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Zach LaVine hasn’t gotten better, he’s just gotten some help

DeMar DeRozan has made the Bulls a team that can close out victories

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There was a lot going on in last night’s impressive Bulls win on the road in New York. The game swung huge in both directions: the first half with the Bulls doing their forcing-turnovers-and-scoring-every-transition-opportunity show, and then the Knicks evaporating that deficit in the third quarter with inside play and 3-point makes.

If this is last year, the Bulls probably lose the game, and eyes are on Zach LaVine for not ‘being a winning player’ or something, and LaVine certainly had a worse 2nd half than the first.

But because DeMar DeRozan has been an insane 4th quarter scorer this season, the Bulls won, and therefore now Zach LaVine is a winner!

Overall, LaVine hasn’t made a leap this year, but he didn’t have to: last season’s numbers were so impressive that merely sustaining it would have justified the upcoming max contract he’s going to get this summer. His overall Usage% is down a percentage point, and True Shooting down from the god-level 63.4% to 60.2% this year. His 3pt percentage, attempt rate, and free throw rates are all down, but only a bit: his overall PER is 21.2 after being 21.5 last season.

In 4th quarters this season, LaVine has been a bit better, but while doing less:

(all numbers are per-game)

Most notably the largest statistical discrepancy from last season to this is the team performance.

That’s because of DeMar DeRozan, your league leader in 4th quarter scoring:

So many games the past few Bulls seasons saw them boff it in the final period and then questions arose about LaVine’s decision-making, defense, and stamina. Maybe those questions still remain (though it doesn’t matter in the context of the star hierarchy) but they aren’t critical, because the Bulls are winning these games now.

LaVine knows this, and is only happy about it:

“It helps our team tremendously, especially if we’re frantic,” LaVine said of DeRozan’s closing ability. “Obviously, he’s been in these big-time games and situations. I don’t think a lot rattles him at all. That’s when you let him take over the game, calm it down, get to the free-throw line, get to his spots. I think it just gives the whole team like a deep breath. Like, we’re OK.”

“It just makes everything so much easier. There’s not all the pressure on you. I have a bail out at anytime and I think vice versa,” LaVine said. “Being able to give to him in certain areas or having the trust of sometimes giving him the ball and getting out of his way and ‘I’ll be here if you need me.’”

Now you could reason that DeRozan himself is playing at an unsustainable level, and indeed these 4th numbers are far above what he did in San Antonio. But in San Antonio he didn’t have anybody like LaVine beside him.