need to come down when Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine return from their injuries. But that’s four major rotation players out for the Bulls, and one more time, the alternative is giving the ball to Cam Payne.
The next step in Lavine’s offensive evolution will be his ability to create for his teammates. Lauri Markkanen’s development is still going to decide how much success the Bulls will have in the future, so it’s imperative for Lavine and Markkanen to develop some offensive chemistry. In theory a Lavine-Markkanen pick and roll should be unguardable. Over play Lavine and Lauri is popping for a three. Over play Markkanen and Lavine is open for a three. Switch the screen and either guy has a mismatch that they can attack. In order to unlock all of these options, Lavine needs to improve his playmaking and decision making. Lavine is averaging more turnovers than assists, which is not ideal.
There is hope and precedent to fix this. Lavine should look to follow the Demar Derozan career trajectory. Early in Derozan’s career he also struggled to involve his teammates. If you look at his 2016-2017 season, his offensive numbers are eerily similar to Lavine’s 2018 numbers. Derozan has unlocked his ability as a playmaker the last two years. With no true point guard in San Antonio (get well soon Dejounte) this year, he’s averaging nearly seven assists per game.
Lavine is a hard worker and he takes his off seasons seriously. He listened to the criticism from last year and turned himself into an efficient scorer. It’s not hard to believe that he has the ability to unlock new parts of his game as he matures. Lavine made his name on his jumping ability. The Bulls have faith that he can make another one.