Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine never does anything well enough in the eyes of the pundits.
His defense isn’t good enough, which is a perception he is pissed exists. Offensively, all he did was average 23.7 points per game for the Bulls last season, yet he has an established reputation as an empty-calories scorer.
To be fair to the haters, that scoring translated to just 22 wins for the Chicago Bulls last season. In fact, in his five NBA seasons, LaVine has never played on a team with a winning record and has never experienced the blood-rushing thrill of postseason basketball.
How does LaVine take his offensive game to the next level and strip away that “empty calories” label forever? Become a more efficient scorer.
Although the sample size is small, the Bulls have won more often when LaVine performs more efficiently offensively. Last season, his best two months in this department were in December and February.
In December, LaVine’s shooting splits were 51.1/44.4/86.8, his true-shooting percentage was 61.8 percent, and his offensive rating was 107. The Bulls had their second best month of the season by winning percentage, going 5-9.
Two months later in February, LaVine brought his game up one more notch by shooting 53.2/49.0/83.0 with a 63.9 percent shooting percentage and a 124 offensive rating. The Bulls finished that month with a .500 record.
There are so many moving, interconnected parts on a basketball team that determining causation is always difficult. However, given LaVine’s sky-high 29.8 percent usage rate (12th in the NBA last season), it would seem to follow that his efficiency has a significant impact on the Bulls’ offense and thus their ability to win games.
It seems likely that if Zach LaVine can become consistently efficient then the Bulls will win more often. So, what can he do to achieve this? Some potential answers have popped up in preseason.
Through three games, LaVine has averaged 23.3 points (fifth in the NBA) on sizzling 55.8/57.9/78.6 shooting splits. Again, preseason, so grain of salt. But an interesting trend has emerged. If we peak at his shot charts this preseason:
- Against the Milwaukee Bucks, every one of his shots was either in the paint or from beyond the arc. All the paint touches were within the restricted area.
- Same deal against the New Orleans Pelicans———only two of his 16 shot attempts were outside the paint and the three-point line.
- Rinse and repeat on Sunday against the Toronto Raptors: only two of 14 shots were twos outside the paint.
LaVine wasn’t particularly good from midrange last season, shooting 35.8 percent (he shot 37 percent from three-point land). He’s had one season where he shot the ball above 40 percent from midrange but has been 35 percent or under from this range the rest of his career. A cognizant effort to de-emphasize that part of his game this preseason makes a lot of sense.
Of course, it’s never that easy. Per the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I mean I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan,’’ LaVine said. “I know that some of the greatest scorers in NBA history were mid-range, mid-post guys. It’s sad to see it be pushed to the side. I mean Carmelo [Anthony] is one of the greatest scorers ever, but he’s out of the NBA right now somewhat because the analytics don’t want mid-range twos.”
“I think it takes away a little bit of the skillfulness and it takes away some of the weaponry. But I’ll tell you this, there’s still guys in the NBA – and I think I’m one of them – that can still get it done.’’
“Well, we don’t want to take contested 2s mid-clock. I don’t want mid clock, contested twos. Ok? I’d like to not take early clock, non-rim twos. I’d like not to. Ok? If they happen, they happen. Late clock, we have to get the best possible look we can get. That might be a contested 2, late clock. We might have to do it. But we believe in the math and we coach to the math. We organize our practice to the math. But we understand there are moments when you just have to play. And a free-throw line jumper at 14, contested, is not what we want. That’s not really a new thing. Twenty years ago when I was in the league, that’s not what we wanted. If we have a guy who is elite at making 2s, I’ve coached elite 2 guys. If we have one of those, or if we see a guy developing that, then we will adjust accordingly. But we’re going to play the way I want to play.”
Improving efficiency probably isn’t as simplistic as wiping out the midrange. Shot selection is huge with anything as friend-of-the-blog Will Gottlieb points out in this tweet:
LaVine shot 34.6% on pull-up 2s last year = 0.692 points per shot
He shot 36.9% on pull-up 3s = 1.107 points per shot
Long 2s are also theoretically more open as they’re given up by defenses. Not saying eliminate mid-range, but maximize efficient looks
Whether you believe there’s causation or not, the Chicago Bulls played their best ball last season when LaVine was at his most efficient offensively. His midrange game is all right, but LaVine is an elite rim driver with an above-average three-point stroke to boot. If we accept the simple law of analytics that shots at the rim and from deep are critical to efficiency, then his path forward is clear.
Taking the next step offensively may be the key for Zach LaVine to ditch that empty-calories scorer label and finally help a team win enough games to make the postseason.