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The perception problem plaguing Zach LaVine

he’s been miscast as a lead, that isn’t his fault

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Chicago Bulls v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls are failing Zach LaVine.

You might think it’s the other way around, given the team’s now-predictable late-game collapses when LaVine dominates the ball. And while LaVine certainly deserves his share of blame for his team’s poor decision-making in clutch situations, his failures are symptomatic of a larger roster issue.

LaVine is being forced to be something he simply isn’t. LaVine is flawed but still someone who can be part of a productive 5-man unit. He’s just not a lead guard: he’s incapable of being a team’s best offensive option who can make the right reads at the precise moment. This has been proven time and time again this season, especially recently.

With ball in hand and facing a one-point deficit in the final seconds of another home loss to the Raptors, the last possession was always going through LaVine. Driving into the lane, LaVine not only chose to challenge his own defender, but also an awaiting Marc Gasol, who came over to protect the rim. At that moment, LaVine had a mid-air decision to make: Choose between a shot or a pass. Predictably, he opted for a tough, off-balanced attempt, rather than finding an open teammate who had cleaner look at the basket.

For a brief moment, LaVine had center Daniel Gafford open at the rim. If the pass is made, it’s an easy lob dunk for Gafford. If LaVine misses that option, Tomas Satoransky and Denzel Valentine were open at the 3-point line. Those players were open because the entire Raptors defense sinked in on LaVine, understanding he would likely be the only one to touch the ball on the final possession. Their gamble paid off.

A true end-of-game closer surveys the court for the best possible scoring option. Poignantly, Jimmy Butler did that on numerous occasions in the Bulls’ most recent loss to the Heat in overtime, finding the open man for a high quality shot.

While LaVine has the requisite talent and skills to be the fulcrum of an offense, he lacks the necessary guile and creativity needed in order to control an offense. Those are traits which are near on impossible to teach. Rarely do players show little to no sign of playmaking skills, only then to develop a keen eye and understanding of where each and every player is on the floor at all times. That is typically a skill you either naturally have, or you don’t. Forcing offensive reps upon LaVine won’t suddenly turn him into the Bulls’ version of Luka Doncic. Hell, he can’t even be Butler.

the shadow of Jimmy Buckets

The use of Butler as a counter-example is informative towards another major issue with LaVine: that his perception as a player is greatly suffering because he isn’t what the Bulls wanted so desperately for him to be. They miscast LaVine as their next great perimeter player the moment they acquired him for Butler.

Instead of being a beloved project who the Bulls drafted and developed over numerous seasons (interestingly, this could’ve occurred had the Bulls not taken Doug McDermott in the 2014 draft), there’s no escaping the stigma that constantly follows LaVine as being a central part of a correctly-reviled trade of a top-15 player implemented from a loathed management group.

LaVine earned an immense amount of goodwill for recovering from a severe knee injury to the point where we can forget he even had it. But it’s an insurmountable expectation for his play to win over over years of mistrust and angst toward the embattled management team who acquired and pumped him up as their ‘star’.

And so LaVine’s image suffers, and will continue to if he’s forced into being the primary focal point of a floundering Bulls offense.

free reign to flounder

It’s not LaVine’s fault this flailing rebuild has entered its third year without a player on the roster who can consistently create for others. Electing to consecutively draft two bigs in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter, and then failing to support these players with a true playmaking guard who possesses some semblance of an idea on how to dictate an offense is an egregious mistake, one which isn’t referenced or discussed nearly enough.

And now we’re living through this experience with no reasonable alternatives. Run more pick-and-roll through Satoransky, a player most teams view as nothing more than a fifth-best starter? Maybe allowing Wendell Carter to showcase his passing ability as a hub within the offense to shooters? These ideas are just as flawed and likely easily figured out by an opponent defense. Though it would at least show some variety.

Or instead: limit LaVine’s playing time or outright trade him away. Indeed, the Bulls are better when LaVine sits on the bench. But then do we really want to see Coby White start games and attempt to go beyond jacking up awful contested jumpers? And no, before you even suggest as much, Markkanen has done nothing this season to warrant even being considered as a legitimate lead offensive option.

The reality is, until the Bulls arm their offense with a legitimate playmaking force, late-game execution will continue to be a problem. And LaVine will bare the brunt of the heat, but he shouldn’t. This is entirely on those who’ve orchestrated this roster, and then asking its players to be significantly more than they can be.

the limits of self belief

As much as the Bulls wish LaVine could be their man, make no mistake, LaVine wants the same. He wants to be a superstar, something he clearly noted to Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic.

I don’t work my ass off to be a No. 2 guy or a No. 3 guy. I want to be a superstar. I want to be a top of the league type dude. And that’s what I see myself as. And I’m going to continue to strive for that and reach for my goals. That’s why I work so hard for it. I don’t sacrifice my entire summer and grind my life away to be just a regular guy in the NBA.

Such a mindset shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. In fact, if more of his teammates shared his desire and work ethic, perhaps the Bulls aren’t staring at an 8-17 record?

Instead of misplacing anger at LaVine for being something he simply isn’t — despite his own belief he can be something more — aim your grievances a little higher, to those who are truly responsible for this rebuild crumbling to pieces.

Replacing a player of Jimmy Butler’s caliber can only be justified by finding a younger, newer version. The Bulls never succeeded in that, instead unfairly pinning such hopes on LaVine. And now he’s paying for that with his reputation. That also isn’t fair.