I became a wrestling fan around 1995 and about that time the World Wrestling Federation began this megapush of a babyface Shawn Michaels. As a 10 year-old kid, I was 100% in. I idolized him and wanted to be like him – cocky, confident, and defiant. When Michaels retired in 2010, his final match was at Wrestlemania 26 in a rematch against The Undertaker. Undertaker gave him two tombstones and as he pulled him up to deliver a third, he urged Michaels to just give up and Michaels did this:
One last act of defiance and arrogance to ride off into the sunset. It was a fitting way to end his legendary career.
As I began thinking about what I wanted to write for my final Chicago Bulls piece ever, I used this Wrestlemania match as an inspiration. I wanted to go out with the brutal honesty, my guns blazing, and the boldness that has personified my writing since day one. That led me to one place: Zach LaVine. For years, I have been leading the charge that LaVine, while talented, is overrated. I’ve been saying that he’s really good, but not great, and if LaVine is your best player then you’re not going to succeed. In this final outing, I’m here to deliver a Shawn Michaels-esque slap to the face of Bulls Nation and say Zach LaVine is not the player you think he is. He’s deceiving you.
It’s not intentional. LaVine seems like a quality guy and a guy that cares about the game. He’s gotten more consistent every season he’s played and is making strides. Years ago, I created a video describing this unwritten line for perimeter players. Basically, if a perimeter guy gets 20+ points, but less than 5 rebounds or 5 assists, he’s in a tier just below the top-tier guys. LaVine has always approached that line, but has never been able to cross it. This was his best season yet and he averaged 27.4 points, 5 rebounds, but 4.9 assists. That 0.1 matters and it separates that Kobe’s, the LeBron’s, the Jordan’s from the Vince Carter’s, the Michael Redd’s, and the Ray Allen’s. It also matters that he’s a one-time All-Star – that the rest of the league and the fans looked at the landscape of the league and decided he wasn’t one of the 12 best players in the East (Chicago only as he wasn’t good enough in Minnesota yet).
It also matters that LaVine’s teams have accumulated a putrid record of 181-366 (.331 winning percentage). It matters that his teams have never come close to having a .500 record at the end of the season or even at all. It matters that after seven seasons, LaVine has zero playoff appearances. It matters that he hasn’t been able to elevate his teams to the next level. Isn’t that what the greats do?
Is all of this on him? No. The Timberwolves are notorious for their incompetence, but they did pair him with talented big man Karl Anthony-Towns and Tom Thibodeau, who basically brings wins with him wherever he goes. The Gar/Pax era is infamous for it’s ups and downs, but they did bring in LaVine to be “the cornerstone of the Bulls rebuild” (KC Johnson’s words, not mine) and put some maligned pieces around him that we’ll have to wait some time to see what they actually are. You know how I feel about Markkanen in particular, but Carter Jr. got a lot of praise after the trade to Orlando for basically matching his exact production with Chicago per 36 minutes. To say LaVine was without help is somewhat misleading, but it’s also rare for great players to be in such abominable situations and not drag the team to some semblance of relevancy. At some point, it’s just fair to wonder if maximizing LaVine is to the detriment of the entire team. Watching the Bulls this year, you could see beautiful ball movement one possession and then this thought pops into their head like, “Oh, we have to let Zach have this possession” and the ball goes to him and stops while he isolates. It never seems like he’s playing within the flow of the offense and it becomes predictable down the stretch.
But shhh…..don’t tell Bulls Nation. They’re still under the misguided notion that Zach LaVine is going to lead us to the promised land. LaVine is heading into year 8 and will be 27 next season. I touched on this while debating LeBron/Jordan back in 2012 and the trend continues today, but guys that came out of high school or were one-and-done seem to have similar breaking points around 28-30 years old. Look at Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, KG, and even Kobe (remember him going to Germany?) or recently, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and KD. It’s always the knee or the back. We literally may have seen the best we’re going to see of Zach LaVine and if this was his best, it just wasn’t good enough. I know he’s a hard worker and I remember ESPN Podunk, Minnesota tweeting at me and telling me how much I’d love the effort he puts in. That’s great and that’s what I like to see from any player, but just because a guy works his tail off doesn’t mean he has a limitless ceiling. Remember when Tony Snell was drafted and people talked about how hard he worked? A lot of people just assumed he was another diamond in the rough drafted by Gar/Pax and he would evolve into an All-Star like Jimmy Butler. Well, Snell worked hard and has been a career rotation player. That’s it, that’s his ceiling. LaVine is a hard worker, but this may just be all that he is and that’s okay. But to me, it’s definitive that LaVine is not that in that upper echelon of NBA players with Curry, LeBron, Harden, KD, or Kawhi. He’s in that middle tier of guys you want on your team, but you can’t build around them or you won’t be very good.
The Bulls have a decision to make with LaVine. He’s due for an extension and in the final year of his contract. Are the Bulls going to shell out that kind of money for a guy with a 181-366 record lifetime or will they parlay him into the potential for a successful future with future draft assets or for a star that might need a change of scenery (like Ben Simmons)? I have no idea what Arturas is thinking, but his first year on the job has shown us that he’s not afraid to make drastic changes. Nothing could be more drastic than trading Bulls Nation’s golden boy.
Time will tell what will happen and as years go by, we’ll ultimately see where Zach LaVine settles into the history books. Just remember who was here to shatter this illusion of LaVine leading the Bulls to prominence with a Shawn Michaels slap to the face.
Thank you to all of the followers of “The Bulls Charge” since 2011. I am extremely humbled and grateful for the readers that have supported this blog since then! God bless you all!
John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”