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Can “the Zach Lavine experience” work on a playoff team?

LaVine is good, is it his fault his teams are bad?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

[Big welcome to Doug, an OG Bulls blogger formerly of Bulls Confidential and a long time member of the RealGM board. You can follow him on Twitter @Doug_Thonus -yfbb]

As the best player on a not-good team, Zach LaVine has a critical focus on him. So, with a steady year by year improvement coupled with never reaching the NBA playoffs, LaVine’s value towards winning basketball games comes with questions.

But first, this should be old ground for Bulls fans but just to be on the same page: Zach LaVine is very good on offense, an efficient three level scorer.

He plays well off the ball and does his most efficient work while not handling the ball for large stretches. He’s capable of scoring in stretches as a number one option even against the defensive pressures that accompany that tag but struggles when forced into that role for long stretches. He has long range on his step back jumper, finishes in the paint, can draw fouls, and is even a willing passer.

As for weaknesses, Zach struggles with turnovers, particularly when double teams come and he tries to dribble through traffic. The temptation to play hero ball drives his worst possessions where the offense can stagnate around him.

I don’t think I’ve said anything shocking to Bulls fans that have watched Zach over the past few years, but you have to start off generally agreeing with the above assumptions in order to reach my same conclusions.

Is Zach’s early play sustainable?

As of today, Zach LaVine’s pouring in (tm Neil Funk) 28.4 points per game on a 62% true shooting percentage. Should Zach maintain this scoring pace and efficiency, he would trivially be viewed as a max level player, even at the 30% max he will be due in two seasons.

Even after setting below Zach’s current numbers assuming some regression, here’s a list of the players that were at 60% TS% and 25 points per game last season.

Query Results Table
Crit Crit
Rk Player Season Age Tm Lg PTS TS%
1 James Harden 2019-20 30 HOU NBA 34.3 .626
2 Damian Lillard 2019-20 29 POR NBA 30.0 .627
3 Giannis Antetokounmpo 2019-20 25 MIL NBA 29.5 .613
4 Anthony Davis 2019-20 26 LAL NBA 26.1 .610
5 Devin Booker 2019-20 23 PHO NBA 26.6 .618
6 Karl-Anthony Towns 2019-20 24 MIN NBA 26.5 .642
Provided by View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 1/11/2021.

Zach’s early play feels legitimate and maintainable for a couple of reasons.

  1. The Billy Donovan effect. The Bulls have played better game by game, step by step. Zach’s emergence was partially stalled by a snail’s pace offense that wanted to set up in the half court on most possessions. Donovan unlocked the potential of this young group offensively by generating far more easy looks by ramping up the tempo and putting players in positions they are most affective.
  2. The Coby White effect. Coby’s PG play has been choppy to begin the season and hasn’t unlocked Zach through great court vision, but it has provided a second focal point to the opposing defense. Zach expends much less energy on offense now, gets more catch and shoot opportunities (where he’s an absolute assassin), and isn’t in position to face nearly as many double teams.

How would Zach’s offense fit on a contender?

A key question for a better team than the Bulls acquiring LaVine, and thus how they would peg his value in potentially trading for him, is to what degree LaVine’s production is influenced by being on these non-playoff groups.

While he may get fewer shots with better options, I believe on a high quality team the Coby White effect will be amplified. Imagine Zach on Philadelphia with Embiid and Simmons where he operates against the 2nd best perimeter defender, rarely sees double teams, and gets tons of open looks. The above offensive limitations I noted are gone.

We’ve seen Coby White’s limited playmaking and emergence of a scorer reduce a huge burden from Zach already. A true dominant playmaker would simplify life for Zach even more as his best work is done off the ball rather than on it. Zach’s ability to attack at all three levels would raise the offense of any team he joins and help free up their scorers or punish single coverage.

The key is recognizing Zach plays better the fewer seconds the ball is in his hands on offense, scroll down half way and you can see Zach’s eFG% drops considerably as the number of dribbles he uses increases. He can still get up a huge volume of points without having to dominate the ball through a possession. This is fundamentally different from a player such as say Russell Westbrook or Ben Simmons, both of whom isn’t really doing anything for you if they aren’t touching the ball at that moment.

But what about the defense?

No one will confuse LaVine with a first class defender and moving to a contender won’t change that either.

Defensively, Zach underperforms his elite athletic attributes. He struggles with his rotations and focus when not on the ball and isn’t a quick decision maker to help in the right spots.

But there has been steady improvement on that side of the ball, specifically his on ball defense where the decision making process is simplified and his athletic attributes are more critical.

I have three theories on Zach’s iterative improvement on defense. Most obviously, players drilling defense for more and more time simply get better at it. Most young players, even those with great defensive potential, struggle on defense early in their careers. The coaching he receives through Donovan, or perhaps his willingness to listen to it, also likely has led to improvement. Finally, due to expending less energy on offense there is simply a lot more energy left over to play defense.

While Zach isn’t a stone cold killer on the defensive end, teams aren’t going to pick him a part by isolating on him where he is actually at his best. A contending team will typically have some other strong defenders around Zach to help compensate for his lack of team defense, but again, his reduced load offensively should allow him to remain more mentally and physically focused on the task. Zach LaVine?

I think Zach LaVine is much more than an ‘empty calorie scorer’, and instead will only improve his impact when on a better team: he won’t have so much of a burden on either end of the court allowing him to play to his strengths and have his deficiencies masked.

That said, should there be a team willing to make a strong offer, the Bulls may consider pulling the trigger. The ceiling on this team as constituted over the next two seasons is highly questionable, and Zach’s value in the trade market will likely drop as the length of his contract dwindles.

The same lose/lose dynamics of Jimmy Butler’s Chicago end are apparent. The Bulls haven’t built around him on this cheap deal and will have even more difficulty doing so after paying him 5/190 in a year in a half. At the same time, the returns on a trade will almost certainly not yield a player as good as Zach and set the franchise back; forcing the Bulls in a position with a perceived low ceiling or a perceived low floor.

While many Bulls fans rue the loss of Jimmy Butler, its undeniable that both Minnesota and Philadelphia got even worse returns as he was traded twice more in the next two years. But also like Butler, don’t be surprised if years after a LaVine trade that Chicago fans will be left wondering how we let him get away and how the Bulls failed to unlock the same value another franchise was able to get from him.