It has been a lot of fun watching the new generation of stars show out in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, with a whole host of young players making waves. This includes both players who had already gotten a taste of playoff action like Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell and those making their respective debuts like Trae Young and Devin Booker, among others.
It’s Young and Booker playing so well that especially has me thinking about Zach LaVine playing on the postseason stage and hoping he can finally get that opportunity to prove himself and change the narrative around him, just like those guys have. While LaVine’s situation compares more closely to Booker given age and position, Young has also been derided as an all-offense, no-defense player who would struggle to be the centerpiece of a good team.
But these playoffs are showing how good these guys are and how they can impact winning when surrounded by actual competence. After a big offseason, Young and the Hawks took off once Nate McMillan took over and then decimated an elite Knicks defense in Round 1 before stealing Game 1 against the Sixers. With Chris Paul on board (maybe the Bulls should have tried harder for him), Booker and the Suns earned the No. 2 seed in the West and then roasted the Lakers in the first round, with the young star going for 47 points in the series-clinching game. Phoenix is now two wins away from the Western Conference Finals after wrecking the Nuggets for a second straight game.
LaVine isn’t the overall force Young is as the hub of an offense thanks to the massive playmaking gap, so there’s a key difference between those two, but is there actually that much of a gap when comparing him to Booker? While Booker has the playmaking edge, LaVine is a better shooter and would certainly look even better as a player next to CP3. It’s still unknown if LaVine can be a functioning part of an elite defense like Booker (he’s really bringing it in these playoffs), but he has gotten better on that end and I wouldn’t rule it out if surrounded by the right pieces.
If we want to bring Mitchell — who has been awesome in the playoffs — back into this, is he that much better than LaVine? I’ll toss out Jamal Murray’s name as well, even with him out with a torn ACL. I’ve always considered these young shooting guards to be LaVine’s peers who are on a similar tier.
Zach still has his flaws and will never be a truly dominant two-way force, but he really impressed me this past season and has only improved every year since he got to Chicago. He has had to deal with a lot of bullshit on the Bulls, from terrible management to laughable coaching to subpar teammates. It’s unfortunate that once the Bulls actually brought in better teammates for him this season, he got hurt and then got COVID-19.
I have relatively (emphasis on relatively) high hopes that with some offseason moves, a full training camp and a more normal season, the Bulls can make a Hawks/Knicks-esque jump into the playoffs. A Suns-esque leap is obviously ridiculous unless something crazy happens this summer, but the expectation after trading for Nikola Vucevic should be a comfortable play-in team and perhaps even a top-six team, even with the competition in the East projecting to be a bit stiffer on paper.
Perhaps all this thinking is too optimistic and is just me being a homer. But after the last four seasons of bad Bulls basketball and seven seasons of zero playoffs for LaVine in his career, I just really want to see him get his chance in games that really matter. LaVine himself will have a big hand in making sure this happens, but he also needs help from a support system that simply hasn’t ever been in place.
And if the Bulls fail, I wouldn’t blame him for looking to go somewhere else where he can be a part of playoff ball.