Frankly, this is a piece I never thought I’d write. Nobody has been a bigger critic of Zach LaVine than me. When he came to Chicago, I reacted in disgust to the point that people from Minnesota would tweet back and tell me “how much I’d love this kid” and “how badly he wants to be great.” In my mind, that was all fine and good. There’s a lot of players I’ve loved over the years and a lot of players that had that desire to be great, but not every “gym rat” makes it to the mountaintop and to be truly great in this league is very rare. Everything I had seen from Zach LaVine to that point was that he was extremely athletic, extremely young, a good but not great scorer, and reminded me of Gerald Green. That’s what I was expecting. Instead, we got something a little better: The next Vince Carter. Like Carter, LaVine was crazy athletic and a nice scorer and like Carter it felt like there was more on the table that we weren’t seeing just yet.
As I explained in this video a few years ago, there’s this invisible line for perimeter players in NBA history. If you’re going to get 20 points per game, you have to get at least 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game too. You hit that benchmark and that puts you with the greats: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden to name a few. But if you’re at 20 points per game, but below 5 rebounds and/or 5 assists per game? That puts you in another category. You might be a hall of famer – like Ray Allen, Vince Carter, or Reggie Miller – or even a perennial All-Star like Michael Redd, but you’re not THE guy on a contender. Vince never totally got there. His best seasons were 27/5/4 (close), 25/5/4, 25/6/4.8 (very close), and 24/5/4. Still great, but not the “franchise cornerstone.” That’s the phrase KC Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago used when describing Gar Forman and John Paxson‘s feelings on Zach LaVine. LaVine has always been close, but something was just missing. He’s gotten better every year he was here: 23.7 ppg, 4.7 reb, 4.5 ast (close!), 25.5 ppg, 4.8 reb, 4.2 ast (so close), and so far this season, he’s at 27.7 ppg, 5.1 reb, 4.6 ast (almost there).
So, why am I writing this piece claiming he’s making the leap? Because something clicked after a slow start to the season. Over the last 9 games (since the Bulls played Golden State in that thriller), LaVine has averaged 29.6 points per game (4th in the NBA in that span), 5.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists with 1.3 steals. The Bulls are nearly .500 in that span with a record of 4-5 while missing key rotation players at various times including Lauri Markkanen, Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter Jr, and Thaddeus Young. Still, the Bulls lost to Golden State by 1, Sacramento by 4, the Lakers by 2, and the Clippers by 3. That easily could have been an 8-1 record over that span and it was all fueled by the great play of Zach LaVine.
He’s doing things on the court that we haven’t seen from him with any regularity. Look at this pass to Thaddeus Young from the recent game against the Clippers. This isn’t a play he makes at any point in the past 3 years:
The other thing I’ve noticed is he’s spending more time defending the best player on the other team (most recently Kawhi Leonard for long stretches). That tells me he’s committed to being effective on both ends of the court. That’s also different than anything we’ve seen from him thus far. He was always one-dimensional and just a scorer. Now, he’s effective on both ends of the court and it’s making a huge impact.
There’s also plays like this one from the same game where he recognizes the mismatch and takes advantage of it:
And of course, the late game heroics have been recognizable for the past few seasons and seem to be more consistent if not expected in most games. He’s truly a big shot maker. Here’s just one example:
Something has changed. Maybe it’s the coaching of Billy Donovan, maybe he just got tired of losing, or maybe it’s just the natural evolution of his game, but I think LaVine is finally going to join that 20/5/5+ club this season, cement himself as an All-Star, and lead this team to a playoff berth. He’s making the leap right in front of our eyes. Chicago actually has an All-Star on their roster for the first time since Jimmy Butler was at his peak. The Bulls’ biggest challenge will be finding players that fit with him. As high as I am on Lauri Markkanen, I think we’ve seen four years of evidence to suggest he and LaVine don’t play well together. Coby White is electric, but the Bulls have clearly struggled defending perimeter players early on this season. Can that be rectified? Can both players become above average defenders? These are questions that Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley will have to answer in the coming months and years. The future is bright for Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls, but how high is the ceiling? We’ll have to wait and see.