The Bulls have had a variety of losses this season. Some are from being outright noncompetitive, but more than a few have been close contests. And in these close games, for better or for worse it has been the Zach LaVine show.
According to the NBA.com definition of clutch situations (last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with the score differential at five points or less), this season LaVine has a 44.6 percent usage percentage. That is tied for fourth highest in the NBA with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Part of the reason this number is so high is because LaVine is the Bulls best scorer by a wide margin. The league leader in this category is Ja Morant for much the same reason. And who do you trust to have the ball in their hands late in games other than LaVine? Lauri Markkanen’s struggles have been well-documented, Jim Boylen doesn’t seem to trust Wendell Carter Jr. to create offense for himself or others even though he’s capable, and nobody else jumps out at you as a guy to give the ball to when the game is on the line. Maybe Coby White, but just on those random nights when he goes on scoring tears.
Much more important than the quantity of clutch time plays LaVine has been involved in is whether or not the Bulls as a team have been good in these situations. And they have not: the Bulls are 3-8 in games that involved clutch time and have a -14.7 net rating which is 24th in the NBA.
Defense is a huge problem in these situations, as they have an awful 124.1 defensive rating, but that is a story for another day. Their offense in clutch time is right in the middle of the pack at No. 15. Improving that number through the lens of examining LaVine’s clutch-time game is the focus of the rest of this article.
I watched all of LaVine’s clutch time minutes so far this season and noticed a few things.
Tendency to Revert to Hero Ball
This was the easiest pattern to pick up. LaVine’s shot selection has been suspect at times at the end of games. It feels like he puts pressure on himself to win games on his own, whether due to self belief or a lack of trust in the team, and this manifests in his shot selection.
In this example below, with 14 seconds on the shot clock LaVine gets isolated on one of the best defenders in the NBA Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was time on the clock to run some offense, but instead he dribbles around a little bit and then settles for a long stepback two-pointer with a high degree of difficulty. The Bulls were down six, so it doesn’t technically fall into NBA.com definition of ‘clutch time,’ but it was still a critical possession down the stretch in a winnable game for the Bulls.
Next was against the Charlotte Hornets when LaVine exploded for 49 points and single-handedly brought the Bulls their last win. He gets absolved for this shot because 1). it was his night and he was feeling it 2). this shot went in. Generally though, a pullup 3-pointer in transition with no teammates under the basket to rebound isn’t a great shot.
When nothing else is working, often the Bulls last ditch play call to create offense is to have Carter set a screen for LaVine to free him up so he can create a shot. Three of LaVine’s five shots in clutch time against the Brooklyn Nets came after he got a screen from WCJ.
The problem with this play is that it seems to be the Bulls solution when the offense stagnates and often leads to hero-ball shots from LaVine like we just talked about. Additionally, Carter-LaVine pick-and-rolls usually result in a LaVine shot and Zach doesn’t often look to create for others off this play.
When LaVine gets it in his mind that he wants to drive, he rarely creates for teammates left open by all the help that needs to come his way to prevent an easy layup.
According to NBA.com, he passes out of 32 percent of his drives, which is the 110th highest frequency out of 142 players who have averaged at least four drives per game this season. He records an assist on just 6.4 percent of those drives (though to be fair, I think this is a bit deceptive since his teammates haven’t exactly been great about hitting shots).
Those stats aren’t a clutch time thing, but it is something that in general is holding him back from taking that next step forward offensively. In clutch situations, he’s averaged 1.4 assists per 100 possessions suggesting that he is trying to win games himself.
In the next video, LaVine looks to driving into the teeth of the Cavaliers defense without a plan. His teammates Otto Porter Jr. and Thaddeus Young are way too close to each other, which hurts spacing and may have eliminated a pass he otherwise could have made, but still:
An analysis like this can be a little overly harsh towards an individual player. There is a whole other article that probably could be written pointing out all the good things that LaVine does when the game is on the line.
LaVine’s offensive rating is five points higher in clutch situations than overall. He’s a good tough-shot maker, he’s won games late for the Bulls with his offense (Nov. 23 vs. Charlotte) and at times he looks like the only Bulls player out there interested in playing offense (Nov. 25 vs. Portland and Nov. 27 vs. Golden State).
The area of improvement is getting his shots in tight games more in the flow of the offense and working on creating for his teammates. If he can do that, he becomes harder to stop individually making the Bulls harder to stop as a team and maybe a few more of those close losses turn into wins moving forward.